Thursday, January 3, 2013

Notes on The Culture Industry by T.W. Adorno

I am constantly struck by the overlap between Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse's various critiques of the culture industry and one-dimensional man and Guy Debord's notion of spectacle.  I found this affinity once again in reading The Culture Industry, a collection of Adorno's articles by J.M. Bernstein under the heading of the concept first proposed in Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment.  The culture industry referred to a specific transformation of capitalist society as a certain threshold was reached in how much capital had fully subsumed all social formation, all social relations, all of the means of thinking against and beyond capital.

If in 1967-8, the Society of the Spectacle still imagined a two-dimensional quality of capitalist society, this would be gone by the time of Comments on the society of the Spectacle with the notion of the "integrated spectacle", which saw the transformation to a one-dimensional world of the sort that Adorno and Marcuse saw as already actual by the end of World War II.

A large part of The Culture Industry, like One-Dimensional Man, is concerned with the harm done to the capacity for experience and the capacity for critique by the development of what Adorno will end up referring to as "late capitalism".

For the moment, I want to focus on the ending two essays, however, which focus on two important themes in Society of the Spectacle: time and the relationship of theory and practice.

"Free Time" focuses on the way in which the time not spent working has been transformed into an adjunct of labor time, time spent preparing to be working.  One of the first things Adorno notes is the difference between 'free time' and 'leisure'.  Leisure was a lifestyle; one lived "a life of leisure" which indicated a cultured life.  'Free time', however, is just literally the time left over after work (and it does not matter if that work is waged or in the home), time spent recuperating and preparing to do it all over again.

Adorno expands into the activity which comes to absorb free time and it is most definitely not the cultured time of a life of leisure.  I think we can leave aside Adorno's examples of listening to radio and watching TV as well worn paths, and we can move directly to MMORPGs or Massively Multi-player Role Playing Games, like World of Warcraft (WoW.)  A huge amount of time in the game is spent doing three things: leveling, trading, and repeating quests.  All MMORPGs involve leveling, the way a character becomes more powerful, gets new skills and abilities, and in general improves to be able to take on challenges.  If this sounds familiar, then you went through the modern school system just like I did.  Think of making the top level (there is always a maximum level) as getting your doctorate.

However, your development does not stop by getting to the maximum level.  Once there, your goal is to finish quests that require groups of people to complete.  These might grant special pieces of equipment or new ranks or special powers, which of course are available to everyone if they are willing to do the same task over and over against, dozens and dozens of times.  Considering that these end-of-game-content quests can take anywhere from 3-10 hours apiece and require going in again and again, you literally can spend hundreds of hours in a handful of these quests.

Since money is important in all of these games in one fashion or another, there is the need to sell and trade all of the things you acquire that you do not want.  Technically, this also includes learning "crafting skills" that allow you to make not only things you need, but also a large number of items other people need, in return for money.

Finally, and this is a very important component, the game world never really changes.  You might get stronger and more powerful and richer, but every quest and every opponent and every opportunity resets.  The only things that don't reset are the battles between players.  In other words, you might benefit from competing with other people, but the world itself is always the same.

In other words, WoW and other MMORPGs are capitalism's daily life in fantasy form.  Not only do they reproduce its conformity, lack of change, tedious repetition, but it trains the mind to enjoy these.  Even more so than the average computer game with a finish (although almost all of them today can be replayed), the MMORPG is truly the Nietzschean 'eternal return of the same', and like Nietzsche's uber-mensch, every hero gladly welcomes that return each time, rather than seeking an end to it.

I particularly like his contempt for the do-it-yourself (DIY) culture.  Not only does he hit on its amateurishness, but it idolizes this amateurishness.  It is an extension of the hobby, something else Adorno finds appalling, and with good reason.

"Resignation" not only picks up a few of these themes, but connects them to the anti-intellectualism of activism.  Resignation is the charge hurled by activism as the "disengaged" intellectual.  Adorno turns this charge around and shows how the real disengagement comes from the need to be active even when activity amounts to nothing so much as "feeling good about oneself", "feeling part of what is happening", etc.  It is the activity of the activist, but also of the group-builder.

