Critical Theory and the Digital Culture-Industry

Audience-Work, Serious Leisure, and Recognition
  • Moshe ElhanatiEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Springer Reference Sozialwissenschaften book series (SRS)


The emergence of millions of amateurs and unpaid works on the web during the blooming of social media and the rise of sharing discourse over the past decade has resulted in a large corpus of criticism on both academic and popular levels. Yet this corpus is primarily binary in nature: It either praises and glorifies these sharing praxes in almost messianic terms, or it criticizes them by focusing on work-leisure relations and the familiar consequences of exploiting audience work. Either way, the criticism fails to fully grasp the emancipatory potential inherent to the world of amateurs, who willfully act within the sphere of serious leisure. The article thus aims to cater to the growing need for a critical theory that neither falls into the positivistic honey trap of techno-utopian discourse, while also avoiding total negation. To this end, the article utilizes two theoretical components: serious leisure and social recognition, whose combination offers the foundations for forming an adequate critical theory.


Critical theory Web Audience-work Serious-leisure Recognition New-capitalism 


I am Jennifer Lyn Morone™ Inc. and I have established a new business model that is designed to determine the value of an individual relative to society and to the data he or she creates…

Life Means Business

Jennifer Lyn Morone, Inc. has advanced into the inevitable next stage of Capitalism by becoming an incorporated person. This model allows you to turn your health, genetics, personality, capabilities, experience, potential, virtues and vices into profit. In this system You are the founder, CEO, shareholder and product using your own resources. (

Jennifer Lyn Morone [JLM], an American living in London, has decided that in order to regain a measure of control over her life and her personal data, she must become Jennifer Lyn Morone Inc. She has registered as a company in Delaware, and what began as a ‘protest design’ project at the Royal College of Art in London has transformed her into an ‘incorporated person’; part person, part corporation. Besides data, the Jennifer Corporation intends to offer a list of additional services and goods: biological resources, beginning with a blood donation for $50 and bone marrow for $5,100 through to egg donations for $170.000, mental services, such as problem solving (offered at a discount if the corporation learns something in return), physical labor, and any other kind of asset. Morone has yet to determine how to price certain other services that she now offers for free, such as compassion. As a person-corporation, she must price such services profitably in the best interest of current and future stockholders.

The Economist, in a July 2014 report about Morone, concluded that her project captured an important truth about the ‘data-driven economy’:

Ms Morone concedes that this is all an experiment, but one she is determined to stick with even though she concedes it scares her a little. And being an ‘incorporated person’ has its advantages, such as tax breaks, limited liability and deductions for incurred costs. (On the downside, companies can’t marry, although they can enter into legal partnerships.) But Ms. Morone is primarily trying to prove a point: that personal data are more valuable than the majority of people realize …Ultimately, the data-driven economy will have to move in that direction if it is to be sustainable: no marketplace can thrive in the long run without some notion of fair value exchange. (‘Who owns your personal data? The incorporated woman’, The Economist, 27 Jun, 2014. Retrieved from

Who is Jennifer Lyn Morone? Is she an artist offering us an ironic and critical political artistic action? An independent worker in the new realm of production that unites the multitude of activities known as ‘creative labour’? Or yet another sophisticated startup entrepreneur, a legitimate player in the web economy? Alternatively, is she a subject that has undergone a process of commodification and reification? And maybe all of the above? In a society capable of regarding even compassion as a commodity, does JLM Inc. offer an escape from the instrumental grip of the big web corporations? Or is she merely a reflection of the wish to avoid, via an independent web-production, the alienation embodied in the interests of these all-encompassing corporations. As if JLM hopes, through creative labour, to transform herself from an alienated piece of commodity, stripped of agency, into an entity that claims full ownership of her work time as well as of the surplus value embodied both in her physical body, and in the cumulative data that has already been produced and continues constantly to be aggregated by her web presence. (On the concept of creative-work and its inherent problems, see Hesmondhalgh and Baker (2010), and (2013)).

1 Introduction

The paradox that characterizes the case of JLM Inc. – on the one hand, an active and creative critical agent in the digital culture-industry, and on the other hand, a subject that affirms and legitimizes its own existence as an outright commodity in the language of the very same ideology that made it so to begin with – lies at the heart of the problematics of critical theory, hindering its adequate formulation for over two decades. As we shall see below, it is becoming increasingly clear that in the absence of such a theory it is difficult to generate theory-based research plans that avoid the kind of positivistic approaches that presuppose that the social reality of a web society is beneficial and exists as a natural fact, uninfluenced by its researchers and interpreters, who are obliged to ‘market’ it to the public as their contribution to the creation of ‘The Good Society’.

Moreover, and perhaps no less importantly, an adequate theory is required so that we may find our way within the labyrinth of normative critical theories, which have in common only the assumption that the role of a critical theory is to observe society while dismantling its capitalist ideology. This article proposes that a critical theory whose subject is the totality of voluntary web-life practices as they are expressed in sharing sites and various social networking services (SNS), cannot make do with this, but must rather focus on exposing the pathologies that obstruct or disrupt the actual subject’s emancipatory wish. In other words and perhaps more precisely, it must investigate the absence or presence of the basic conditions that allow the expression of this emancipatory wish. In this sense, criticism of the broad implications of web-society and the new media industry should adopt the same basic critical impulse that has already accompanied late capitalism’s mass society, which ideologically sanctified the creation of a monolithic consumer audience under the false pretense of eliminating hierarchies and promising uniqueness. For, both in late capitalism, against which the critical category of culture-industry was set, and in the neo-capitalism of networking and sharing, the problem, as articulated by Moshe Zuckermann, is still always ‘the danger of turning the human being into the object of the reification mechanisms of reality itself, the danger of binding human awareness to merchandised logic […].’ (Zuckermann 2001).

This article thus strives to tackle the increasing need for a critical theory through a three-step movement. First, I show how both popular and academic digital discourses treat digital technology and web life as an axis of emancipatory social change. In this ‘brave new world’, neo-capitalism is presented as a correction of the curse of alienation that afflicted old ‘Fordist’ capitalism, while by doing so it nullifies all critical discourse of issues of exploitation, commodification, reification, and subjectivization, which have yet to vanish. As succinctly put by Eran Fisher (2010):

[…] network technology is constructed in contemporary technology discourse as amending the pitfalls of Fordist production by responding to concerns regarding individual emancipation and harnessing those human facets that have been suppressed during Fordism – individualism, authenticity, creativity, personal expression, and so forth – into the productive process. (p. 244)

In the second stage, I review the problematic ways in which media criticism attempts to expose the ideological mechanism that serves the discourse of digital technology and participatory culture to justify the modes of production and distribution offered today by neo-capitalism. I address a number of the weaknesses of this media criticism, which all too often neglects its role in locating the wish for emancipation in social reality itself, in the actual subject’s life sphere. This is in contradistinction to productive criticism, whose desirable principles have been concisely articulated by Axel Honneth (2007b, p. 6):

[Critical theory] which can also inform us about the pre-theoretical resource (vorwissenschaftliche Instanz) in which its own critical viewpoint is anchored extra theoretically as an empirical interest or moral experience.

Finally, in the article’s last section I outline an initial draft for a hermeneutic approach and methodological foundation that will enable observation of the web’s lifeworld, and especially of the relation between work and leisure. In other words, the article attempts to articulate certain preliminary features of an adequate critical theory through which to observe the lifeworld [Lebenswelt] of those web actors involved voluntarily in many different forms of unpaid work. In this context, I will propose considering two basic theoretical concepts – serious-leisure and recognition – which to the best of my judgment stand to enrich and assist any effort of critical analysis. In particular, I believe that these concepts can help us to decipher the codes that motivate the actions of unpaid workers, especially amateurs, and perhaps more importantly, to comprehend the manner in which these workers attempt, sometimes successfully, to avoid becoming an object of the reification mechanisms of the digital discourse and the web culture-industry.

The article is guided by the belief that an adequate critical theory should strive first and foremost to clarify the real moral expectations incorporated in the daily process of social communication. Furthermore, it should help us identify the necessary conditions for fulfilling an individual’s expectation to have his value acknowledged within the web culture-industry. Otherwise, within the diverse network lifeworld, the criticism is in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater [Das kindt mit dem bad vß schitten]. That is, we risk dehumanizing web subjects and treating them as mere objects of a powerful system that reproduces and maintains itself. Given this predicament, it is undisputable that a critical theory grounded in social praxis and addressing the emancipatory wish as manifested in actual social life is urgently needed. In the absence of such a theory, we might find ourselves under the spell of critical theories that, in the words of Craig Calhoun (1995, pp. xiv), ‘[might] reduce our freedom by occluding recognition of what could be’.

2 Digital Discourse and Neo-positivism: Speaking Participatory Language

Since the late 1990s and the accelerated blossoming of social media and sharing sites, a corpus of unprecedented breadth has formed, consisting of both academic and popular writing that praises and glorifies social media as the main route towards revolutionary sociopolitical change, sometimes portraying it in nearly messianic terms. These researchers/writers, often hard to tell apart preachers, paint us an alluring picture when they claim that the new media in general and sharing practices in particular embody an emancipatory trend and constitute a corrective to the injustices and distortions of the old, hierarchical, Fordist capitalism. Two typical examples of this corpus, which also illustrate its variety, are the writings of Yochai Benkler, of Harvard University, and those of Henry Jenkins, who is arguably the most prominent and challenging writer on participatory culture.

Benklerʼs writing is vast and abundant, and for the present purpose I have deliberately chosen to focus on his popular book The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest (Benkler 2011) as a clear example of an exceedingly common popular-academic discourse whose main theme is that of the web culture as representing a global redemption. In his earlier book The Wealth of Networks, Benkler had already begun setting the foundations for the notion that the electronic environment, digital connectivity, and the economics of information offer humans an opportunity to join together and share resources with each other. Web culture, he tells us in the book, allows us to reassert the principle of liberty rather than libertarian anarchism, that is, the Anarcho-Capitalism that ruled in the 1990s, and to act within a politics that remains embedded in the principle of level-headed sharing in a liberal, open, and inclusive democracy. In the face of the internet’s overtaking by Mammonism, Benkler holds fast to a far-fetched and rather speculative faith in web culture, identifying and underscoring its inherent structural features that support an open sharing economy and a distributed exchange system that could free social industry from the proprietary ethic – the prerequisite for all of this being independence from ‘government control’ (Benkler 2006, pp. 180–85).

In Penguin and Leviathan, which was written from the outset as a polemical and popular book, Benkler ‘markets’ to broad audiences the essence of the liberal network world articulated earlier in academic detail in Wealth of Networks. Benkler proposes an image of a human who is fundamentally more cooperative, generous, fair, and altruistic than is commonly held. He contrasts the motivations of this neo-human with two familiar models: Hobbs’ fearful subject as described in the Leviathan – narcissistic and greedy, and motivated solely by interests and fear; and Adam Smith’s model of human nature in The Wealth of Nations. As opposed to these two models, and drawing loosely on Rousseau, Proudhon, and even Hume, Benkler suggests perceiving humans as innately capable of ethical action, since they are endowed with a tendency towards cooperation and generosity as an evolutionary imperative. The social and generous penguin is offered as a symbol of this human nature and an alternative metaphor to Hobbes’ Leviathan. For Benkler, web economy and the technology that enables it are no less than a historic opportunity to found a new social order that rejects the subjectʼs narcissistic empowerment. A basic principle of this social order is ‘peer-production’, which ensures egalitarian reciprocity and distribution. In other words, like many others, Benkler celebrates what Kellner (1989) named back in the late 1980s ‘technocapitalism’.

