Mandatory Fun

“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.


Hire Purpose

I’m good at reading about life from a distance. Making a living is where my trouble lies.

Do I find a job around my passion—namely, reading and writing—or do I hold a job and pursue my passion for words on the side? For a number of years now, because of my anxiety and depression, I’ve been unable to work consistently, thus delaying a move in either direction.

I’m still searching for that courage the characters in my books exhibit with such grace. It’s easy to share their outlooks, their suffering, their encounters with tragedy and triumph. But facing the indifference of the universe and pressing on—inventing my life and living without excuses—these are challenges I feel compelled to abandon before the starting bell sounds.

Figuring out my place and dealing with my illness is work enough now, but it’s time to emphasize practice over theory. Be realistic, I tell myself, recalling a Roman proverb I found in one of my philosophy books not long ago: “First live, then philosophize.”

Somehow I’ve approached things backwards. I continue the struggle to turn my life around.

A Poem About Loathing The Man

This poem appears in the Summer-Fall 2009 issue of Struggle: A Magazine of Proletarian Revolutionary Literature, edited by Tim Hall, to whom I owe thanks.


“I wanna see assholes & elbows &
That’s all I wanna see,”
Says the little boss-man efficiently

“Work needs working, everybody knows, &
That’s all I’m gonna see,”
Says the frumpy boss-man angrily

See the workmen, sweaty workmen,
Exhausted, delirious, grinding away &
There’s the dopey boss-man, gathering his pay

In the dingy factory, will it ever end?
Lines of assholes & elbows toiling away
Except the fat-cat boss-man, laughing up the day