“Free Time,” a 1977 essay by cultural critic Theodor Adorno, examines the relationship between work time and leisure time. We think we’re free when it comes to our free time, Adorno asserts, but leisure is simply an extension of the workday. Even at play, we labor to enjoy ourselves.
The compulsion to consume: we make money in order to spend it on crap we don’t need when we’re not on the clock. Entire industries are dedicated to filling up our leisure time, to satisfy our need for (temporary) freedom. The totality of this process escapes us. Adorno: “Hence the ease with which free time is integrated; people are unaware of how utterly unfree they are, even where they feel most at liberty, because the rule of such unfreedom has been abstracted from them” (191).
Threatened by the specter of boredom, people crave distractions. Adorno holds nothing back in his condemnation of our obsession with the cheap thrills popular culture provides:
People have been refused freedom, and its value belittled, for such a long time that now people no longer like it. They need shallow entertainment, by means of which cultural conservatism patronizes and humiliates them, in order to summon up the strength for work, which is required of them under the arrangement of society which cultural conservatism defends. (193)
The culture industry placates us, snuffs out the faintest flicker of rebellion in the heart of man. Capitalism finds support in a cultural conservatism that reinforces the compulsion to work and spend, work and spend. A “shocking” movie or provocative painting makes no significant political difference after we’ve consumed it. The status quo remains. Tomorrow’s shift awaits.
Some observations on the Batman movie massacre two days ago:
It’s clear the line between reality and fantasy is quickly disappearing. When the smoke bombs went off and the gunfire started, moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado at first thought the activity in their theater was a publicity stunt related to the show. That it took a moment for reality to sink in is not a surprise. Beyond being unable to comprehend the chaos around them, the spectators (as do all of us in our media-saturated culture) simply couldn’t distinguish between simulation and flesh-and-blood experience. In America today, where the Image has superseded the Real, even death seems staged, except when people are dying all around you.
Some opportunistic moralists out there might use this event as another example of violent forms of entertainment making people violent. But the potential for violence exists in all of us, regardless of our obedience to civility or the Greater Good. Deft filmmakers like Christopher Nolan (of the latest Batman trilogy) know this, and they market violence-laden movies to a general public that is willing to pay big bucks for the cathartic release of its inner rage. Most of us don’t shoot randomly at innocent people at the local cinema, but for those who carry out such terrible acts, their reasons for pulling the trigger are more complex than being a Dark Knight fanatic.
How long will it take the mainstream media to accept the everywhere-everyday quality of social media? I found both local and national newscasts running stories about the reporting of the story of the Aurora, Colorado Massacre via the cell phone cameras and Qwerty keyboards of people on the scene. Some stations posted Tweets from the shooting site. We saw videos of victims covered in blood being rushed from the theater to safety and medical attention. But the impact of social media is nothing new in 2012. Either the major networks are excited about Joe Citizen helping them deliver the news or they’re singling out Twitter and Facebook and YouTube, etc. as the dreaded Other of broadcast journalism. Regardless, stories about how stories are coming in to the station are overplayed and often induce a “yeah, so what?” response from experienced “breaking news” viewer-creators.