According to Benkler, unequivocal proof of the inherent participatory attribute of humans is to be found not only in a social network environment, such as the collaboration of open-code programmers worldwide or Wikipedia entry-writers, but also, and perhaps mainly, in all kinds of scientific research.

Through the work of hundreds of scientists, we have begun to see mounting evidence in psychology, organizational sociology, political science, experimental economics, and elsewhere that people are in fact more cooperative and selfless […] even in the study of human biology, evolutionary biologists and psychologists are now finding neural and possibly genetic evidence of a human predisposition to cooperate. […] there is much evidence that evolution may actually favor individuals (and societies that include these individuals) who are driven to cooperate with or help others, even at cost to themselves. (Benkler 2011, p. 13)

It is no coincidence that Benkler’s insights in this popular book as in many of his other essays rely on evidence from empirical and quantitative studies, which are based, methodologically, upon hard or semi-hard scientific praxes. In this sense, Benkler can be included in what Max Horkheimer named in the first half of the twentieth century ‘New Positivism’. In a manner that is characteristic of this neo-positivistic approach, the humanities, social philosophy, and critical theories receive only a very modest place in The Penguin and the Leviathan, their treatment seeming like little more than lip service, as noted in one of the few critiques of the book:

Apart from some brief opening and closing remarks on philosophical approaches to the morality or social function of benevolence and self-interest, The Penguin and the Leviathan has almost nothing to say about debates in the Humanities regarding the potential for collaborative and co-operative […]. (Leonard 2013, p. 56)

Benkler’s techno-scientific determinism encapsulates a paradox; the meaning of this determinism contradicts the very humanistic message he wishes to convey. Benkler’s Homo Participans is a technological person who apparently takes control of his while simultaneously lacking sovereignty, since his ethical and political decisions are necessarily derived from nature; his collaborative altruism is merely cultural genetics.

For Benkler,[…] it is nature that gives, nature that produces what it means to be human[…] “Current evolutionary science”, [Benkler] tells us, “is beginning to explain why cooperative behaviours are passed down both culturally and genetically” (38). Such a claim means, of course, that the self here ceases to be the cause or source of action […]. (Leonard 2013, p. 59)

The ideal society that Benkler describes, then, is one that renounces the political in favor of a dream: that technology in general and the rational technologization of interpersonal reciprocity in particular, rather than the class conflict or social injustice that are inherent to capitalism. It is a new era of humane capitalism and freedom for the subject and the worker, along the lines proposed as early as the 1970s by Daniel Bell, one of the most brilliant sociologists from among the American neo-conservatives (see Ross 2004, p. 11).

Benkler should thus be read and understood as a perfect example of managerial literature. In his account, it is not only the subject who gains from participatory culture but also and perhaps chiefly, the industrial corporations and companies that succeed in adopting the rationale of this culture and thereby gain the upper hand. His book brims with examples of the commercial successes of corporations and companies, such as Toyota, Chinese motorcycle factories, Southwest Airlines, and of course the software companies that have adopted the management principle of ‘high-commitment, high-performance’ (Benkler 2011, p. 205). These companies provide their workers with a large degree of autonomy, encourage emotional involvement, instill interpersonal communication skills, and emphasize collaboration, team work, and autonomous decision-making by work teams based on ‘creation nets’ (Benkler 2011, p. 109).

Benkler appears to fail here twofold: first, in the almost cynical harnessing of the workers’ collaboration and emotional involvement to the commercial benefit of large corporations; and second, in his overvaluation of the web’s effect and of the social revolutionary benefit supposedly embodied in peer-producing networks – a criticism noted by one of the critics of his The Wealth of Networks:

Benkler falls into this trap in emphasizing perhaps too strongly the radical implications of peer-production through network forms of organization, failing to recognize the extent to which, if they are indeed so wealth-generating, they will be co-opted into mainstream ‘industrial’ ways of production. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, the corporate world may soon provide peer-production for the rest of us. (Berry 2008, p. 364)

And so, on the basis of studies, mostly in psychology, economics, network theory, and management and organizational culture research, Benkler concludes that in the era of the web society and participatory culture, material motivations and traditional production relations no longer suffice to promote quality work:

[…] we should also focus on harnessing [worker’s] social and intellectual motivations by making cooperation social, autonomous, rewarding and even – if we can swing it – fun. (Benkler 2011, p. 200–201)

Such approaches have, of course, already been defined in the 1980s by Smythe and Van Dinh as ‘administrative ideology’, which is essentially neo-positivist and utilitarian:

[…] By ‘administrative’ researchable problems we mean how to make an organization’s actions more efficient […] By “administrative” tools, we refer to applications of neopositivist, behavioral theory to the end of divining effects on individuals. […] By “administrative” ideology, we mean the linking of administrative-type problems and tools with interpretation of results that supports, or does not seriously disturb the status quo. (Smythe and Van Dinh 1983, p. 118)

If Benkler bases the majority of his claims and insights on a deterministic evidence system of a scientific and administrative-utilitarian character, Henry Jenkins opts for an entirely different and more challenging strategy. Jenkins speaks a sociocultural language that is deeply rooted in the Birmingham School’s tradition of culture studies, which taught us to attribute to audiences an active ability not only to decipher and extract significance and ideological messages from the media and cultural texts produced in the social space, but also to resist them. Jenkins’ creative subject is therefore not motivated by some kind of bio-evolutional presupposition; rather, being interpretative by nature, the subject partakes in creating meanings and significances (Jenkins 1988). In the words of John Fiske, the consumer is endowed with ‘semiotic productivity’, − that is, the active ability to decipher texts and symbols and to create meanings, whether they oppose or accord with the prevalent ideology.1

Indeed, like Benkler, Jenkins supports participatory culture, yet his approach is based upon the essential sociocultural distinction between the passive old media and the interactive new media as a body that potentiates consumer opposition:

If old consumers were assumed to be passive, the new consumers are active. […] If the old consumers were isolated individuals, the new consumers are more socially connected. If the work of media consumers was once silent and invisible, the new consumers are now noisy and public (Jenkins 2006, pp. 18–19).

In his view, the cultural consumer audience should no longer be taken as a separate entity from culture producers; instead, the two groups should now be perceived as jointly interacting with each other according to a new set of rules that none of us, Jenkins admits, as yet clearly understands. In any case, the vision of free-flowing, unsupervised information, and the quality of a communicative act based on mutuality, is finally fully materializing.2 Jenkins emphasizes that the instrumental strategies of economic agents and the technological media and spontaneous tactics of creative consumers merge and converge to form a cultural constellation altogether different than the one described by the category of traditional culture industry. Jenkins’ convergence culture converges towards a liberalization of content circulation, for the greater well-being of all.

The society described by Jenkins, then, is guided by the logic of market democratization and by spontaneous organization that produces variety and multiplicity, as Jenkins stated in a 2007 lecture that it is all “.[…] about acquiring greater power and greater visibility and grater clout in the culture” (Jenkins 2007).

In light of this picture, the pertinent question is how, if at all, does this participatory culture of Jenkins’ actually alter the structure of the relations between consumers and producers? Is it fundamentally annul the conflict inherent in the capitalistic method? In the same 2007 lecture, Jenkins attempted to tackle this question by offering the concept of the ‘collaborationist position’, which concerns not merely the collaboration between producer and consumer but the empowerment of ‘prosumers’ so that they can take part not only in content design and distribution but also in the production of value.

[…] maybe get revenue back from the production of value they’re involved in. That’s my utopian fantasy that we may get to a point where I get some money back; when YouTube was sold for a billion dollars, if some of that money goes to those kids in the dorm room in China who lip-synched Backstreet Boys songs […]. (Jenkins 2007)

This formula that Jenkins offers presents a society in which participation in cultural production is not determined by ownership over the means of production but by the user or amateur’s skill, initiative, and passion. As such, it embodies a critique of old Fordist norms and an identification, albeit non-explicit, with the promises of neo-capitalism – all this in the spirit of ‘artistic criticism’, as coined by French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Chiapello (2002), discussing the new spirit of capitalism:

We label the second form of criticism […] ‘artistic criticism’. This form first emerged in small artistic and intellectual circles, and stresses other characteristics of capitalism. In a capitalist world, it criticises oppression (market domination, factory discipline), the massification of society, standardisation and pervasive commodification. It vindicates an ideal of liberation and/or of individual autonomy, singularity and authenticity (p. 16). (See also Boltanski and Chiapello (2005), pp. 466–468.)

According to Boltanski and Chiapello, this new spirit of capitalism, which speaks the language of the active-subject, freedom, de-alienation, autonomy, and authenticity, thus renders social and political criticism redundant. In this sense, Jenkins’ discourse of collaboration is intimately connected to the new spirit of capitalism, and as such, inadvertently plays an ideological role in affirming the status quo. Or as Nicholas Garnham (1995) writes, taking the perspective of the ‘active audience’ theory entails bowing to ‘ethnographic worship’, and therefore an abandonment of the critical stance.

Jenkins’ collaborative culture, then, is not neutral but, rather, part of a discourse that legitimizes neo-capitalism’s exchange and production regulations, which in turn promise to promote authenticity by mitigating alienation. Yet it is precisely Jenkins’ insistence, or as he puts it, ‘my utopian fantasy’, regarding the possibility that his creative subject will be integrated into the economic system, that ironically suggests the opposite – namely, that the repressed conflict between producers and consumers, the one that has supposedly been solved through prosumerism and participatory culture, is related precisely to the scenario that Jenkins wishes to avoid: the commodification of the prosumer him- or herself.

For the moment prosumers strive for a share of the profits, they are thereby subjected to the instrumental principle of exchange value. When prosumer/amateur goodwill, and even bona fide creative effort, is translated into exchange value, it undergoes a process of commodification, thereby losing its emancipatory potential. This paradox is intrinsic to web and collaborative production, since the latter is based on the blurring of distinctions not only between producers and consumers but also between work and pleasure.

Since it is usually carried out via personal digital communication, web production has no trouble mobilizing resources that would ordinarily not be exploitable, such as leisure, joy, pleasure, self-study, and passion, making use of them for the refinement of the industrial process and for price reduction, thereby enhancing corporate profitability. The reduction of prosumer, amateur, and user work into value units that distribute between producers and consumers, this renewed quantification of the exchange value, leads, as we will see below, to the very homogenization against which Adorno and Horkheimer had warned. It turns out, then, that user-generated-content is intended to be an inseparable part of neo-capitalism’s web production, a state of affairs about which Jenkins voice no disapproval, while at the end of the day, the participating-prosumer, even if he or she acts within sharing-communities, functions as an autonomous production unit; no longer ‘a worker’ but a creative, individualist, and privatized-to-the-bone entrepreneur.

