Saturday, November 22, 2008

Bang on the Drum: Adorno and Free Time

I think I must be undergoing some kind of Frankfurt School hangover from the panel on Adorno I attended down at the Modernist Studies Association conference last week, since I haven't been able to look at, read, or listen to anything all week without asking "What would Adorno Say?" For example: as I was brushing my teeth with my alarmingly overpowered electric toothbrush this morning, I flipped the radio on and caught the tail end of the Todd Rundgren classic "Bang on the Drum" (which, by the way, isn't a bad song to get down on your back molars to). And I think the sentiment Rundgren expresses is very much in line with what Adorno had to say about free time.

I suppose it's not really all that helpful to begin with Adorno's quip, in Minima Moralia about free time being nothing but "the reflex-action to a production rhythm imposed heteronomously on the subject." So let's move on immediately to Alex Thomson's gloss on the idea: "even when we are not working," says Thomson, summarizing Adorno, "our rest or relaxation is determined by our need to prepare for work, anticipate work, or simply work again." That is: we aren't really free in "free time," because free time isn't something that's there for us to be autonomous in. Rather, free time is time designated for our recovery from work, so that we can work again. Heteronomously (that is: not for ourselves, but for someone else's agenda. You know — for The Man.) If we're really autonomous in any meaningful measure, we don't think of ourselves as on or off the clock: we're doing our own thing. Such a blessed state is unalienated labor. And it's how I feel when I'm writing an article or book or poem: I can't really tell whether it's work or not, and I'm never really "off," since I end up writing notes with weird, often failed, ideas for the project all the time, on napkins or the insides of books or, more than once, on the side of a styrofoam coffee cup.

But this isn't the way most of us experience things most of the time: there's work, and there's free time, and they imply one another in a dialectical relationship. That is, the idea of free time implies unfreedom, for Adorno. It's only an officially sanctioned moment where we can adjust body and psyche so we can go back to work. I think this is what Adorno was getting at when he claimed that "free time is tending toward the opposite of its own concept." If the idea of free time is autonomy, then it's sadly ironic, because it's really just a compensatory moment that re-fits us to work on someone else's terms. It's not about autonomy at all: it's the shadow-self of alienation.

So that's Adorno. And here's Rundgren:

Every day when I get home from work
I feel so frustrated — the boss is a jerk
And I get my sticks and go out to the shed
And I pound on that drum like it was the boss's head

I don't want to work
I just want to bang on the drum all day
I don't want to play
I just want to bang on the drum all day

So what happens after work? Well, play —the expression of spontenaity and freedom — isn't possible here. We're too frazzled and frustrated from the day job. The act of drumming isn't some outward expression of joy, here: it's a compensatory act for the frustrations of work, and in the end it serves work, in that it allows us to go back to work for our jerk of a boss, having let out (symbolically) the violent urges to which his jerkish bossery led us. So Rundgren isn't celebrating fun: he's crying out about the sad ironies of a system where even the things that should be fun are somehow linked to an alienating system of labor relations. Only he's doing it by rocking out, rather than laying down the kind of pseudo-leftist theory jive that is (I'm sad to say) all I've got to offer on the subject.

Adorno was famous for disliking popular music, and considered it a part of the nefarious culture industry. But I really do think there are significant areas where his point of view coincides with that of certain popular musicians. I remember Robert Kaufman saying, down at the Modernist Studies Association conference, that toward the end of his life Adorno was dragged to the movies, and urged to watch television, by his students. I kind of wish they'd made him tune in to a rock station, too.