In part 1, we saw Adorno reject the bourgeois disgust with sexuality and instinctual urges through his engagement with Freud in Minima Moralia. Still it seems clear that he does not recognize this as a comprehensive account of the pleasure drive. How then does Adorno understand the concept of pleasure? In his critique of psychoanalytic treatment he suggests that a firm definition is counterproductive: 

As if the mere concept of a capacity for pleasure did not suffice to devalue such a thing, if it exists. As if a happiness gained through speculation on happiness were not the opposite. (p. 62)

Here Adorno attacks psychology not for reducing happiness to something commercial and easily achievable, but rather for attempting to theorize about happiness in a systematic way. 

Adorno makes a similar comment about beauty:

Enlightenment does not merely dissolve all the qualities that beauty adheres to, but posits the quality of beauty in the first place. (p. 224)

Like pleasure, enlightenment thought understands beauty as a category which can be defined and systematically pursued. In both cases, Adorno’s first move is to reject the category itself; to accept pleasure or beauty as tangible concepts would be to surrender to the enlightenment logic that made them concepts to begin with. 

Adorno’s view of pleasure prioritizes its intangibility. To rigorously study pleasure, as one would study a biological organism or an electrical circuit, is to accept the enlightenment dogma that scientific reason is the only form of reason that is epistemologically valid.  Like Marcuse and Horkheimer, Adorno is deeply uncomfortable with the ideology underlying modern science and technology.

To attempt to understand pleasure scientifically is to subject it to uncritical positivism. As Foucault frequently observed, epistemic norms can wield immense social power independent of any objective truth value. For Adorno–and the Frankfurt school theorists in general–modern society assumes that reason applied instrumentally is the epitome of reason. 

Adorno will vociferously reject this framework, arguing that reason applied at the instrumental level–meaning, applied individually in pursuit of well defined “realistic” goals–is a product of false ideology which assumes the strong individual rationality and agency purported by enlightenment philosophy. Ultimately, a society which proclaims itself to be founded on reason cannot justify the immense collective irrationality displayed by modern nations. If enlightenment reason leads us to world wars, endemic poverty, and environmental disaster, how can we possibly defend the value of said reason? 

Adorno wishes to preserve the progressive elements of enlightenment reason without surrendering to the positivism that he thinks has dominated most post-Hegelian philosophy. This project requires a reorientation of reason and a recognition of the limitations of strict categories and definitions. Adorno will therefore challenge reason to approach the very subjects which enlightenment thought often dismissed as unreasonable: intangible concepts like pleasure which, in the last analysis, are much more immediately relevant to human life than systematic theories about substances and monads. 

Adorno will steadfastly refuse to give us a straightforward definition of pleasure which could possibly be subjected to empirical study. He does, however, offer us a glimpse of how purely qualitative pleasure might be recognized. In his discussion of everyday life, he offers the following remark: 

For tenderness between people is nothing other than an awareness of the possibility of relations without purpose, a solace still glimpsed by those embroiled in purposes; a legacy of old privileges promising a privilege-free condition. (p. 41)

Here he is discussing the mechanization of language and everyday interactions between people. He claims that speech has become blunt, brutal, and purpose-driven. Under modern capitalism, time is increasingly identified with money and any time not spent in pursuit of material gain is seen as wasted. A permanently mobilized society slowly eliminates the human need for unstructured, purposeless activity.

 Adorno believes that the last examples of genuine human warmth and pleasure can be found only in marginal cases, like antiquated manners and idle conversation. Small, meandering conversations between people are generally disengaged from market relations and don’t reflect anything instrumental. Likewise, manners and social ceremonies are, according to contemporary ideology, irrational and cannot be justified. Time spent conversing could be time spent working a second job, or in pursuit of some other well defined material goal. 

