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Leisure, Fiction and the Cultural Theorist

in Ark Review/Essays/Musings by

A forerunner of cultural theory, the (not really a) philosopher, (not really a) sociologist and (not really a) musicologist, Theodor Adorno, wrote a fantastically acerbic—that was kind of his thing—essay called Free Time, in which he critiqued the meaninglessness of the notion under capitalism. He basically argues that the free time of late capitalism is basically the built-in recovery time for humans as cogs in the machine of capitalist production. A pretty standard grumble from Ted. The part that interests me, however, is when he complains about people asking if he has any hobbies. His retort:

“I have no hobby. Not that I am the kind of workaholic, who is incapable of doing anything with his time but applying himself industriously to the required task. But, as far as my activities beyond the bounds of my recognised profession are concerned, I take them all without exception, very seriously.”

Having read a great deal of his writing, I’m inclined to believe him. The point Adorno makes, however, is that the logic that categorises things as “hobbies”, as defined as unpaid and thus unserious, attempts to limit what is socially meaningful to the production of value under capitalism. The comforts of bourgeois life are facilitating this alienating trend and reducing the human experience to that of high maintenance cogs. Leisure is where they get ya!

This, more than anything about the content of entertainment and leisure, is something that I think is very much in need of examination; the way we are made to value things in economic terms. As easy as it is to parody traditional critical theory as a bunch of elitists, I still think this insight, that we are made to consider activities that are not financially lucrative as unserious, needs to be put forward. This means that cultural theorists need to take leisure seriously but this might mean treating it more like fiction. This may seem an odd conclusion to reach but I think I can make a case for. That said, there are a few steps to go through before a vague intuition I stumbled upon can make sense to anyone else. So, step one, just what is a cultural theorist?

The arrogance alone of Adorno’s position to claim that everyone has been brainwashed (simplifying here) by capital but him, sets alarm bells ringing.

This is a question with as many subtly different answers as there are practitioners. So the best I can do is to state what I think a cultural theorist should be when they come to study leisure. Today, cultural theory has a special place carved out in it for the study of leisure. However, this is but one area in a vast and unruly discipline. Some of cultural theory is more about politics but not like political science is. Some of it more about ontology, epistemology, and identity but not like philosophy is. And some of it is about art but not like art history or aesthetics is. Usually, it requires a blend of these and many more fields to define an object of its research.

My own work is in the communication and critique of the experience of popular music under the conditions that Mark Fisher described as, boring dystopia. To do this I use an obscure method known as sonic fiction, which it would be too much fully explain here (DM me). Put another way, I write about the experience of something that is considered part of the entertainment industry as a subset of leisure industry as a subset of the culture industry. Put in yet another way, I have been trying to find the tools to explain to others what I find so sad about pop music and our relationship to it while all the time holding on to the idea that it can be a truly wonderful thing.

So, as stated, cultural theorists are not philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, critics, scientists (political or otherwise) or artists (or art historians). They can take on the appearance of all of them but always as outsiders, with a certain ironic distance to the field from which they are borrowing. Indeed, when the self-declared members of the aforementioned fields feel themselves drifting into that ironic position, they may find themselves slipping into becoming cultural theorists. Or not. The only thing I can say with near certainty is that they are writers, almost all of them.

As a cultural theorist, I write about the leisure time of people who may or may not exist and I certainly have never met but, rather, seen glimmers of in real people. The edge of something inexpressible gestured towards in an off-the cuff remark or the subtle raise of an eyebrow. These elements are half-remembered and recombined with more concrete things. We use these as tools open up standard interpretations of everyday experiences that others deem unworthy of note. This can then be set against readings of cultural ‘texts’, which in my case are pop songs, such as Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’, Father John Misty’s “Bored in the U.S.A” or Carly Simon’s “My New Boyfriend”.

Why go about it this way? Well, when you ask someone about why they enjoy something—unless they are close friends with whom you discuss this sort of thing often, or they are the sort of people who want to be known for engaging only in justified behaviour (and that is whole other kettle of fish)—you often receive a banal response. Something about a song reminding them of good times with friends or when they were young or because it helps them get the party started or feel pumped. Occasionally, you will hear something more precise like it reminds them of a deceased or distant loved one, or a very particular event. However, this is not enough to explain the pervasiveness of the industries demonised by Adorno or the particularities of their operations. But, similarly, nor does the neat and tidy Adornian explanation that this is all the machinations of capital. The arrogance alone of Adorno’s position to claim that everyone has been brainwashed (simplifying here) by capital but him, sets alarm bells ringing.

However, when such a theory is rejected and, with the interview data, we accept the banalities as such and conclude that the industrial frame has simply exploited a potential market, this is as patronising as old-timey anthropologists remarking on perceived irrationality of a tribe that they claim to have discovered. Indeed, this view lends itself to essentialism.

