Free Time for the Limited Subject
by Richard Jermain — University of Tampa
December 08, 2016 – 12:01
Charlie Brooker begins his documentary-length praise of the series The Wire with a preliminary apology for recommending something that not only demands hours of fixed attention but also competes with hundreds of other hypothetical viewing hours one is recommended by friends, family and colleagues. We should also acknowledge that this is not always a mere recommendation but often an implicit invitation to enter (or maintain) a sociosymbolic pact that cannot simply be refused; one can recall here Jim’s (John Krasinski) compulsory participation in games of “Call of Duty” with his colleagues in the US series The Office. For the office workers this is not only a necessary ritual, but a totemistic cathexion-object which mediates their social relations in the spirit of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.
The difference between libidinal investment and economic investment today is completely elided; the former merely conjugates the latter. As Adorno and Horkheimer illuminate, the culture industry responds to a social division of labor in which a short-circuit between labor time and free time has already taken place. But the lived reality is that capital has already usurped the entirety of our time for which the unpaid portion merely lingers on as the vestigial organ against the social imperative of wealth accumulation.
If a certain level of anxiety then accompanies the viewer’s compulsion to finish a television series quickly, it is always already bound up in a necessary calculation and distribution of time. The phenomenon of so-called “binge-watching” is a superlative form of the contemporary masochistic ideology that mistakes suffering for enjoyment. Limited series will (briefly) assuage this anxiety and support the illusion that our choices of entertainment are matters of relaxation rather than distraction. And the subject will respond in kind by treating the task as obligatory; the culture industry will respond to this contraction of labor time, as capital must do, with increased intensity.