3 The Critique of Informational Capitalism

We have seen that in the new order of collaborative web production, information and cultural objects are perceived as commodities despite honest intellectual attempts on the part of theoreticians such as Jenkins to mitigate this fact. It appeared also that the new positivism is similarly unsuccessful in dealing effectively with the double conflict: collaborationism versus commodification, and individualization versus collaborationism. This suggests that the question of commodification – not only of the communicative market of objects and acts but also of production methods, work, leisure, professional-amateur relations, and the communicative act itself – is the central and essential question incumbent upon the critical discourse currently taking place in the digital culture industry. And indeed, as we will see shortly, at the heart of this critical project lies the amalgam of social praxes and human interactions that have undergone commodification – whether material or web/virtual – with respect to which the discourse attempts to determine how they sustain and feed, in a type of feedback act, the cultural products that mediate social relations and the modalities of cultural production, work and leisure practices, throughout the virtual world, thereby mediating neo-capitalist ideology.

It is no coincidence, then, that a significant part of the critical corpus that deals with the question of audience-work and work-leisure relations in the web age draws its inspiration from Dallas Smythe’s (2006) seminal work as a starting point for the establishment of a new media critique. For the media theory of political economy underwent a fundamental transformation towards the end of the 1970s and in the early 80s when it began perceiving the media as a production system in itself and turned to focus upon the audience’s productive role in creating the media’s surplus value through what is called ‘audience labor’. Smythe’s work, whose beginnings are to be found back in the 1950s, was central to this shift, as he claimed that mass media does not necessarily entail a large audience consuming media contents produced by media corporations, but that mass media reigns over the commodification of spare time, as well as of cognition and emotion. (Smythe notes that he began delving into the issue of „the blind spot“ and audience-work as far back as 1951, in his article “The Consumer’s Stake in Radio and Television”.) According to Smythe, then, mass media is interested in transforming the attention and the time that the audience dedicates to the media in general and to advertisements – that is, marketable commodities – in particular. In this respect, the audience is an active entity, whether willingly or not, in the media economy; an aggregate of subjects who perform cognitive and emotional work. Here Smythe broadens the definition of work by claiming that it is not necessarily an action performed in return for wages but an inclusive category defined simply as ‘doing something creative’ (See Fuchs (2012)). To Smythe, then, the media is not merely another component of the meta-structure that functions as an ideological platform to support production relations in the core-structure. Media that is based on audience-work as surplus labour time thus becomes an inseparable part of the inexhaustible effort towards capital accumulation through the very transformation of the audience into a marketable commodity, not only as a buying force but as a work and distributive force (Jhally and Livant 1986, p. 129). This move made by Smythe was eloquently summarized by Fisher (2012):

In some respects, Smythe transplanted the Birmingham School’s notion of the active audience from the realm of meaning-making to that of money-making. (p. 172)

Smythe’s criticism came in response to what he described as a ‘blindspot’ that mars most Marxists cultural analyses as well as those analyses advanced by members of the Frankfurt School. These critical approaches usually focus on the manipulative contents of media products, or as Lawrence Grossberg (2006, pp. 616–618) suggested, are based on a simple model of domination in which people are taken to be passive and manipulatable ‘cultural dupes’.

In the same vein, Christian Fuchs (2012; see also, Fuchs 2011) claims that unlike dogmatic critical theories, Smythe’s theory is more complex and evenly balanced with regard to the way in which the audience is perceived.

Dallas Smythe had a very balanced view of the audience: capital would attempt to control audiences, but they would have potentials to resist: People are subject to relentless pressures from Consciousness Industry; they are besieged with an avalanche of consumer goods and services; they are themselves produced as (audience) commodities; they reproduce their own lives and energies as damaged and in commodity form. But people are by no means passive or powerless. People do resist the powerful and manifold pressures of capital as best they can (p. 699). (Based on Smythe, D. W. (1981). Dependency road: Communications, capitalism, consciousness, and Canada. New York: Ablex Publishing Corporation, p. 70.)

But alongside this partial agency that Smythe attributes to the audience, Fuchs adds in the same breath that Smythe made sure to emphasize that given monopolistic capitalism’s material reality, most hours of the day are work hours. This is because most of the audience’s off-the-job work time is sold to advertisers in the media, so that the audience forcibly performs marketing and distribution work. Smythe proceeds to determine rather blatantly that ‘For the great majority of the population […] 24 hours a day is work time’ (cited in Fuchs 2012, p. 701). The extent to which this approach consists of a paradox, not to mention an absurdity, can be discerned in David Hesmondhalgh’s (2010) sarcastic remark:

It is unclear whether Smythe is demanding payment for the unpaid labour of audiences; and in fact it is unclear to me why he does not include payment for sleep in his demands, given that this too seems to involve the reproduction of labour power (p. 280).

In any case, Smythe’s pessimistic contribution to the topic of the essential lack in leisure time reverberates in the vast and rich corpus of media criticism. A salient example of this is Kücklich’s work, in which the author attempts to demonstrate the exploitation of the digital-worker through the use of the neologism ‘playbour’ (play + labour), or more specifically, the exploitation of ‘modders’, namely, those who are entirely immersed in ‘modding’ (computer game modification). Kücklich (2005) claims that the exploitation of the latter, most of whom are amateurs performing audience-work, is based on the utter collapse of the differentiation between work time and leisure time:

Modders […] are rarely remunerated for taking the risks the industry itself shuns […] many modders are either uninterested or unable to translate the social capital gained through modding into gainful employment. The precarious status of modding as a form of unpaid labour is veiled by the perception of modding as a leisure activity, or simply as an extension of play.

The tension embodied in the concept of audience-work and the ambivalent discussion that has evolved around it has actually intensified with the shift from the old media to the new one. (For a concise but comprehensive overview, see Fuchs (2012), pp. 701–706.) I would like to claim that underlying the charged discussion on this topic lies a functional approach to the concept of ‘work’, and that this naturally leads to an exaggerated discussion on the topic of exploitation-alienation relations. This approach also gives rise to the question of how the prosumer who functions in the web world might receive his remuneration or salary, even if indirectly. According to one approach, in the spirit of Jenkins’ ‘utopian fantasy’, the surplus value embodied in audience-work will eventually reach the user in the form of hard currency. In other words, the user will be awarded a certain portion, albeit miniscule, of the profits made by media companies that have become rich thanks to his work. According to Jenkins, then, audience-work and the participatory economy signify a real chance for change in production relations, in the power structure, and in capital distribution within capitalism. Brett Caraway, on the other hand, is not endowed with a similarly ‘utopian’ spirit, since he analyzes Smythe’s work with a revisionist eye and finds that internet prosumers cannot be studied from the viewpoint of the audience commodity theory in the senses that Smythe aims for, if only because

[t]he activities of the audience are not under the direct control of the capitalist. Nor is it clear that the product of the labor of the audience (whatever that may be) is alienated from the audience. (Caraway 2011, p. 697)

Moreover, according to Caraway (2011), Smythe, followed by contemporary researchers who adhere to different aspects of the audience commodity theory, does not sanction the assumption that there is actual leeway for consumer resistance:

True, Smythe […] was careful to acknowledge some modicum of resistance in the core area. But any honest appraisal of Smythe’s work will demonstrate that Smythe only recognized such resistance in the abstract, and ignored it in his analysis because he believed it to be insignificant, “minuscule”, or defeated. (p. 704)

Fuchs, whose interpretation of Smythe sets out from functional Marxism, disagrees with Caraway, even situating him and his analysis’…on par with social media determinists like Henry Jenkins’ (Fuchs 2012, p. 705). According to Fuchs, the audience is the entity forced by capitalism in general and new capitalism in particular to sell both its working power and its free time. He claims that it currently seems like audience-work in the social media world and sharing sites, is coerced by ‘ideological violence’, which brandishes a real threat. Since without engaging in such work or productive sharing, the subject risks losing a major part of his social resources due to a chronic lack of information and of the communication capacities that have become so essential to the existence of social relations in this era.

If, for example, people stop using Facebook and social networking sites, they may miss certain social contact opportunities. They can refuse to become a Facebook worker, just like an employee can refuse to work for a wage, but they may as a consequence suffer social disadvantages in society. Commercial media coerce individuals into using them (Fuchs 2012, p. 704).

But that is not all. Fuchs emphasizes the fact that unlike traditional media, and especially television, in the digital world and web economy the definition of audience commodity, as offered by Smythe, not only is not rendered redundant but indeed expands, given that all of the data regarding the user is constantly updated and automatically turns into a commodity. Such as, networks of social contacts, demographic details, the individual user’s browsing history, and even his behavior in sharing sites. This massive commodification not only reinforces Smythe’s observations but also points to a fundamental change in the very understanding of the notion of the user’s subjectivity. As Fuchs writes:

[…] on the Internet the users’ subjective creations are commodified. Therefore, Smythe’s original formulation holds here that the audience itself – its subjectivity and the results of its subjective creative activity – is sold as a commodity. (Fuchs 2012, p. 704)

On the other hand, and in the same breath, Fuchs, probably unwittingly, hints at the subversive potential of the work of the very same audience that has just been robbed of its subjectivity. If the surplus value yielded from the audience’s work is so essential to web economy and neo-capitalism’s capital gain processes, then a decision by users to halt their work for Google or Facebook, for example, would bring about a plunge in the profits of these giants.

If such activities were carried out on a large scale, a new economic crisis would arise. This thought experiment shows that users are indispensable for generating profit in the new media economy. Furthermore, they produce and co-produce parts of the products, and therefore parts of the use value, value, and surplus value that are objectified in these products (Fuchs 2012, p. 725).

And so, Fuchs on the one hand exposes and condemns the ‘ideological violence’ and exploitation embodied in audience-work, while on the other hand acknowledges, as in the passage quoted above, that audience-work in the age of Informational Capitalism and Immaterial Labour holds the potential for refusal in the spirit of Autonomist Marxist activism. Autonomist Marxists do not seek additional work, do not concern themselves with the right to work or the demand for fair wages, do not protest worker exploitation and do not even advocate a mitigation of the alienation that plagues work; instead, their aim is to point to the refusal of work as a political – potentially revolutionary – act.