Adorno seems to put a special emphasis on the anarchist, but everything he says just as clearly applies to the Marxisante sect.  If the DIY culture Adorno excoriates applies to the anarchists (and to many autonomists too), a recruitment culture applies to the socialist sect.  The organization in which thought is prohibited or circumscribed by the party program, and there really is no difference in this case between prohibition and limitation, also expects that most of its members fill their time building the organization through recruiting, selling the paper/magazine/whatever, giving talks expressing the party line, etc.  The demand for a really effective praxis and that theory conform to and serve first and foremost as a guide to praxis is a demand to kill critical thought.

This does not really do justice to the article.  It did make me think of something, however.  I find a profound difference between the one-dimensionality thesis and this critique of militantism.  One-dimensionality is a kind of Cassandra call (see John Holloway, Open Marxism, Vol. 1 or 3, I don't remember which), a fatalism, but this is radically different.  This is a demand for the autonomy or thought, of reason, relative to any immediate practice.  It is a challenge to the voluntarism of individuals who would prefer to do than to think and in so doing, do more to reproduce capital than the theorist ever could.


  1. Hey Chris,

    Just a few notes from a long time lurker of your blog. And I will also note that my familiarity with Adorno is only passing.

    There is an excellent SI article called ‘The Use of Free Time’ ( in which they contrast the so-called ‘problem of leisure’ that was flagged by those leftists that saw in the post-war settlement the reformist problem of leisure time apart from work, to their conception of ‘free time’ or ‘freedom full time’ (Knabb translates ‘la liberté à plein temps’ as ‘free time’ which is good, but rendering it in the more clunky ‘freedom full time’ gets closer to the SI’s conception in opposition to a ‘free time’ defined by ‘work time’ IMO). The SI argue in the article that there is no ‘problem of leisure’ insofar as this leisure or ‘free’ time is always defined strictly by the unfreedom of the wage form (and thus is incorrectly named 'free'). Thus they argue the only real problem is posing freedom full time in opposition to the sociological nit picking of leftists worried about what workers will do with all of this ‘free time’ (other than watch tv, play WoW, etc.). I think it is worthwhile to recover such a conception to both clarify the SI’s critique in English and re-pose ‘freedom full time’ as central to communist critique.

    Also I am not sure I can share Adorno's (and your?) disdain for DIY. Though I take your point regarding the symmetry of some activity under this heading with socialist activoid-ism, I think there is still a remnant of radical critique in much DIY activity insofar as it poses the possibility of meaningful control over the conditions and constitution of subjectivity. That’s not to say you cannot cite such symmetry, but if that is the case it is probably better to cite instances and draw out the similarities with the largely unthinking organizational practices of socialists, anarchists, etc.

    I wonder if Adorno’s disdain is that of the professional academic ranged against the autodidact? That’s not to fetishize the latter; but surely we want to go beyond such formal apparatuses even while holding onto an idea of being introduced into the discipline and heritage of cultural second nature.


  2. Anthony,

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

    I think there is a lot of similarity to Debord and Adorno on 'free time' and 'leisure'. Adorno specifically also links 'leisure' with class relations and with the 'life of leisure' possible for the ruling classes. However, he contrasts this to current 'free time' as something within capitalist society that even impoverishes the ruling classes. He certainly sees a liberatory potential in 'free time' in the same terms that Debord does, in fact, since Adorno also saw the abolition of labor and the defining of life by humanity's freely disposable time.

    Adorno has no contempt for the workers' 'wasting' their free time and he is not opposed to the self-trained intellectual because every intellectual has to take responsibility for his or her own intellectual life to be worthy of the name.

    Rather, 'free time' in Adorno relates, as I read it, to the way a society relates to labor and freedom.

    In antiquity, labor was considered as equivalent to slavery and benightedness, while freedom from labor was freedom itself, but it was predicated on the unfreedom of the many in labor.

    In capitalist society however, labor time is equated with freedom. Arbeit macht frei may have been the sign over the death camps, but it expresses the essence of capitalist society, and could just as much be the motto of most of the Left as "enoblers of labor" as the fascists. Capitalists work to a degree that earlier ruling classes could not likely have imagined. They certainly have a wealth of free time, but they know little of the leisure of previous elites and their free time is as also subservient in the end to the production of abstract wealth. This is because domination in capitalist society is not domination by persons but by an abstraction, by capital not by capitalists.

