The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Theodor Adorno on Work, Pleasure, and How the Cult of Efficiency Limits Our Happiness

Few thinkers have advanced our understanding of the machinery we call popular culture more than the great German sociologist, philosopher, musicologist, and media critic Theodor Adorno (September 11, 1903–August 6, 1969). In the 1950s, Adorno embarked upon a rather unusual project: He began analyzing the horoscopes published in the Los Angeles Times as an inquiry into “the nature and motivations of some large-scale social phenomena involving irrational elements … fused with what may be dubbed pseudo-rationality.” From these investigations, eventually published as The Stars Down to Earth and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture (public library), sprang expansive and enduring insight into many of the myths that bedevil modern culture and still limit our lives on a daily basis.

In a magnificent essay titled “Work and Pleasure,” Adorno dissects one of the most perilous such modern myths — the tyranny of work/life balance. Just a few years after his compatriot Josef Pieper — an obscure German philosopher of extraordinary prescience — argued for reclaiming the dignity of leisure amid a culture of workaholism, Adorno examines the psychosocial origin of the toxic work/life divide that fractures our inner wholeness.

Pointing to a culturally emblematic verse which German children are taught to memorize while learning English — Work while you work, play while you play. / This is the way to be cheerful and gay.” — Adorno writes:

The idea is that by strictly keeping work and pleasure apart, both ranges of activity will benefit: no instinctual aberrations will interfere with seriousness of rational behavior, no signs of seriousness and responsibility will cast their shadow over the fun. Obviously this advice is somehow derived from social organization which affects the individual in as much as his life falls into two sections, one where he functions as a producer and one where he functions as a consumer. It is as though the basic dichotomy of the economic life process of society were projected upon the individual.

‘Man as Industrial Palace’ by infographics pioneer Fritz Kahn. Click image for more.

But the notion that the two spheres must be kept apart in order not to contaminate each other with their separate priorities and aspirations — something Adorno terms a “bi-phasic pattern of life” — is one immensely limiting of our humanity:

While the advice may offer advantages in terms of economic rationalization, its intrinsic merits are of a dubious nature. Work completely severed from the element of playfulness becomes drab and monotonous, a tendency which is consummated by the complete quantification of industrial work. Pleasure when equally isolated from the “serious” content of life, becomes silly, meaningless and sheer “entertainment” and ultimately it is a mere means of reproducing one’s working capacity, whereas the real substance of any non-utilitarian activity lies in the way it faces and sublimates reality problems: res severa verum gaudium [true joy is a serious thing].

This, Adorno argues, is one of many maxims inherited from the earlier development of middle-class society, which no longer serve us or apply to the technological and sociological realities of our daily lives, yet ones to which we continue subscribing.

In a remark of extraordinary prescience, he points to one particularly perilous manifestation of this techno-social dogmatism — “the tremendous and doubtlessly irrational role of ‘gadgeteering’ in the psychological household of many people today.” Half a century before the Golden Age of “lifehacking,” digital screens, and the fetishistic devices that carry them, Adorno considers the psychology of this “gadgeteering”:

Labor-saving devices … are invested with a halo of their own. This may be indicative of a fixation to a phase of adolescent activities in which people try to adapt themselves to modern technology by making it, as it were, their own cause… It seems that the kind of retrogression highly characteristic of persons who do not any longer feel they are the self-determining subjects of their fate, is concomitant with a fetishistic attitude towards the very same conditions which tend to be dehumanizing them. The more they are gradually being transformed into things, the more they invest things with a human aura. At the same time, the libidinization of gadgets is indirectly narcissistic in as much as it feeds on the ego’s control of nature: gadgets provide the subject with some memories of early feelings of omnipotence.

Cover art for the 1927 Russian children’s poetry book ‘The Telephone.’ Click image for more.

We perform this “gadgeteering” under the illusion that our devices optimize our work efficiency and thus save us time to be used toward play. But they actually achieve the opposite, hijacking the realm of leisure and making it subservient to the same efficiency standards by which we assess the realm of work. Adorno observes:

Since the approach itself, the “division” of life into various functions which are supposed to be more productive if kept apart, is chosen under the auspices of psychological rationalization, the priority of the rational over indulgence, to put it crudely of the ego over the id, is strictly maintained. It is one of the major tenets of [this mentality], possibly the most important of all, that pleasure itself is permissible only if it serves ultimately some ulterior purpose of success and self-promotion.

But the most toxic effect of this disposition, Adorno points out long before a deluge of self-help books began exploiting it, is the industrialization of happiness as an item on the tyrannical checklist of social success:

There is above all the monotonously frequent advice to “be happy.” … Obviously it is directed at encouraging [people] to overcome what, in popular psychology, has come to be known as “inhibitions.” However, this encouragement becomes paradoxical in as much as instinctual needs contrary to the rule of rational interests appear to be commandeered by rational interests. Even that which is spontaneous and involuntary is being made part of arbitrariness and control… One is forced to have fun in order to be well adjusted or at least appear so to others because only well-adjusted people are accepted as normal and are likely to be successful.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Click image for more.

With an eye to psychology studies indicating that people feel a great deal more sympathy for happy faces than for unhappy ones, Adorno laments the rise of “fun morality” — the despotic cultural dictum that “you’ve got to have fun (whether you like it or not),” which turns happiness into an ore to be mined with the same compulsive rigor as the economic tangibles of success. Happiness, under this cultural dogma, demands its own work ethic.

Adorno writes:

The semi-tolerant integration of pleasure into a rigid pattern of life is achieved by the ever-recurring promise that pleasure trips, sprees, parties and similar events will lead to practical advantages. One will make new acquaintances, build up “connections” that prove helpful for the career if one walks out with business associates.


The pleasures ordained are no longer pleasures at all, but really the duties as which they are rationalized, the rationalization containing more truth than the supposedly unconscious wish. In other words, more and more leisure time activity officially serving the purpose of fun or relaxation has actually been seized by rational self-interest and is attended not because anybody really likes it but because it is required in order to make one’s way or maintain one’s status.

I wonder how much of the modern FOMO epidemic — our chronic fear of missing out — stems from this very notion that life’s vast menu of pleasurable activities is rife with practical opportunities, missing any one of which hinders our ability to attain both “success” and its tyrannical prerequisite, “happiness.”

Adorno sums up this treacherous cultural model of work and pleasure:

Even where the [worker] is authorized to get away from the routine of his life, it has to be assured that his outbreak will lead him finally into some repetition of the self-same routine he wants to get away from.

It’s hard not to see the modern resonance of this insight in such recent cultural trends as Silicon Valley’s surge of interest in meditation and mindfulness training — an ancient spiritual practice is hijacked as a means to a practical end: to make employees more “whole” for the ultimate sake of bringing more of their wholeness to the work. Half a century after Adorno, we have only refined the machinery of operationalizing human beings into cogs — perhaps slightly more enlightened cogs — in the economic apparatus of consumerism.

Every single piece in Adorno’s The Stars Down to Earth and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture brims with such timeless insight into the social, cultural, economic, and psychological currents responsible for the surface waves of our everyday lives. Complement this particular meditation with David Whyte on how to break the tyranny of work/life balance and Josef Pieper on why leisure is the basis of culture, then revisit Adorno’s clever and entertaining manifesto for the art of punctuation.

Published September 11, 2015




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