This is because, as Negri argues, to refuse work is fundamentally to challenge capitalism: “The refusal of work does not negate one nexus of capitalist society, one aspect of capital’s process of production or reproduction. Rather, with all its radicality, it negates the whole of capitalist society”. (Gill and Pratt 2008, p. 4)

This contradictious mixture of ideological oppression on the one hand and the possibility of refusal on the other – much like Fuchs’ argument in his Internet and Society (2008) that the web enables the dialectical existence of two contradictory trends: competition and collaboration – successfully reflects the ambivalence, and especially the perplexity involved in the very comprehension of the concept of audience-work and free labour in the web era. Another expression of this tension appears in Fuchs’s account when he attempts to draw attention to the fact that

[n]ot all prosumer work on social media is commodified […] Work that contributes content, attention or comments to non-commercial non-profit projects […] is work in the sense that it helps creating use values (alternative news, critical discourse etc.), but it is non-commodified work, it cannot be exploited, does not have exchange value and does not yield profit. Non-commercial non-profit online projects are expressions of the struggle for a society and an Internet that is not ruled by the logic of commodities and exchange value. […] the existence of alternatives shows that social media and media in general are in capitalism shaped by […] “gaps and contradictions” that constitute “cracks and fissures” that allow “currents of criticism and movements of contestation”. (Fuchs 2012, p. 725)

Of course, one can wonder whether only someone who succeeds in evading the financial world, the commodities, and the market, while taking advantage of the “cracks and contradictions” in capitalism’s meta-structures and foundations, deserves to be regarded as a ‘grassroots alternative’, or whether there are other ways for subjects to exercise their right to refuse commodification and actualize their emancipatory wish, but let us return to this point later.3

Optimistic scholars, who doubt the criticism and warnings sounded by political economy, claim that this criticism is exceedingly one-sided when it conceives of audience-work as an opportunity for the exploitation of free labour and goodwill. Caraway, in keeping with his criticism of Smythe’s audience-work thesis and the manner in which contemporary criticism makes use of it, believes that ‘[t]he harnessing of free labor to the logic of accumulation is a contingent, contradictory and contested process’ (Fuchs 2012, p. 694). He claims that since this approach consists of an extreme form of determinism and an excessively functionalist perception of new technology and of the concept of work that this technology enables, it drains the concept of free labour of its emancipatory and subversive potential.

[…] current scholarship rarely examines the subversive uses of technology. Too often, there is only engagement with the rhetoric of techno-utopians and the digerati on the participatory potential of new media in what has become something of a ritualized straw man argument among political economists. (Fuchs 2012, p. 705)

To Caraway, the creative energy that propels non-material labour in the new media environment and motivates those active in it challenges the pessimism of the critical oppressive thesis, or as he puts in, ‘defies this morbidity’ (Fuchs 2012, p. 706).

In an attempt to deconstruct the positivistic ‘hegemonic technological discourse’, as well as to escape the vicious cycle of criticism and counter-criticism, Fisher proposes returning to a more dialectical theoretical position vis-à-vis exploitation-alienation relations. Fisher identifies the weakness of Marxist media criticism in the fact that it focuses mainly on one side of the equation. That is, it focuses more on exploitation than on alienation, a tendency that he finds questionable given that Marx treated the link between exploitation and alienation as ‘inextricable’ (Fisher 2012, p. 173). As a key concept, alienation highlights neo-capitalism’s unique maladies from a standpoint that is more humanistic than the material economic calculation underlying claims of exploitation. Fisher draws from the aforementioned work by Boltanski and Chiapello, who claim that the new spirit of capitalism is characteristic of the neo-liberal shift, which inspired capitalism to internalize and contain the anti-authoritative criticism of the counter movements of the 1960s. In addition, with the expansion of electronic mediation, a new capitalism was constructed: ‘web capitalism’, committed to authenticity, liberty, and autonomy. This made it possible

[…] for capitalism to equip itself with a spirit which […] is required for people to engage in the profit-making process, it indirectly serves capitalism and is one of the instruments of its ability to endure. (Boltanski and Chiapello 2005, p. 490)

Capitalism’s new spirit thus links alienation to the lack of communication resources, which plunges the subject into social isolation; alienation is purportedly an evil to be cast off through personal communication, that is, through work in the social media. In short, the more subjects ‘work’, that is, the more they are involved in authentic self-expression and in interpersonal communication on web platforms, the more their sense of alienation is supposed to be mitigated. And yet there is a fly in the ointment: the more they work and produce an ever greater surplus value, the more they are exploited.

[…] immaterial labour […] has a greater potential to be enjoyable, involve personal, idiosyncratic components, carried out during leisure time or even be perceived as a form of leisure activity, playful, emotional and communicative. On the other hand, to the extent that such labour is performed on SNS, it is also commodified and entails the creation of surplus-value. (Fisher 2012, p. 182)

Fisher’s dialectical approach successfully tackles both techno-optimism, which Fisher characterizes as typical of the networks’ new spirit, and the techno-pessimism that has always accompanied the former. Fisher views both of them as equally deterministic. In many ways, Fisher’s proposal resembles a number of other dialectical approaches that have been mentioned above, such as Fuchs’ approach concerning the contradictory dialectic between collaboration and competition; or Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, who, in the spirit of Operaismo and Autonomism, see in the decentralized web structure an ‘empire’ of the multitude, which can now unite, precisely through technological-instrumental mediation, for the sake of a significant political act (Hardt and Negri 2001, 2005). Yet more than they are dialectical, all of these approaches, as I have already indicated, are ambivalent and suffer from a certain perplexity and even an inherent paradox, suggesting that this dialectic is oftentimes no more than a destructive ‘dialectic’ (Fuchs 2012, pp. 728–729).4

It’s destructiveness lies in the extent to which it creates a certain kind of mutual recursion process, with one side of the equation containing the other side, and vice versa. In other words, the definition of exploitation necessarily contains the definition of alienation, and labour contains leisure, as well as vice versa. This dialectical approach might be taken to imply, then, that leisure time and handicrafts that produce surplus value, intentionally or otherwise, are a ‘fee’ that the subject pays to achieve the de-alienation offered him or her by neo-capitalism. I would like to argue that these notions regarding the dialecticality of web society might be futile, since they do not enhance our understanding of important dimensions of human life, such as leisure activity and the world of hobbies as expressions of the wish for emancipation; henceforth I would like to focus on these dimensions.

4 Leisure or Leisure Industry

The discussion of the centrality of the concept of leisure and of leisure-labour relations within the narrative of modernism has generated an expansive discourse in which partake not only sociologists but also historians, culture theoreticians and philosophers. Within this discourse, the notion of the ‘culture industry’ as proposed by Horkheimer and Adorno in 1944, including Adorno’s reference to the illusion of free time, is undoubtedly one of the categories that has most influenced the suspicious attitude of cultural criticism and especially, as we have seen, of the critique of digital discourse towards the concept of leisure and free time in all of its forms, including audience-work, non-material work, and consumer participation (Adorno 2001, pp. 187–198).

The fact that there are those who challenge the critical tradition of the Frankfurt School and question the relevance of the culture industry as a critical criterion does not attenuate the concept’s influence on critical literature. Scott Lash and Celia Lury claim, for example, that in the web era, culture can no longer be perceived as belonging to the super-structure; with its integration and deep intertwining into the economy, it seems to be seeping through to the foundations, and therefore a new and up-to-date critical approach needs to be founded. If Horkheimer and Adorno’s culture industry was governed by uniformity and intractability, they argue, then the global culture industry is governed by singularity and complexity:

Singularities are very much the opposite of Horkheimer and Adorno’s atomized and atomizing cultural goods… Opposed to the atom were the monads of Leibniz (1992). Adorno’s commodities are atomistic; the global culture industry singularities are monads… Monads are all different from each other. Atoms are the stuff of simplicity; monads are the stuff of complexity. Monads are self-organizing and, in this sense, reflexive. The atomized products of Horkheimer and Adorno’s classic culture industry worked like mechanisms. The self-transforming and self-energizing monads of global culture industry are not mechanistic, but vitalistic. (Lash and Lury 2007, p. 12)5

But do complexity and singularity in any way alter the discussion of the question of audience-work and leisure? Does the metaphorical unique and spontaneous monad actually replace the reproduced social subject? Or perhaps the original emancipatory meaning of the ideal of authenticity has evolved into a means of justifying the entirety of neo-capitalism’s arrangements (Hartmann and Honneth 2006, p. 50). And maybe we are facing a subtle form of philosophical public relations that presents the web as a kind of breathing, vital entity that stands on its own, seemingly independent of society, while the monads that inhabit it are supposedly autonomous and un-reproduced. Yet it is precisely the web’s apparent autonomy that brings us back to the basic hypothesis underlying the idea of the culture industry, according to which the integration of consumers becomes total through the effective enhancement of technology and administration, operating synergistically. In this sense, the interests of the mechanisms of the culture industry become invisible once they turn into ideology; according to Adorno, they even break free of the need to sell their cultural commodities: ‘The culture industry turns itself into public relations, the manufacturing of “goodwill” per se, without regard for particular firms or saleable objects’ (Adorno and Rabinbach 1975, p. 13).

Within this speculative context of the reproduced subject versus the unique monad, it seems that a renewed examination of Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s readings (and especially Adorno’s) of the concept of leisure or free time is an essential and fertile task. Notably, the concept of leisure presented by Horkheimer and Adorno was the result of neither a detailed historical study nor sociological empiricism, but was derived directly from the very idea of the culture industry, in all of its monolithicity and lack of spontaneity. The products produced by this industry are tailored to the dimensions of mass consumption, while the masses appear in it not as subjects but as manipulatable objects. To Horkheimer and Adorno, it is not necessarily the contents, but the form – namely, the template that produces uniformity (particularly aesthetic) among all cultural products and social practices – that constitutes the decisive element in transforming the culture industry into an iron cage from which there is no escape. As succinctly put by Shane Gunster:

This quality of “ever-sameness” does not apply to the surface content of popular culture, which is constantly changing, but to its form, to the structures that hold everything in place […]. (Gunstrer 2000, p. 42)

Keenly aware of the tendency of the consumer audience, wherever it may be, to be drawn by ‘the new,’ and of the threat of ‘boredom’ hovering over each and every member of this audience, the wizards of the culture industry, then as now, offer a deceptive magic recipe containing pseudo-individuation through an illusion of particularism that conceals the actual uniformity and repetitiveness of the contents. This illusion is destructive to the subject’s capacity for self-criticism, since to the subject, the culture industry constitutes both the world and its representation, all in one. There is no other world for which to strive, and in the absence of any reality external to the one offered by the culture industry, the subject is stripped of the reflexive ability to evaluate his situation correctly and to set him- or herself ethical and political goals that transcend the world of the culture industry. Reality and mass culture are inseparably intertwined. It follows that the consumer is not a ‘king’ but a ‘subject’ shaped through the mental cloning that infiltrates all strata of life, from work to leisure.

And so was formed a negative link between work and ‘free time’: the fewer work resources were required of individuals for social work, the more free hours they gradually gained. But this was not enough to liberate the individual from the oppressive ethos of the labour world, as leisure activities reproduced the conditions of the labour world and its aims with ‘puritanical zeal’, as Adorno observed. Worn out and drained though he may be by the demands of the labour world, the subject nonetheless seeks refuge precisely within familiar thought and behavior patterns that have been set in that very same world. The standardization and schematization of the cultural commodities market, which abides by the principle of popularization, as well as the rationalization of its modes of consumption, perpetuated the individual’s subordination to the capitalistic work ethos. It is in this sense, as Adorno claimed, that commodification was applied also to leisure.