    This is why the abolition of labor is central to our critique and conception. Only a society in which all human life is measured by its freely disposable time, and in which necessary labor time is reduced to the minimum and further, to the minimum that is well-rounded and engaging activity, can we speak of freedom. Capitalism, on the contrary, only conceives of time spent in labor, in the realm of necessity, as freedom, and thus it cancels freedom entirely.

    There is a separate issue here however, and it is related to DIY, which is an argument that the activity which the culture industry develops is exactly spectacular. It is a cretinization of what happens with time not immediately given to labor that does active harm to the capacity for experience and critique. I do not believe the SI was indifferent to the content of 'free time' or any time in this society. If they were, the spectacle would not have been a necessary concept.

    I will come back to the question of DIY, as I have to cut this short. I hope this clarifies my notes a bit and why I find more similarity than dissimilarity.

  3. Chris,

    Thanks for the reply.

    Your discussion of Adorno reminded me of some of Vaneigem’s arguments regarding the nature of the capitalist ruling class. Vaneigem writes of capitalism as a society of ‘slaves without masters’, and in contrast to the productivism implicit in the capitalist world view, and indeed even in the ‘lifestyles’ of the ruling class, he suggests that the pre-capitalist ruling classes hold more lessons for us with regards to freely disposable time.

    Debord dedicates a considerable part of the second half of The Society of the Spectacle to such an argument. He conceives of the free time of the pre-capitalist ruling classes under the concept of ‘surplus-time’, arguing that it is with the development of the ruling classes alongside of surplus production in the ancient world that ‘freely disposable time’ first manifests in activity apparently beyond that which is dominated by survival. He goes on to argue that the capitalist class would later have to smash this aristocratic conception of freely disposable time in order to universally enforce the time of production as the true measure of freedom (this is outlined in the two chapters, Time and History, and Spectacular Time).

    In the first published appearance of the second part of Basic Banalities (IS # 8, January 1963), there appears the photo of the inscription over the entryway to Auschwitz – ‘Arbeit Macht Frei.’ In the same article Vaneigem writes of the spectacle as a ‘concentration camp world.’ In an earlier article on urbanism he had written that the urbanism of housing estates was redolent with the design of fascist concentration camps. Certainly the situationists were aware of the grim irony of this Nazi slogan become even more relevant throughout the capitalist world almost 20years after the end of the war.

    I would be interested to hear what you have to say about DIY. Given the discussion of the way ‘freedom’ is identified with work in capitalist societies, I would agree that most DIY (and here I am mostly thinking of the banal ‘home improvements’ type of market that exists for decking out the décor of our alienation), is utterly captured by the capitalist notion of ‘free time’ as that time in which one recovers from the rigours of our waged ‘freedom.’


  4. It seems to me that DIY may be understood psychologically as something akin to the activity of 'mound building',

    A good example occurs in 'close encounters of the 3rd kind'. It is a form of world making:

    'The actual origins of organisation, of the process of accumulating the material of the pre-human, are found in the behaviours of those currently described with 'obsessive compulsive disorder':

    Compulsive acts or rituals are stereotyped behaviours that are repeated again and again. They are not inherently enjoyable, nor do they result in the completion of inherently useful tasks. The individual often views them as preventing some objectively unlikely event, often involving harm to or caused by himself or herself. Usually, though not invariably, this behaviour is recognized by the individual as pointless or ineffectual and repeated attempts are made to resist it... - The ICD-10 Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders, World Health Organization, Geneva, 1992

    They are counting and counting; they are arranging objects; they are finding importance in cleaning; they are pacing a number of steps; they are repeating a set of words; they are balancing left and right; they are holding their breath; they are making a noise to drown out a thought. They are setting boundaries and defining territories. Obsessive compulsives are trapped within the most basic mechanical gestures of inventing social rules, their's is a perpetual, submarine volcanism that sometimes succeeds in breaking the surface and causing new islands.

