Toy Shop

Theodore Adorno

(this piece is an excerpt from Adorno's Minima Moralia: Recollections from Damaged Life.  It also appears in John Zerzan's anthology, Against Civilization.)

"Hebbel, in a surprising entry in his diary, asks what takes away ‘life’s magic in later years.’ It is because in all the brightly-colored contorted marionettes, we see the revolving cylinder that sets them in motion, and because for this very reason the captivating variety of life is reduced to wooden monotony. A child seeing the tightrope-walkers singing, the pipes playing, the girls fetching water, the coachmen driving, thinks all this is happening for the joy of doing so; he can’t imagine that these people also have to eat and drink, go to bed and get up again. We, however, know what is at stake. Namely, earning a living, which commandeers all these activities as mere means, reduces them to interchangeable, abstract labor-time. The quality of things ceases to be their essence and becomes the accidental appearance of their value. The ‘equivalent form’ mars all perceptions; what is no longer irradiated by the light of its own self-determination as ‘joy in doing,’ pales to the eye."  Our organs grasp nothing sensuous in isolation, but notice whether a color, a sound, a movement is there for its own sake or something else; wearied by a false variety, they steep all in gray, disappointed by the deceptive claim of qualities still to be there at all, while they conform to the purposes of appropriation, indeed largely owe their existence to it alone.  Disenchantment with the contemplated world is the sensorium's reaction to its objective role as a "commodity world."   Only when purified of appropriation would things be colorful and useful at once:   under universal compulsion the two cannot be reconciled.  Children are not so much, as Hebbel thought, subject to illusions of "captivating variety," as still aware, in their spontaneous perception, of the contradiction between phenomenon and fungibility that the resigned adult no longer sees, and they shun it.  Play is their defense.  The unerring child is struck by the "peculiarity of the equivalent form":  "use value becomes the form of manifestation, the phenomenal form of its opposite, value."

In his purposeless activity the child, by a subterfuge, sides with use-value against exchange value.  Just because he deprives the things with which he plays of their mediated usefulness, he seeks to rescue in them what is benign towards men and not what subserves the exchange relation that equally deforms men and things.   The little truck travels nowhere and the tiny barrels on them are empty; yet they remain true to their destiny by not performing, not participating in the process of abstraction that levels down that destiny, but instead abide as allegories of what they are specifically for.  Scattered, it is true, but not ensnared, they wait to see whether society will finally remove the social stigma on them; whether the vital processes between men and things, praxis, will cease to be practical.  The unreality of games gives notice that reality is not yet real.  Unconsciously they rehearse the right life.  The relation of children to animals depends entirely on the fact that Utopia goes disguised in the creatures that Marx even begrudged the surplus value they contribute as workers.  In existing without any purpose recognizable to men, animals hold out, as if for expression, their own names, utterly impossible to exchange.  This makes them so beloved of children, their contemplation so blissful.  I am a rhinoceros, signifies the shape of the rhinoceros.  Fairy-tales and operettas know such images, and the ridiculous question...how do we know Orion is really called Orion, rises to the stars.