They want standardized goods and pseudo-individuation, because their leisure is an escape from work and at the same time is molded after those psychological attitudes to which their workaday world exclusively habituates them. (Adorno and Simpson 2002, p. 38)

Standardization sacrificed the very values that distinguish the logic of autonomous creation or action from the logic of instrumental wisdom. Liberal cultural industry is so ‘democratic’ that it turns everyone equally into consumers deprived of independent voices, and even worse, strips them of any reaction mechanism, as demonstrated by Horkheimer and Adorno in the example of radio broadcasts:

No machinery of rejoinder has been devised, and private broadcasters are denied any freedom. They are confined to the apocryphal field of the “amateur,” and also have to accept organization from above. But any trace of spontaneity from the public in official broadcasting is controlled and absorbed by talent scouts, studio competitions and official programs of every kind selected by professionals. (Horkheimer and Adorno 2006, p. 42)

The meaning of the word ‘amateur’ as used in this passage harbours a deep ambivalence, as does by extension the associated concept of a ‘hobby’. Here we see that even the ‘amateur’, who transmits private broadcasts that might have ventured beyond the boundaries of the culture industry to signify freedom, is subordinated to an industrialized culture of deceit and forgery (‘apocryphal’). Anyone who stands in opposition can survive only by integration. When the culture industry detects difference and deviance, like that of the amateur, it does everything in its power to assimilate him or her via a well-organized inclusive mechanism of seizing the ‘unique’ and the exceptionally talented.

In this way, liberalism’s tendency to give free rein to its ablest members survives in the culture industry. To open that industry to clever people is the function of the otherwise largely regulated market, in which, even in its heyday, freedom was the freedom of the stupid to starve, in art as elsewhere. (Horkheimer and Adorno 2006, p. 49)

And subsequently: “Anyone who does not conform is condemned to an economic impotence which is prolonged in the intellectual powerlessness of the eccentric loner” (Horkheimer and Adorno 2006, pp. 49–50).

The ambivalence encoded in Adorno and Horkenheimer’s attitude towards the amateur as a deviant-recluse is further exposed when they argue, as part of a discussion on the relations between ‘serious art’ and ‘light art’, that art and amusement are subordinate to one and the same goal as both are equally included in the totality of the culture industry as mechanisms of production. In order to achieve this totality, troubling elements from the past must be eliminated, as the culture industry indeed does ‘[…] by imposing its own perfection, by prohibiting and domesticating dilettantism […]’ (Horkheimer and Adorno 2006, p. 51).6

And so, the dilettante, or the amateur, is a possible hindrance to the smooth functioning of the culture industry; so much so, that these deviant elements have already been trained and domesticated. Notably, this perception of the ‘amateur’ coincides with the dominant leisure historiography from the 1960s and 70s, which dealt with the broad strata of workers and the middle class from the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. In the accounts of most historians the subjects are depicted as a passive collective that consumes the products of the leisure industry as products of mass consumption. Those who operated outside the market of products of mass consumption, such as productive leisure agents, and especially devout amateurs, were presented as a marginal phenomenon – amiable eccentrics at best and ‘dangerously obsessed’ at worst (Gelber 1999, p. 3).7 If historians detected any creative independent leisure at all that does not abide by the market’s rational logic, it was usually associated with deviant practices, such as unbridled drinking, gambling, absenteeism, and vulgar popular amusement. At best, these activities were portrayed as spontaneous but futile acts of defiance against the dominant hegemony.8

Yet the culture industry according to Adorno and Horkheimer leaves no room even for deviant and marginal actions such as these. It subordinates the collective of subjects, even in their leisure time, to the rule of consciousness and to the rhythm of that very same work world they are so eager to escape. Adorno and Horkheimer’s conclusion is as somber as it is decisive:

Even during their leisure time, consumers must orient themselves according to the unity of production. The active contribution which Kantian schematism still expected of subjects – that they should, from the first, relate sensuous multiplicity to fundamental concepts – is denied to the subject by industry. (Horkheimer and Adorno 2006, p. 44)

In the absence of authentic leisure, only amusement that is no more that ‘a mere appendage to work’ remains. Thus, those who seek amusement and entertainment in the hope of escaping the boredom of work do so only so as to gather the strength to face it anew. Yet even this more modest hope, which is the consumer’s perennial yearning, is repeatedly dashed as ‘amusement congeals into boredom […]’ (Horkheimer and Adorno 2006, p. 52). In the essay ‘Free Time’, written in his final year, Adorno revisited the helplessness and the false consciousness of free will in the era of social integration, which is unequalled in its totality and functionality:

[…] it is hard to ascertain anything in human beings, which is not functionally determined. This is an important consideration for the question of free time. It means to say that even where the hold of the spell is relaxed, and people are at least subjectively convinced that they are acting of their own free will, this will itself is shaped by the very same forces, which they are seeking to escape in their hours without work. (Adorno, “Free Time”, p. 187.)

In this sense, the leisure that has been commoditized becomes a deceptive apparatus; free time is far from freedom, and is

[…] becoming a parody of itself. Thus unfreedom is gradually annexing free time, and the majority of unfree people are as unaware of this process as they are of the unfreedom itself. (Adorno, “Free Time”, p. 187.)

The assumption is that the economic, cultural, and social beliefs of most members of society belong to a comprehensive thought pattern, to an ideology that warps their ability to perceive reality correctly, let alone to act outside the social utilitarianism as it materializes within the market. The possibility of ‘escape’ that the subject is offered by the mechanisms of the culture industry is not an escape from an evil reality but an escape from the very idea that this reality can at all be rejected.

In his book The Digital Sublime, Vincent Mosco claims that the digital discourse creates the constitutive myth of our times insofar as it presents digital technology as heralding a new historical era in which the subject is apparently granted the ability to ‘escape’, to act outside instrumental rationality. But this myth masks the continuous trends that prove that the global market’s trajectories as we observes them today are largely reflective of a deepening and expansion of old forms of power and reproduction. (Vincent Mosco, The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), p. 83.) It turns out that some of Horkheimer and Adorno’s observations are still valid; with regard, at least, to the culture industry’s reproductive power and the manner in which it makes affirmative use of free-time activities, one may conclude that their ideas are applicable to the digital culture industry and its instrumental logic.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to grasp the concept of the culture industry as a general ideological system or as the complete negation of individual subjectivity.9 This point is particularly relevant within the context of the discourse on leisure habits in the web world, the status of the amateur, and unpaid work, all of which are social elements with both a real and a symbolic potential to oppose current developments in capitalism. Adorno, in a moment of biographical self-disclosure (a rare sight in academic texts), brought up the problem of leisure and hobby activities sharply and bluntly:

I have no hobby […] But, as far as my activities beyond the bounds of my recognized profession are concerned, I take them all, without exception, very seriously. So much so, that I should be horrified by the very idea that they had anything to do with hobbies. (Adorno 2001, p. 187.

Unlike the dialectical recursive conception that characterizes, as we have seen, the main body of digital media criticism, and from which there is no way out, Adorno, precisely out of what appears to be a negation hints at a positive thesis: a productive synthesis that might, or should, stem from the dialectics between leisure activity (‘hobby’) and work (‘recognized profession’). This synthesis is embodied in its entirety in the single word ‘seriously’: the moment that leisure activity on the one hand and necessary work on the other hand are carried out with the same degree of passion and seriousness, the distinction that late capitalism tried so hard to maintain is clearly cancelled out. This is the same distinction that contemporary web capitalism took pains to blur in favor of the interests embedded in the various types of audience-work. In other words, Adorno implies that when applied to leisure activity, ‘seriousness’ is the way to extricate oneself from the reification that petrifies both work and leisure in their respective roles: the former as alienated and instrumental and the latter as a commodity, pleasurable entertainment, and downright fetish. Seriousness, then, signifies not the negation of hobby and its denunciation but, rather, its internalization and incorporation as an inseparable component of the individual’s free essence. And this may offer a way out of the vicious cycle in which

[t]he more inexorably the principle of exchange-value destroys use-values for human beings, the more deeply does exchange-value disguise itself as the object of enjoyment. (Adorno 1992, p. 279.

In this sense, the intellectual legacy of the culture industry’s critique, according to Adorno, contains the possibility of serious leisure as a contrast to superficial leisure, which is affirmative by its very nature. Unfortunately, those media criticisms that address the concept of the culture industry, grounded as they often are in the tradition of political economy, have mostly adopted its denunciative aspect. In other words, in one way or another they focus on the dialectics of alienation versus exploitation, adopt (even if they do not admit it) the discourse of technological determinism that claims to have created new social power arrangements, and lastly, are not open to a less functional broadening vision of the concept of work, including leisure-work as an autonomous component of the individual’s life.

David Hesmondhalgh claims in this context that a sizable proportion of cultural production has always been done without pay, as these leisure activities have always been an inseparable part of the dilettante’s and the amateur’s life experience (Hesmondhalgh 2010, p. 277). Indeed, he adds, there is room to argue that these non-paying tasks represent activities that are wittingly or unwittingly subordinated to the creation of surplus value in culture industries and the media, since these tasks produce, inter alia, an upcoming workforce in whose training these industries have not invested a cent. And more generally, critics may well claim that the internet itself, as a profit-making economic object, would not have evolved and prospered without the free labour of millions of users; as opined, for example, by Tiziana Terranova and others who share her view that ‘free labour and network flows are wholly immanent to current capitalism’ (Terranova 2000, pp. 33–58). 10

In light of this criticism, Hesmondhalgha attempts to extricate free work from the iron cage of recursive dialectics and to posit it as a value in itself – otherwise, he claims, we will face the danger of the commodification of modes of activity that we would ultimately rather keep outside the boundaries of the market. Therefore,

[…] it would surely be wrong to imply that any work done on the basis of social contribution […] represents the activities of people duped by capitalism. Actually, it seems to me that this would run the danger of internalising capitalism’s own emphasis on commodification. We have to hold on to the value of work done for its own sake, or as “gift” labour […] and complaints about free labour – unless the normative basis for the complaints are spelt out very carefully – risk undermining that value. (Hesmondhalgh 2010, p. 277.

Yet this attempt to ‘salvage free labour’ suffers from the same problem afflicts both the digital discourse and its criticism. Couched, as mentioned above, in the language of political economics, the criticism employs terminology that appears to restrict the discourse from the outset. Terms like free labour, audience-work, unpaid labour, creative work, and exploited or alienated work, which are frequently used by critics and interpreters, all focus on the work experience in a rationalistic-technological society, yet they exclude from the discourse the experience of leisure as an independent concept. By doing so they disregard the pragmatic power of informal modes of work, of leisure and the hobby activities it encompasses, in virtue of which these become an important resource for the actual individual, a tool that enables him or her to make sense of their lives and to be rewarded with recognition for their work. The denunciative social theories I have thus far reviewed are all characterized in one way or another by an overly functional approach to work. These fallacies are also addressed by Honneth:

[…] the negativist social theories arising in the wake of Adorno’s work are also tied to a critical diagnosis in which a particular type of instrumental reason is perceived as growing into a life-threatening power in technology, science and systems of control. (Honneth 2007b, p. 43)

In order to enable a hermeneutic space that is not thus restricted and an adequate critical theory pertaining to the amateur and the aforementioned internet leisure agent, I believe a greater focus is required on mutual meaning-making processes by individuals and groups, and through this focus a connection may emerge to Herbert Marcuse’s refined observation that critical theory ‘[has a] concern with human happiness’ (Marcuse 1988, p. 135).