    Social organisation is first founded from compulsive, irrational rituals, but these rituals are also performed by all currently existing people at distinctive junctures in their lives - potential new societies are being sketched out, and returned to, all of the time. However, it is very rare for any specific ritual to be communicated and thereafter become the nucleus of practical organisation.'


    The DIYer is knitting his 'own world'.

  5. Hey Chris, sorry for taking so long to get back to you. Life has intervened as it were.

    I am still unclear about what you are trying to say regarding DIY. I found your initial comment re Adorno a little troubling: "I particularly like his contempt for the do-it-yourself (DIY) culture. Not only does he hit on its amateurishness, but it idolizes this amateurishness. It is an extension of the hobby, something else Adorno finds appalling."

    I understand your contempt for particular *empirical* instances of DIY, but having not read the Adorno in question, what is it that he is taking aim at here? The DIY culture of bourgeois "private life"? I presume it is this rather than your own obvious contempt for iterations of later, ultra-left DIY culture.

    I suppose I would hold off eliding the differences between the two. For instance, for all of the many problems with the ultra-left, the differing conceptions of DIY that knock about have some, perhaps residual connection to the Situationists conception of the control of the conditions of being (which of course has a longer lineage).

    I am also a little puzzled by your evocation of DIY with recourse to obsessive/compulsive activity. If we are talking about the OCD activity of much of the far and ultra lefts (and the world), I can see where you are going (perhaps). But again I am unclear about the relationship between, on the one hand, the project of 'appropriating' our own nature (in the language of Lefebvre and the situs), and the smaller scale experiments in DIY with an explicit radical perspective (I have in mind *some* examples of Punk/zine culture here).

    I think the question of repetitive and habitual practices is, nonetheless, very interesting. Often the SI are interpreted as being against all forms of non-spontaneous creative practice, and yet surely we forget their advocacy of the 'constructed situation', i.e. the rules of the game. The problem isn't so much in habitual or even compulsive practices, rather it is whether or not such practices come to dominate all others (like, say in repetitive wage labour).


  6. So everyone is clear, I am not "editor", so those comments are not mine. They sound rather like my compatriots at Insipidities, truth be told. It is, to me, clearly not my style of writing and thinking, but very much theirs, which I enjoy but have no capacity to reproduce.


  7. As for DIY, I do not take Adorno to be responding to "private life", but to the New Left practices of his day, such as setting up communes and squatting as well as various other attempts to make the new world "off to the side", as it were, of the old world. It reminds me very much of John Holloway in the present, as well as of practices frequently associated with certain elements of the anarchist milieu.

    I think a new world will be built taking up where this one leaves off in important respects, which means the appropriation not of what it has built, such as squatting, but in mastering and appropriating its knowledge and techniques and re-purposing them. We will have to produce energy, practice medicine, build buildings, etc. in ways that strike me as anathema to DIY. You can't DIY a solar thermal power plant and a high-efficiency, low-loss power grid (see for an example of the kind of emerging technology that could replace large parts of fossil and nuclear energy technologies.)

    DIY, in terms of the examples I have seen, involves not the replacement of living labor by technology in the production of human necessities so that human beings can pursue free activity (or free non-activity as well), but a retreat into self-imposed, romanticized labor (and this is very hip today, but it means that all manner of people just become small business people in many cases) or the appropriation of the already-built as if it had a kind of magical capacity to appear. Squatting constantly comes to mind for me. But even if we take building our own housing as an example, I don't think we can address the current size of the human population and its needs for shelter in a way that is not environmentally disastrous via a DIY approach.

    The appropriation I have in mind, an appropriation of knowledge and technique that could be re-purposed, entails the mastery of that technique and knowledge, and only under such conditions can it be overcome. DIY is the very opposite of such mastery. It strikes me as romanticized amateur activity and a fetishized view of labor. To my mind, communism is the abolition of labor, the subordination of what Marx called the Realm of Necessity by the Realm of Freedom, which since the Realm of Necessity will not go away, has to be 1) minimized through technological replacement of labor, 2) enriched where the necessary labor is of a higher quality in terms of engaging a high level of human faculties, such as engineering, medicine, architecture, etc.