So, when you want to examine someone else’s leisure you have to go deep into your object of research. And leisure, as derived from cultural productions, is not only people’s reasons for liking something, nor is it the sum of the empirical qualities of the “text” in question. It is, rather, the experience of enjoyment itself. Reaching this space cannot be done by assuming you can decode someone else experience from surface phenomena (as may be assumed by some of the more crass applications of social science), nor by attempting to philosophically give form to the universal characteristics of the experience (as in your classic cultural theory). Instead, what the cultural theorists should do, in the age of theory-fiction, is narrate experience with all the ambiguity that entails.

But there is a joy in being a killjoy that must not go unexamined. The sharing of Slavoj Žižek videos exposing the class exploitation of the celebration of working class authenticity in Titanic would be such a joy.

But aside from throwing around a trendy neologism like theory fiction, which you can read more about elsewhere, what else justifies this conclusion? Something that stands out to me is the concept of the “killjoy” as described by Sara Ahmed. Ahmed develops the concept as a way to critique the knee-jerk response to those who point out and try to overturn oppression on the basis of gender as “feminist killjoys”. However, as she argues in her essay “Happy Objects” this is a misappropriation of a “feeling cause”. When someone tells you something you have done/said is sexist or misogynistic, especially if you consider yourself to be neither of those things, this can be painful and as such you may look to localize your pain on the “feminist killjoy” before you. However, Ahmed argues that, instead, you should perhaps look at the joy instead. Perhaps the thing that was giving you joy, a thrill of power or status, needed killing?

The Elvis of Cultural Theory in a boat

The surface reading of this could serve as defence for the Adornian point of view; “they hate me because I’m right”. But there is a joy in being a killjoy that must not go unexamined. The sharing of Slavoj Žižek videos exposing the class exploitation of the celebration of working class authenticity in Titanic would be such a joy. If we are not careful, the critique of leisure could become a simple exercise of filing of the complexities of reality to fit in with a theoretical framework that one enjoys using.  

This is an impasse; between the desire/ability to critique the leisure and enjoyment of others, and the power and privilege of engaging in such critique. When you write about the leisure of others, you will bring certain assumptions to the table. You can choose to attempt to mitigate them, which won’t work, or you can lean into them and become an elitist parody. This is why cultural theory must not retreat to the mere description nor insist on prescription but, instead, it must engage with the practice of narration. The theorist must neither pretend to be a neutral observer nor should they only list-off the control mechanisms they have taken to mitigate their biases. They should engage in a practice that attempts to give structure, comprehension, and intensity to experience but in such a way as to leave things open. However, such narration cannot be afforded the same freedom as fiction proper or fall in the prescriptive declarations of theory. It needs to chart new ground that criticises both leisure and enjoyment as experienced by the culture while recognizing it itself is of that same culture and perhaps falls into the same category of which it criticizes. In the face of this theorists should become pretty reliable narrators.

I stated earlier that the cultural theorist occupies an outsider position but we should be particular about what this means. Adorno considers himself to be a cultural outsider and in many respects he was, having fled Germany for the United States to escape the Nazis. But evident from his writing was that he thought himself an outsider of the very bourgeois he sought to criticise, all the while not realising that his approach to leisure and entertainment was based on the very same line of thinking as the society he critiqued. Here, he was an insider in claiming that activity worthy of engagement should conform to a limited understanding of meaningfulness that can be readily brought into a semantic discourse. This way of thinking is also what produces the image of the rational consumer and what this fails to take into account is that this discourse is rotten to the core. He is, however, on to something with his pessimism, in that none of us and getting out of it alive.

The cultural theorist needs to realise their outsider status is limited to disciplines. When it comes to culture, however, they are as deep in as anyone else. The strength of cultural theory engaging in fiction as a practice is that it allows us to play with a certain duplicity. This is a specific kind of irony, not to be confused with the simplicities of ironic racism, sexism or homophobia. It is an irony towards the very act we are engaged in itself. The creatures that we are, be it a banker or a revolutionary, are creatures of the culture of capital, right down to our use of leisure. We either embrace or react against a status quo. Narrating a critique of leisure through theory gives us the agility to adapt to the world we hope to change as we change it, instead of the wedding ourselves to a plan that looked so good on the horizon. We need to write stories that ask for a new draft.

Macon has spent the last four years trying to shoehorn Infinite Jest into a PhD about popular music and capitalism. He managed to do this by making it about something called sonic fiction. He is one half of the podcasting team and the reason why the critical theory section is an odd mix of Adorno and Deleuze & Guattari. For many months he was mistaken for a ghost that had decided to haunt the store, but it was just him editing his thesis and/or the podcast. Here he writes about things which might be true or are entirely made up.

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