5 The Demand for Recognition: Towards a New Critical Theory

Based on this broadening comprehension of the hermeneutic and critical space, I propose below preliminary thoughts about the link between the internet amateur’s pursuit of leisure and the concept of recognition as articulated by Honneth. Drawing on a number of aspects of Honneth’s work, I would like to reintroduce the actual subject into the picture, while suspending to a certain extent what Paul Ricœur has called the ‘Hermeneutics of Suspicion’. In the present case, this term denotes an implicit hermeneutic premise that leisure activity and hobby work conceal some other, more basic reality; a reality invisible to the real people, who are no more than passive carriers of modes of discourse, of economic interests, of a reproduced system power, and of forced social constructs. (For more on Ricœurʼs notion of the hermeneutics of suspicion, cf., Josselson 2004, pp. 1–28.)

My use, in what follows, of Honneth’s work does not presume to contain the full wealth of its components and contradictions, but rather focuses selectively on what I take to be essential for the present purpose. This includes, first, Honneth’s disagreement with fundamental aspects of the critical theory that evolved from the works of Horkheimer and Adorno, and second, his concept of recognition insofar as it helps clarify the concept of work in neo-liberal capitalism. I consider Honneth’s discussion on the current place of contemporary critical theory is one that I regard not only as part of the revision he proposes with regard to the Frankfurt School’s original theoretical thought but also as a challenge to the different contemporary versions of the negativist social critique, which he claims

[…] is always characterized by a tendency toward dehumanization: what generally transforms human beings into mere objects of an auto-poietically reproducing systemic power […]. (Honneth 2007b, p. 67)11

The heart of the problem that Honneth diagnoses in critical theory is its inability, or unwillingness, to turn its sights directly on the social sphere in which the social subjects’ actual interest in emancipation may be identified. For if there is no longer a real wish for emancipation in the world of the living, then it follows that there are also no grounds or motivation for significant social criticism. Therefore, Honneth clarifies that

[…] we must first re-establish theoretical access to the social sphere in which an interest in emancipation can be anchored pre-theoretically. Without some form of proof that its critical perspective is reinforced by a need or a movement within social reality, Critical Theory cannot be further pursued in any way today […]. (Honneth 2007b, p. 66)

The significant critical/hermeneutic task for Honneth, then, is to expose the category of social reality in a way that will permit the rediscovery of its ‘intermundane element of transcendence’ in order to ensure a ‘social foothold for critique’ that will make it possible ‘to enter into a reflexive relationship with pre-theoretical praxes’ (Honneth 2007b, p. 67).

In any case, Honneth’s interpretation of neo-capitalism and most of his findings are essentially similar to the main body of the criticism of web capitalism reviewed here. Honneth is similarly of the opinion that neo-capitalism is rife with contradictions, as reflected by modes of operation and action that are relatively free of late capitalism’s edicts insofar as they are based, as described earlier, on a language of solidarity and sharing and on a yearning for self-realization. His critical theory of contemporary capitalism breaks with these critiques, however, when he claims that the erosion of emancipatory significance cannot be explained using the dialectics between the colonizing system and the subject but only through the existence of a continuous paradox. In other words, no longer the ‘[…] colonizing attack of capitalist imperatives on the action model of the lifeworld’ (Hartmann and Honneth 2006, p. 46.), but neo-capitalism as a paradoxical ideology that manages to raise justifications for inequality and injustice based on an individualistic emancipatory vocabulary.

The grounding for his countering of denunciatory social theories, precisely in the sense that it may pave the way for an emancipatory sphere of action, Honneth finds, at least partly, in Jürgen Habermas’ communication theory, which he believes stands to revitalize Horkheimer’s ideal of social criticism. This goal can be achieved, he says,

[by] shifting from the Marxist paradigm of production to the paradigm of communicative action, within whose framework it should become clear that the conditions of social progress are located not in social labor but in social interaction. (Honneth 2007b, p. 67)

Habermas’ theory of society assumes that the contemporary world, with its various independent systems, threatens the communicative achievements of the lifeworld [Lebenswelt] to the extent that the human potential for linguistic comprehension is beginning to diminish. At first glance, Habermas’ theory seems to echo the denunciatory approaches of contemporary critical theory; those theories that claim that powerful systems (such as technology) have broken free of their previous dependence and now threaten the social core through their ‘colonization’ of the world with systems that follow a utilitarian rationality. The difference in Habermas’ approach, however, is that he shifts the critical effort from the paradigm of production to the paradigm of communication, thereby exposing a real social sphere. This is because he claims that in the communicative-linguistic act, subjects are supposed to meet and challenge normative expectations, thereby providing a source of moral demands that are the prerequisite, or ‘pre-theoretical praxis’, of any social critique. Honneth clarifies Habermas’ unique approach by way of comparison:

Whereas Horkheimer saw capitalist relations of production as setting unjustified limits on the development of the human capacity for labor, Habermas sees the social relations of communication as putting unjust restrictions on the emancipatory potential of intersubjective understanding. (Honneth 2007b, p. 69)

Yet according to Honneth, the emancipatory potential that Habermas’ social-communicative theory is supposed to reflect is not expressed in the moral experiences of the involved subjects. Moreover, Habermas’ conception ‘[…] is not aimed […] at giving expression to an existing experience of social injustice’ (Honneth 2007b, p. 70). A possible remedy for this problem of the disruption between praxis and theory lies, according to Honneth, in interpersonal theory, according to which ethical experiences do not necessarily suffer from linguistic-communicative restrictions, but rather are shaped by an infringement upon real identity claims that arise repeatedly in socializing situations. Thus, the experience that can really be defined as pre-theoretical praxis is always located in a person’s expectations of receiving recognition of his worth and achievements from a fellow human. Obtaining social recognition is therefore a prerequisite of any communicative act, since

[…] subjects encounter each other within parameters of the reciprocal expectation that they be given recognition as moral persons and for their social achievements. (Honneth 2007b, p. 71)

Honneth therefore proposes basing critical theory on the communicative paradigm, which is founded not exclusively upon linguistic theory, as it is for Habermas, but rather on a theory of granting recognition. Once ‘pathologies of recognition move to the center of critical diagnosis’ (Honneth 2007b, p. 71), the criticism’s aim ought to change.

The focus of interest can no longer be the tension between system and lifeworld, but the social causes responsible for the systematic violation of the conditions of recognition. Critical social theory must shift its attention from the self-generated independence of systems to the damage and distortion of social relations of recognition […]. (Honneth 2007b, p. 72)

Honneth enumerates three levels of recognition: the first, love, encompasses close relations such as love and friendship; the second, respect, includes the acknowledgement of rights in general, and especially legal rights, without which the subject cannot cultivate self-respect; and the third, esteem, involves the social appreciation for achievements and personal merit upon which self-esteem is conditional. For the purpose of this article, I will focus only on the last dimension of recognition, within which a person is measured by his contribution to the world of work and action. Work in the current neo-liberal era is different from work as known by Adorno and Horkheimer, as emerges in the brilliant and comprehensive analysis conducted by Honneth with Martin Hartmann, his co-author of the article ‘Paradoxes of Capitalism’ (2006). According to them, capitalism has always been a dynamic and adaptive social order insofar as it allowed subjects to demand a fulfillment of the promise of individualism based on the prospect of achieving autonomy and authenticity. The neo-liberal revolution has greatly intensified this possibility via the promises embodied in ‘the new spirit of capitalism’, which, as shown above, has been described and analyzed extensively by Boltanski and Chiapello.

Hartmann and Honneth concur with Boltanski and Chiapello and indeed further clarify and underscore the ways in which capitalism has managed to harness to production processes human resources that had not heretofore been taken as an integral part of the work world. This includes employees’ free time, leadership, creative joy, pleasure, and personal initiative, which are above and beyond what is traditionally required of an employee. As a result, an increasing number of workers no longer perceive their work as a fulfillment of the traditional and necessary obligation to earn a living, nor do they view it as part of the ethical foundations of society; instead, work has come to be seen as a step on the way to individualistic self-realization. Consequently, a new and problematic image of work and vocation in the work world has emerged whereby subjects are supposed to relate to ‘work’ as a series of projects that embody the realization of a ‘calling’. Workers in many different sectors are blatantly required to manifest creative skills and to invest mental and spiritual resources in their work, in return for which they are supposed to gain recognition as an accomplished individual. Though this reward itself needs to be qualified, since workers typically no longer receive respect for work performed or skills mastered in the past, but only for capabilities they demonstrate here and now.

Thus, in a world based on random networks and temporary projects, the degree of uncertainty regarding the personal and social value of subjects and the fruits of their work grows, and this motivates them to fight for attention as well as to seek acknowledgement for their achievements, their qualities, and their personal capabilities beyond the professional work sphere. In Honneth’s opinion, social-critical theory has a hard time accounting for or indeed acknowledging this predicament because it has traditionally denied the emotional aspect of action and because it fails in evaluating types of work performance that do not fit into the functional definition of ‘work’, such as the complex web of roles and work related to child-rearing and housekeeping. Hence, even in neo-capitalism there still is a rather traditional cultural definition of the concept of work, which is distinctly functional, especially when it comes to acknowledging action/work that does not fulfill all the familiar criteria of social work.

Unfortunately, Honneth does not develop this line of thought; aside from the example of domestic work, which received extensive treatment in the discourse that evolved around Honneth’s project on work and gender or on the links and contradictions between ‘family work’ and ‘gainful employment’, he barely addresses non-paid work and the sphere of leisure activity as an acknowledgeable resource (See Rössler 2007, pp. 135–163). Furthermore, in certain cases the struggle for attention outside the work world – for example, in the world of mass entertainment – involves (even if Honneth does not say so overtly) clear elements of disrespect, alluded to in the dissatisfaction that Honneth expresses with regard to the participation of too many people in ‘[…] innumerable exhibitionistic television talkshows’ (Hartmann and Honneth 2006, p. 50). The question is then whether in the neo-liberal world, which demands infinite flexibility at work as a condition for self-realization, we must assume that it is difficult, indeed almost impossible, to win recognition for achievements in meaningful free leisure activities. It seems that the first signs of a possible answer are provided by Honneth himself when he portrays the uncompromising demands imposed on the subject in the era of new individualism:

Increasingly prevalent is also the tendency of expending a great deal of mental energy on so-called leisure activities, which, however, are no longer experienced as bringing recuperation or release from the working day’s demands, but are instead seen to comprise the experimental attempt to define the dimensions of one’s own self. (Honneth 2004, p. 471)

Which activities is Honneth referring to here? Is he referring to the growing variety of forms of unpaid audience-work carried out in the subject’s free time? These activities, as aforementioned, do not contradict the needs of neo-capitalism and have even become a production force within web economy. And perhaps he is referring to the mentally intensive modes of leisure activities, the ‘serious’ ones as defined above by Adorno, which are carried out with no intention, direct or indirect, for profit, and which enable acknowledgement of an autonomous self? At least methodologically, it seems that Honneth himself provides hints as to how we ought to go about attempting to answer these questions. For if the aim of a theory of acknowledgment is to create a ‘reflexive relationship with pre-theoretical praxes’, as Honneth has suggested, it follows that our focus out to be on the ‘quasi-sociological’ attempt to identify the wish for emancipation within social reality itself, or to identify it, as suggested by Thomas McCarthy: “[…] by reconstructing the normative presuppositions of interaction with the help of ethnomethodology” (Honneth 2007b, p. 71). (See also McCarthy 1994.)