    The difference in these views is like that in art between classical and modernist art against pop and post-modernist art. In the former, it was long the tradition that artists mastered what came before them and thus grasped it, and in this grasping discerned (however unconsciously) its limitations and could thus surpass it. Modernism relied on this mastery and appropriation as much as classicism. On the other hand, post-modern and pop art relishes in its lack of mastery and comprehension and instead produces kitsch or recycles what preceded it ironically, or rather, cynically.

    I believe this would be akin to Adorno's view on art, insofar as I can do so in a few lines, especially music, and his view of DIY is thus an extension of his general view of pop culture.

    The result, by the way, does not have to be a dislike of aspects of popular culture or even of people wanting to do things themselves. The desire for autonomy is important, and autonomy is essential to freedom, but DIY is the ideology of feeling unable to master, appropriate and re-purpose the scientific and technical achievements of this society to create a different, better world. This feeling of powerlessness is real and needs to be recognized and taken seriously, not papered over.

    1. Chris,

      Sorry about mistaking you for the “editor”. Some comments, re: your last post.

      Your argument against DIYs sounds very much like the argument Debord developed from the foundation of the SI. It particularly came to a head with the argument between the so-called ‘politicos’ and ‘artists’ of the SI particularly intense between 1960 and 1962. In essence Debord and others – notably Kotányi but then Vaneigem from 1961 – argued against the ghetto attitude of the artists keen to have one foot in the art ghetto and another in the SI. From the outset of the SI Debord argued that the avant-garde should be engaged in proposing different uses for the most advanced techniques of (alienated) social labour. Certainly this is the context for their early experimental activities toward investigating the hypothesis of the ‘construction of situations.’ Often misunderstood as a type of precursor to the DIY ‘happening’, Debord’s conception of the situation from the outset was of a constructed ambiance that could be realised only on the basis of rich material foundations, i.e. after the general overthrow of capitalist social relations. Thus the early SI conceived of an experimental activity toward that end. As Debord would remark at the 5th conference in 1961 against the ‘artists’, the SI had produced no situations but some situationists, which was something.

      I agree with you regarding the superiority of proposing such an appropriation as opposed to the mere retreat into idealised ghetto activity. I would, however, argue that we can conceptualise what you reduce to romanticised, petty bourgeois activities, as forms of artistic activities that no matter how limited and even backward looking in some instances, can be meaningfully engaged in as a type of activity aimed against mere alienating passive consumption, even if admittedly on a poor material and social basis. I think this is similar to what Kotányi and others proposed in the SI in 1961 when they argued for artistic activity to be conceived of as ‘anti-situationist’, even while not formally opposing such activity, merely pointing out that it was not activity that was clearly aimed at realising conditions conducive to the construction of situations.

      I don’t think the divide between the appropriation of technique and knowledge and DIY (as you conceive it) is so clear. For instance the SI’s argument against the Spur artists, many of whom had ‘mastered’ the techniques of different forms of modernist art, was not made against such mastery but rather in favour of a project that aimed at the appropriation of the material and spiritual riches of the entirety of capitalist society as opposed to the material and often spiritual (theoretical) poverty of the art ghetto (amongst other ‘ghettos’). Where DIY is the ‘very opposite’ of the appropriation of the riches of the social labour of the past and present, is where it explicitly embraces a petty-bourgeois, individualist-artisanal fetish, which I believe you are attributing to a type of "ideology of DIY". As I argued, with recourse to the disputes in the SI, I do not believe that such activity (i.e. artistic/DIY activity), is necessarily opposed to the revolutionary appropriation of social labour - at least not insofar as it instantiates an ideological perspective. But I can accept that there is an ideology of DIY, which is not necessarily equivalent to the totality of processes that you may designate DIY.

      I like that toward the end of your post definitely argue for a ‘DIY ideology’ *and* pay care to the need to distinguish particular activities from those imply or argue for such an ideological perspective. The question then is whether or not one argues for or proposes such activity in light of what you term the ideology of DIY, or if one emphasises the revolutionary attitude of arguing for the appropriation of wealth of capitalist social relations even if they engage in artistic or other activities.


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  8. Chris,

    Is there an email address I could contact? I would like to get in touch with you about some of your essays on Adorno and about possibility of republication.

    (You can find my email via my 'profile')