For Adorno, pleasure is characterized by purposelessness. He finds further examples in largely forgotten cultural customs such as formal manners and traditional ceremonies. These practices, Adorno argues, have been eschewed by modern society because they serve no purpose in the mechanical system of production and exchange. Traditional ceremonies, often strange and of mysterious origins, were once the centerpieces of human civilization. However, their practice cannot be justified when society demands well defined instrumental purposes for all activity. The traditional dances of rural villagers become curiosities for big city tourists. Adorno remarks that

Behind the pseudo democratic dismantling of ceremony, of old fashioned courtesy, of the useless conversation suspected, not even unjustly, of being idle gossip, behind the seeming clarification and transparency of human relations that no longer admit anything undefined, naked brutality is ushered in. (p. 42)

As atomized subjects always expected to be accountable for our actions, we are encouraged to maximize efficiency and productivity by cutting out any and all activity which cannot be justified in cold economic terms. Genuine pleasure exists in the shrinking spaces where unproductive, non-rational behavior is still occasioned. 

Adorno finds in these examples a glimmer of humanity uncorrupted by instrumental reason. “Total purposelessness,” he says, “gives the lie to the totality of purposefulness in the world of domination” (p. 224). Examples which interrupt the mechanical processes of everyday life reveal the extent to which human behavior is subjected to control, deprivation and domination. By being unproductive, we recognize how productive we are expected to be. For Adorno, these examples reveal the potential of a negation of existing society and orient our thinking about the possibility of better life. As the instances of purposeless activity are gradually eliminated, so too is the potential for critical consciousness of material conditions.

 Adorno gives the example of walking, which after millenia as the primary form of human transportation has been usurped by running and automobiles. He notes that, whereas humans once ran in order to escape dangerous situations, they now run to catch the bus, betraying the fearsome danger of being late to work. Walking has become a luxury. When faster means of transportation are available, walking, which allows for meandering, contemplation, and pacing is not justifiable. Adorno describes walking as “a rhythm not extorted from the body by command or terror” (p. 162). In its slowness and flexibility, walking betrays a sense of laziness and inefficiency to the contemporary mind. The body must therefore, in Heidegger’s terms, be “challenged forth” to move in unnatural ways so as to maximize productivity. 

Adorno’s most sustained discussion of pleasure and purposelessness comes in the form of a commentary on a diary entry by the poet Hebbel. Hebbel meditates on the gradual dissolution of childhood wonder. Children, he says, experience a magic that cannot be recaptured once the world is understood systematically and the contexts of various phenomena, such as the contortions of circus performers, are established. Adorno adds that the wonder of the child comes in part from its lack of understanding of economic relations. The child can’t conceive of the circus performer as a worker with rent to pay, they simply come in and out of the child’s experience with no justification other than the wonder that they arouse. 

Disillusionment comes with the realization that the performance is merely one part of a larger mechanism of productive relations: “interchangeable, abstract labour-time” (p. 227). The imagination and playfulness of children is, for Adorno, a living assertion of the contrived nature of economic relations. In their naivete, they fail to make a distinction between the use value of an object and its value as determined by market and productive forces. This reveals that, despite the very real distinction between use value and exchange value in the marketplace, no such abstract distinction exists before the arbitrary rules of capitalist exchange are established. Adorno notes that this reflects a truth that everyone recognizes but adults have merely accepted begrudgingly, once again revealing  the extent of domination they are subjected to. 

Child’s play, for Adorno, operates in stark contradiction to the logic of efficiency and mobilization that governs life in modern society. To be sure, Adorno is not suggesting that childsplay can or should be replicated by adults. In child’s play, he recognizes an instance of activity which interrupts the prevailing conventions of behavior in capitalist reality. Like traditional ceremonies and antiquated manners, child’s play refuses to be governed by the rules of production and exchange; it offers no market-based explanation for why it occurs. Adorno might argue that adults under the oppressive thumb of contemporary economic reality are not able to conceive of potential behaviors analogous (but not equivalent) to child’s play which defy the neo-totalitarian restrictions of work life and mass-culture.      

The key characteristic of child’s play Adorno identifies is its purposelessness. He says

In his purposeless activity the child, by a subterfuge, sides with use value over exchange value…The unreality of games gives notice that reality is not yet real. Unconsciously they rehearse the right life.  (p.228)

The motivations of a child at play are not possible to translate into economic logic. Games do not accomplish tasks instrumentally and efficiently, but rather return circuitously to begin again in non-progressive cycles. These traits, Adorno argues, lay bare the fact that the real game is the accepted reality of adults. The capitalist insistence on constant production, progression, accumulation, and growth is ultimately unreal and unjustifiable. The kind of hysterical pleasure, completely foreign to adults, that children derive from games is precisely a reflection of their purposelessness. Unplanned activity, free of restriction, without the demand for justification is a privilege which society affords only to very young children.