Honneth’s sociological insight, which is an integral part of his project, highlights the fact that an adequate critical theory can no longer avoid reconstructing the subjects’ normative assumptions, using the main tool that ethno-methodology has to offer, namely, the report, or the testimony. This is because ethno-methodology takes into account the objective realness of social facts that are reflexively reportable by each member of society. A report is the manner in which people explain, praise, justify, complain about, and criticize life situations and interpret the world in which they live. In this spirit, I propose examining the nature of web players’ leisure activities and free-work, their lifeworld, through the prism of ‘serious leisure’ (a concept to which I will return shortly in greater detail), and in particular, to listen to the way in which leisure agents/amateurs, as consistent participants in purposeless leisure projects, report on their activities, both amongst themselves and to objective observer. In this way, the question of whether particular players do indeed experience themselves as receiving recognition and social respect for their contribution to a joint project, or whether conversely, they find themselves in a position of non-recognition and disrespect, can be examined. Testimonies regarding the seeking and granting of recognition, which reflect human intentions and yearnings, are that which ought to guide the critical efforts to focus on and identify the basic conditions that preclude the possibility of granting recognition.

6 Serious Leisure: Between Homo Otiosus and Homo-Economicus

While these ideas about the possibility of leveraging Honneth’s theory of recognition to explain the concept of serious leisure in the context of the internet are indeed only preliminary, I believe they carry the potential to enable an alternative evaluation of significant leisure activities in general and of internet leisure players in particular. By this, I mean to refer to those activities that can be defined as ‘serious leisure’, a concept coined by Canadian sociologist and leisure researcher Robert Stebbins as early as the 1970s and which he has continued to develop methodically to this day. According to Stebbins,

[s]erious leisure is the systematic pursuit of an amateur, hobbyist, or volunteer activity sufficiently substantial, interesting, and fulfilling for the participant to find a (leisure) career there acquiring and expressing a combination of its special skills, knowledge, and experience. (Stebbins 2007, p. 5)

The concept of ‘serious leisure’ should be understood as distinct, first and foremost, from the ‘casual leisure’, which is defined by Stebbins as […] the immediately, intrinsically rewarding, relatively short-lived pleasurable activity, requiring little or no special training to enjoy it’ (Stebbins 2007, p. 5). Also, it is distinct from the concept of ‘project-based leisure’, which is defined by Stebbins as ‘[…] short-term, reasonably complicated, one-shot or occasional, though infrequent, creative undertaking carried out in free time, or time free of disagreeable obligation’ (Stebbins 2007, p. 5).

Stebbins delineates five main attributes that differentiate between serious leisure and the other forms. The first attribute is necessity and the need to pursue the hobby persistently, to solve problems and to cope with difficulties and distresses, some of which are external to the hobby and some of which are inherent to the activity itself. The second attribute is revealed through the aspiration on the part of many participants to cultivate a career of sorts, but one that remains always within the bounds of the world of hobbies and leisure, with no pretense of crossing over into the professional field. The third attribute is the ongoing personal effort of each participant to acquire knowledge and expertise in their field of activity, with the players’ rhetoric usually emphasizing that the relevant knowledge has been attained outside of any formal system: it is knowledge that is the evident product of independent learning, often carried out in less than favorable conditions.

The fourth attribute is located in the communal sphere. ‘Serious leisure’ agents meet in communities or social networks that have what Stebbins calls a ‘unique ethos’ that defines them. These social networks are made up largely of the amateurs themselves, but also of outsiders, including professionals who come to observe the leisure-products. The latter comprise an audience whose presence is vital to these social network insofar as it infuses the activity of ‘serious leisure’ with normative characteristics of value. This attribute is closely associated with the fifth attribute, which defines serious leisure as an activity characterized by a high level of identification between the participant’s self and the hobby activity as a source of self-esteem. Systematic participants in serious leisure hope to cultivate self-esteem far more than they seek pleasure. In their hobby they find the kind of sense of pride that Cicero might well have had in mind when he coined the expression ‘Otium cum dignitate’ (leisure with dignity).12

These clear attributes of serious leisure activity allow us to use this concept as a litmus paper of sorts for distinguishes between the different hues that comprise the spectrum of unpaid work. It will be thus possible to identify different forms of leisure activities and to evaluate the extent of acknowledgment that the subject can receive for them, or conversely, to identify what Honneth calls ‘pathologies in recognition’, that is, the disrespect or false recognition that these activities might evoke.

The qualitative difference between serious leisure agents and those engaged in unpaid work can be illustrated through two examples, which, though they are not based on an empirical sociological study, are well known both at the phenomenological level and in daily popular web discourse. I am referring to the varied group of journalism bloggers on the one hand, and the science enthusiasts who are active on the web on the other. Turning to the first group, we may observe that the writers of journalism blogs who are active in the field of independent web media are strictly-speaking considered ‘amateurs’ insofar as they act under the ethos of ‘non-work obligation’, and that most of them fulfill all five of the basic criteria of ‘serious leisure’; and yet it would be incorrect to classify them as serious leisure agents, since they are ‘propelled’ beyond the realm of those defined as ‘Homo Otiusus’ (Stebbins 2013, p. 19).13 Based on their own testimonies, they do not make do with their marginal status as amateurs and do not renounce the professional pretense, but rather wish to act within the journalistic field and to apply action strategies that are characteristic of newcomers to the field, as Pierre Bourdieu has already shown (Bourdieu 1993). For example, they present their web praxis as a return to the origins of journalism and themselves as a subversive alternative to the backsliding journalistic vocation. (Symptomatic of this ‘subversive’ spirit is, to take one example of many, the title of a popular 2007 non-fiction book by the blogger and law professor Glenn Reynolds (2007): An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths. 14)

It turns out, then, that in order to receive recognition and avoid the kind of disrespect often shown ‘amateurs’, these agents choose to act within the ideal world of neo-capitalism while subordinating themselves to the ideal of self-realization and to the ideology of web industry. Paradoxically, they strive to be non-conformist by way of conformism. They adopt a self-perception precisely to the expectations of the web culture industry: instead of the traditional journalist employed by the established media, they present the new-journalist as an ideal type that befits the web production system. In other words, instead of an ‘employee’, we have an independent entrepreneur acting outside the old system of work relations; instead of a ‘worker’ – a self-managing, autonomous homo economicus.15

The recognition accorded this independent writer, however, is not social in the fullest sense of the word; it is not, in this case, merely instrumental but ideological recognition insofar as it serves the creation and maintenance of an individual self-perception that sits well with the prevailing system of work distribution. And so, subjects gradually lose their ability to forge long-term relations with colleagues in the same line of work, who are an authentic source of acknowledgment.16 Reciprocal relations, interactions, and even the very granting of ‘recognition’ thus become a type of commodity. Consequently, argues Honneth, drawing here on the French psychologist Alain Ehrenberg,

[…] the permanent compulsion to draw the material for an authentic self-realization from their own inner lives requires of individuals an ongoing form of introspection which must sooner or later leave them feeling empty […]. (Honneth 2004, p. 475)

Similarly, Boltanski and Chiapello pessimistically point out (in The New Spirit of Capitalism) that this new individualism, designed to satisfy the needs of a work world that favors short-term projects, turns into a system of uncompromising demands placed on the individual to the point of becoming a burden. Honneth claims that in this case we are dealing with

[…] forms of recognition that must be regarded as being false or unjustified because they do not have the function of promoting personal autonomy, but rather of engendering attitudes that conform to practices of domination. (Honneth 2007a, p. 325)

The commodification embraced willingly by the bloggers described above suggests that theirs is not an instance of the autonomy of unpaid work, but rather of heteronomy. That is to say, that the inclusive totality of the web economy causes unpaid work to abide by a set of values that is alien to its essence as free action guided by use value and which subordinates it instead to the rules of exchange value.

The same is not true of the second group of agents, however. Whereas the activity of journalism bloggers highlights the ideologically ‘alternative’ dimension of their practice and the blurring of the line between producer and consumer, neither attribute is manifested in the domain of scientific knowledge collected, produced and distributed by amateurs. The term ‘science enthusiasts’, to be clear, refers not to fans or fanciers, but to amateurs in the full sense of the word: individuals who in their very essence neither can nor want to act as a professional or even as a pseudo-professional. In other words, an amateur scientist is someone for whom doing science is an active and productive hobby, or, as we shall subsequently see, a methodical practice of serious leisure.17 Yet the clearest attribute in the case of science enthusiasts is the presence of a genuine tension, an inherent gap, between the professional and the amateur, so that a complete blurring of the lines between producer and consumer is impossible. In this sense, science enthusiasts who act within scientific-social media are an excellent test case for understanding the autonomous dimension of serious leisure, since as marginal players in the scientific field they do not wish to be ‘scientists’, do not partake in field struggles, and do not presume to offer an alternative to the scientific field’s core activity.

Before we focus on the science enthusiast as a serious leisure agent, it is worth pausing briefly to note that the questions surrounding the practice and status of science enthusiasts form part of a broader discourse that has emerged over the last three decades about ‘citizen science’. This debate evolved as a response to the challenge mounted by the various social networking services and the Internet as a whole to the policy of total segregation between formal scientific activity and publication, on the one hand, and the informal and interpersonal network of scientific communication on the other (Lievrouw 2010, p. 220). (See also Wagner 2009; and Wiggins and Crowston 2011). In the spirit of the unbridled optimism of networking ideology, it has been claimed that an essential transformation is underway in the very way in which scientific knowledge is formed, arranged and distributed. No longer the exclusive purview of established ‘big science’, knowledge arisen within an informal global scientific network. And thus, thanks to the network’s unique qualities, a ‘new invisible college’ has been established that allows for an unprecedented level of accessibility and sharing. The scientific world is therefore expected to shift gradually from a relatively hermetic system of gatekeepers to an open and decentralized system based upon collaborations, reactions, critiques, and modifications. The discursive interactivity that characterizes scientific communication on the internet has been perceived by many as a clear sign of the democratization of science and the revival of ‘small-science’ (Lievrouw 2010, p. 220, see also de Solla Price 1963).

To those who hold this view, the changes described above are an exciting historic process wherein ‘collective intelligence’, ‘mass wisdom’, and even ‘mass amateurism’ herald the arrival of ‘citizen science’. Indeed, initiatives in a variety of research fields, including astronomy, the climate sciences and ecology, genome research and botany, have applied sharing practices in order to carry out tasks that usually require many human resources. Evidence of the excitement surrounding this trend is contained, for example, in a 2002 article by the famous senior physicist Freeman Dyson in which he claimed that in the Baconian stage of science, when the world is discovered through observation and gathering, ‘amateurs and butterfly collectors are in the ascendant’. The work of amateurs is vital, he argues, and without it, Cartesian science, which is driven by ideas and creates theoretical hypotheses and mathematical models, will not flourish. To Dyson’s mind, the most important tools for this endeavor today are the personal computer and the net, which provide not only the scientist but also the amateur (or as Dyson justly prefers to call him or her, the ‘serious amateur’) access to scientific texts and to arguments even before their publication within the closed field of scientific journals, permitting ‘amateurs from all over the world to communicate and work together’ (Freeman 2002, pp. 4–8).18

Dyson recognizes, for example, the special contribution that these ‘serious amateurs’ through network initiatives to the methodical monitoring of dust storms on Mars, the calculation of asteroid occultation times, and the discovery of new comets. Amateurs have contributed to the public their talents of observation and their perceptiveness, but to Dyson, they also provide the public and science with something else, no less important, namely the very ability to collaborate amongst themselves, which constitutes a social and ethical value in itself. Indeed, Dyson notes that within each of these initiatives and on their sidelines flourish multiple communities and networks whose participants meet, exchange opinions, assist one another, and evaluate findings and observations together.

Its optimism and even utopianism notwithstanding, Dyson’s rhetoric highlights something essential: the unique importance of the ‘serious amateur’ within the digital culture industry, and the promise it holds for a less functionalistic perception of the concept of work. The serious amateur’s renunciation of the desire to be a real scientist or to guarantee that his work be acknowledged as real science echoes the somewhat utopian renunciation of a profession as a role for life alluded to by Marx Engels in The German Ideology:

[…] and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.) Marx and Engels 1964, pp. 44–45)

The serious amateur thus teaches us that in every site of cultural production whose basic conditions allow for the practice of serious leisure, a player can seek recognition and receive it; not necessarily from professional circles, but from other players who act alongside him in the same environment and take his activity to be of social value. For within such a system it becomes possible to cultivate the ‘unique ethos’, or joint interest, that maintains a community of serious leisure players as a framework whose members can each gain a sense of self-esteem for their achievements, efforts, and contributions to the joint interest independently of professional value judgments (these judgments, as is well known, never being fully free of practices of control and expressions of disparagement). Thus it is not a psycho-social explanation relying on some vague notion of ‘belonging to something bigger than oneself’ that accounts for the motivation of the serious amateur, nor the abstract and widespread concept of ‘sharing’, so much as the need for spontaneous peer-recognition as expressed through direct communicative acts amongst players. It is a recognition granted in response to expressions of vitality, or in Honneth’s words, recognition that ‘[…] represents a moral act anchored in the social world as an everyday occurrence’ (Honneth 2007a, p. 239).

7 Conclusion

This form of recognition accorded the serious leisure player or the serious amateur, then, provides us with a key for resolving the difficulty embedded in the criticism sounded by political economics, which unwittingly identifies free work and all leisure activity with the audience work that is indeed imposed by neo-capitalistic ‘ideological violence’. The humanistic vision of serious leisure activity, as implied by Adorno’s personal confession, stands to contribute to the foundation of a critical theory that goes some way toward correcting this overly functionalistic view, which voids the concept of un-alienated free work of its emancipatory potential. Moreover, such a theory will help provide a way out of the determinism of recursive dialectical approaches that make sweeping claims about the link between de-alienation and a greater exploitation of human work, whether free or unfree. Assumptions of this kind are usually related inversely to a theory’s ability to understand the possible advancement of a culture of mutual recognition in a world that no longer associates work exclusively with the principle of gainful employment.


  1. 1.

    With respect to Jenkins“ work, it is appropriate to mention John Fiske’s (1992, pp. 30–49) influence on the establishment of a new field of research, namely, fan studies, which centers around the concept of the “productive viewer”, suggesting the viewer’s position not merely as an active agent but as an actual consumer opposition.

  2. 2.

    It is hard not to sympathize with Jenkins’ good-hearted humane optimism, which wishes to bestow upon the spectator an active and productive role. This kind of optimism reminds us of Bertolt Brecht, who wrote, as Moshe Zuckermann (2001, p. 39) noted: “The radio should be converted from a distributive device to a communicatory device. Radio could be the most spectacular communicatory device of public life… an unbelievable channeling device; that is, to cause the listener not only to listen, but also to talk….” [my translation]. Regarding this statement, Zuckermann comments that Brecht “could still allow himself at that time to hold the opinion that the very communicatory act – an act based on the mutuality between the radio and its listeners – holds the promise of a free public sphere… Yet it seems that even he did not successfully take into account the integrative logic that underlies the communicatory merchandise market, the trends of fetishization of mutuality and the reification of the communicative act, namely, the media’s ability to turn the “discourse” itself into merchandise, the “talk” into a “show”….” [my translation].

  3. 3.

    It is impossible not to recall here the early work of Michel de Certeau (1984), whose spirit undoubtedly hovers over the debate about cultural audience-work as a kind of alternative action “from below”. According to de Certeau, what used to be a matter that concerns a marginal minority is now becoming a tool for the silent majority, or in his words: “Marginality is today no longer limited to minority groups, but is rather massive and pervasive; this cultural activity of the non-producers of culture, an activity that is unsigned, unreadable, and unsymbolized, remains the only one possible for all those who nevertheless buy and pay for showy products through which a productivist economy articulates itself. Marginality is becoming universal. A marginal group has now become a silent majority” (p. XVII).

  4. 4.

    It is only fair to note here that Fuchs (2012) uses this term in a different sense, namely to designate the manner in which capitalism binds work to play, while subordinating the principle of erotic vitality (Eros) to the Thanatic death dimension (Thanatos): “[…] dialectic of Eros (the drive for life, sexuality, lust) and Thanatos (the drive for death, destruction, aggression)” (pp. 728–729).

  5. 5.

    Regarding the authors use of the monad concept, it is interesting to note that Max Horkheimer had already addressed the metaphor of the social monad in 1937, yet for him monads are not “singular” units that stand on their own, but entities bound together by the power of the “healthy human mind”. See Horkheimer (1972), p. 202.

  6. 6.

    Although the word “dilettante” appears in the German source, it is not by chance that at least one translation opted to render “dilettantism” as “amateurish”, apparently reflecting the difficulty inherent in the concept.

  7. 7.

    In presenting the nineteenth-century American perception of hobbies as that of a “dangerous obsession”, Gelber draws on a linguistic analysis focused on the negative connotation associated typically with the word “hobby”, at least until the 1880s. And indeed, the nineteenth-century discourse about hobbies was almost entirely negative. Hobbies were defined and presented as a sort of compensation and escape, and as habits that imply addiction and an irresponsible submission at the expense of work, rather than as a positive social instrument. Etymologically, at least, this is unsurprising insofar as the word “hobby” has always had negative connotations. The word’s origin is probably in equine culture; in old English, “hobby” is a small horse, but also a type of toy horse or wooden pony. This is probably why “hobby” was defined as a preferred action/activity or subject, an interest pursued solely for the sake of amusement and enjoyment. This meaning received an immediate negative connotation as the hobby activity was compared to riding a wooden horse – that is to say, riding nowhere.

  8. 8.

    The premises and conclusions of this historiography have mostly been refuted over the years. Among the first to point out the problematic nature of the scholarship’s pessimistic perception of popular leisure was British historian Gareth Steadman Jones (1975), who attributed this perception to the scholarship’s use of limited sources: it relied largely on historical documents by leisure entrepreneurs and reformists from the high bourgeoisie, and disregarded the social praxis as it appears in various reports by members of the working class, “…as if the only records of the bourgeoisie came from the bankruptcy courts, the only evidence of marriage from divorce petitions” (pp. 162–170).

  9. 9.

    It is noteworthy that in a publication from the 1950s Adorno himself discerned the considerable degree of agency and cultural choice possessed by the subject. „Although personality is a product of the social environment of the past, it is not, once it has developed, a mere object of the contemporary environment. What has developed is a structure within the individual which is capable of self-initiated action upon the social environment and of selection with respect to varied impinging stimuli […]“. Adorno T.W., Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson and R. Nevitt Sanford, The Authoritarian Personality: Studies in Prejudice, vol. 1 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950), Studies in Prejudice, Social studies series, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.

  10. 10.

    Hesmondhalgh notes in this context that according to Terranova, „The internet itself can be seen as a sign of that vitality. “Free labour”, then, has something of a double meaning. It refers to unpaid work, but, in line with Terranova’s explicitly autonomist sympathies, it also refers to the way in which labour cannot be fully controlled […]“ (Hesmondhalgh 2010, p. 273).

  11. 11.

    The term „auto-poietically“ used here by Honneth is probably related to „autopoiesis“, which refers to a system capable of reproducing and maintaining itself. The term was introduced in 1972 by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela to define the self-maintaining chemistry of living cells.

  12. 12.

    The literature that addresses the complexity of this expression, its sources, and its place in the political tradition of the republic is rich and long-standing. Cf., Wirszubski and Cicero 1954, pp. 1–13.

  13. 13.

    “Homo Atiosus versus Leisure Man: These two are synonymous, with “man” being the standard translation into English for homo. Nonetheless, in English, “leisure man” carries some gender relations baggage that we avoid when using Homo Atiosus” (Stebbins 2013, p. 20).

  14. 14.

    A law professor at the University of Tennessee, Reynolds is also known as the blogger Instapundit. An Army of Davids celebrates the network society as a site that empowers individuals vis-à-vis social institutions.

  15. 15.

    The economic aspect of the blogosphere is attested by the abundance of articles and popular guidebooks that instruct the beginner blogger on how to generate income from blogs (and social media in general). One example among many is Duane Forrester and Gavin Powell (2007).

  16. 16.

    Honneth is, of course, well aware that the distinction between ideological recognition and justifiable forms of recognition is a complex matter. Therefore, he writes: „As long as we have no empirical evidence that the concerned parties themselves experience particular practices of recognition as being repressive, constricting or as fostering stereotypes, it is extremely difficult to distinguish between ideological and justified forms of recognition in any reasonable way“ (Honneth 2007a, p. 327).

  17. 17.

    The activity of science enthusiasts can be included in the category that Stebbins calls „liberal arts hobby“: „the systematic and fervent pursuit during free time of knowledge for its own sake“ (Stebbins 2001, p. 29).

  18. 18.

    Dyson, praising the book Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril (New York: Simon and Schuster 2002), by Timothy Ferris, writes of „[…] a serious amateur astronomer (who) spends a substantial amount of his time and money roaming around at night among planets and stars and galaxies. He owns a place called Rocky Hill Observatory in California where he can stargaze to his heart’s content through telescopes of modest size and excellent quality. He belongs to the international community of observers who are linked by the Internet as well as by the shared sky in which they are at home“ (Freeman 2002, New York Review of Books, Vol. 49, No.19).


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© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Tel Aviv UniversityTel AvivIsrael

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