One might argue the semantic point that child’s play does have an obvious purpose: to have fun. This statement could be read as redundant, or even tautological; in any case, such a conception of fun would be alien to the kind of “fun” that is incessantly advertised and encouraged in contemporary society. To posit fun as a purpose for child’s play misses the critical observation that such a “purpose” is not recognized by modern society in its totality. To be sure, Adorno would never endorse this language; capitalist society encourages a variety of interchangeable options for “fun.” Adorno’s bane, the culture industry, thrives on the ceaseless production of mass-marketed leisure entertainment, ensuring that non-work life is regulated and ultimately absorbed into structured reality. Adorno would argue that this kind of homogenous, manufactured “fun” makes leisure time indistinguishable from alienated labor. 

Horkheimer and Adorno note in their Dialectic of Enlightenment that 

the moviegoer who perceives the street outside as a continuation of the film he has just left, because the film seeks strictly to reproduce the world of everyday perception, has become the guideline of production. (p. 99)

When leisure time is spent engaged in activities which reproduce alienation it ceases to be leisure; all experience is ultimately subsumed under the structure of capitalist reality. Adorno’s remarks on child’s play, ceremony, and manners highlight aspects of non-work life which resist the injunctions to “have fun” via standardized consumption. 

The case of child’s play illustrates the potential for creative leisure that is unstructured and unregulated. It is purposeless activity that amounts to neither work nor consumption. Such activity, which leaves the participants no richer for their sacrificed time and fails to produce anything quantifiable, is purposeless and undesirable from the standpoint of  capitalist reality. Children are afforded a brief allowance of time that they are not held accountable for, which is then forcibly terminated as they integrate into the wider socio-economic organization. After this point purposeless activity is condemned as childish, a word carrying a significant negative connotation. 

Adorno also mentions the relationship of children to animals as a celebration of the joys of purposeless existence. He remarks that 

In existence without any purpose recognizable to men, animals hold out, as if for expression, their own names, utterly impossible to exchange. This makes them so beloved of children, their contemplation so blissful. (p. 228)

Animals, whose behavior fails to obey economic logic, are endlessly fascinating to children and largely ignored by adults. Their existence is a monument to the possibility of life without purpose. This observation should not be confused with Freud’s belief that unrepressed human life would be “primitive.” It merely demonstrates the fact that the incessant forward march of progress demanded by capitalism is not naturalistically determined and should not be accepted as inevitable. In fact, such life can be the source of endless enjoyment which is inaccessible to adults who are involuntarily participating in the economic organization which recognizes exchange as the most essential human relationship. 

Rather than attempting to define pleasure in unambiguous terms, Adorno approaches the topic  elliptically and from a cautious distance, offering hints toward the kind of experiences where we are likely to find genuine pleasure. To be sure, this means that there is no systematic, progressive path towards achieving pleasure. After all, systematic progressive thinking is part of the problem we are trying to escape. 

Pleasure cannot be the successful output of a well defined process, rather, it comes to us in often subtle and surprising ways. The value of identifying instances of genuine pleasure for Adorno is their ability to reveal the locations where domination has not yet completely reduced the human spirit to a means of production. Moments of pleasure are moments of freedom from a kind of systematic repression which, Adorno argues, is much more powerful and far reaching than the libidinal repression identified by Freud. They reveal on a primal level that existing social structures are not self evidently correct, and do not represent the epitome of human achievement.


Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia. Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2005

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, CA: Stanford, 2002.


One thought on “Adorno on Pleasure, 2: Purpose and Play

  1. I have been thinking lately on the Heidegerrian concept of dwelling in relation to the human body (something like Neruda’s poem about his legs), and I think pleasure and play are the best ways to think of this type of dwelling (as opposed to the spatial construction of Heidegger).


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