Issue #18, 2004
+ (leisure)

Freedom and Time. Essay on TV and Leisure in Romania
Alec H. Bălășescu


The time is out of joint. – O cursed spite,

That ever I was born to set it right!

Shakespeare, Hamlet, act I scene V, p. 33



“Free time” is as complicated an expression as simple as it may seem in its daily uses. It contains two major concepts, fundaments of human life as we know it: “freedom” and “time”. I will dwell only on the second, leaving the first to political philosophers, or to whomever there may be interest...

Time itself is a complicated issue, as it may be linked to a variety of modes of life organization: without pretending to be exhaustive, time may be biological, social, historical, or transcendental. Although these distinctions are more instrumental than “natural”, I will discuss only the concept of social time, and point out to the intertwined meanings of time.

Perhaps the best starting point is to consider some common expressions in which time appears, and to point to the context in which the social actor uses them. “I am running out of time” seems the most spectacular to my sensibility, because it encapsulates a syndrome of “modern times”: time as scarce com­modity. Of course, the most obvious expression of time as commodity is the one in which time is present as a material possession “I have (no) time”.

But let us go back to this matter of “running”. When running out of time, time seems to be in short supply, with an envisageable end, a finitude that may be overcome through running. Running is what happens when “time is short”, almost without (or even against) one’s will. Running IS the natural condition of time shortage. At the same time, running may be the only possibility of “gaining back the time” with the condition of doing it somehow “out” of the time framework. Rapidly covering space means saving time (the reference to Einstein may already be evident).

But, how could one ever “run out of time”? How did time become “short”? Where does its finitude come from? And how does freedom play into this dynamic?

Rational time/Moral time

In order to be thought of in this manner, time needed to become a rationalized entity, broke from the “natural” succession of cyclical seasons, and broken into equal and interchangeable units like hours, minutes, seconds... A series of social transformations at the end of the Middle Ages brought up the linear and scarce time. New social practices and new modalities of reckoning them induced these transformations. The invention of horologe, the possibility of selling one’s work on an incipient job market (potentate by the apparition of paper money and bank accounts), the segmentation of time and tasks on the “rational” model of assigning to each task its proper time were all simultaneous appari­tions in the pre-Renaissance and Renaissance European society.

Traditionally the time of the day was marked by the prayer time; the week was and continues to be the referent to the Biblical Genesis. In the Medieval ages social time had a religious referent. The sound of the church bell marked impor­­­tant life events, holidays, death, or marriages. It is important to observe that first horologes had been constructed in churches towers and market places (sometimes occupying the same location). Not all churches had a horologe, but all Reformist churches adopted one (be it only for reasons of fashion, the Reformist schism happened after the invention of horologe). Richard H. Tawney (1952) is an important (although less known than Max Weber) theorist of the rise of capitalism, and he emphasizes in his account the intimate link between capitalist and religious time. The finitude of time is not a characteristic of the Reformist church, but the moral doctrine of predestination with an empha­sis on the impor­tance of Judgment Day is. The requirement of using one’s time for the “good works” has a moral undertone, laziness being seen as devil’s tool.

With the development of industrial society, time had become the only available commodity a person had in order to gain one’s own existence, and church bells gradually have been replaced by manufacturer’s sirens. The emerging bour­geois class made out of time management its privilege and its mark of distinction. Punctuality is a virtue that needed to be cultivated in people’s mind, be it only for the materialist reason of an increase of productivity. Time and its uses became a mark of class distinction, as it was before a mark of religious separation. The person who properly manages one’s time is both secured a place in the Golden Book of the End of Times, as well as a potential place of power in the worldly society. The ticking wall clocks became the sine qua non of the bourgeois urban dwellings. And as bourgeois education was accomplished in schools, school was, and continues to be, an apparatus that inculcates, among other things, the idea that time is a valuable commodity. Besides the breaking of school tasks in “hours”, the linear organization of school activities induces the idea of “natural progress” (Foucault 1979, Lofgren n.d.).

Rational division of time and morality are intertwined, and they have religious undertones. Daily practices of industrial production and the generalization of education spread into population the idea of time as commodity, but also the division between “working” and/or “school” time and “leisure” time. In this context it is obvious to see how Thorstein Veblen theory of the leisure class func­tioned in the moment of its inception (early 20th Century). The class that acquired the monopoly of the management of time, the bour­geoisie, replacing the reli­gious class, acquired also the possibility of delineating time. Thus, while the time of the church became “transcendental” and irrelevant in public affairs (the ulti­mate expression of this separation is the doctrine of secularism and the separation of church and the state), the worldly time broke into working and leisure time. The possession of the latter marked a socially elevated position that allowed the dispensation of time at one’s pleasure. Poverty is marked by the necessity of working “overtime”, or most of one’s lifetime. Things do not stop here, though.

The gradual technological modifications made that it that working class people acquired more and more disposable time; they entered in the possession of such a scarce commodity, and the matter of distinction reemerged more forcefully. It is only in the 1930s that workers acquired one holiday per week. The debate was fierce, and here is an extract from a 1936 English edition of a Swedish journal debating time:

“Leisure time should certainly be free time without any burdensome obliga­tions and wearisome restrictions on the individual, yet on the other hand it should not be a dead time frittered away on idle amusement which breeds bore­dom and dissatisfaction. If the people are unable to fill up their leisure hours in such a way that they derive health and pleasure from it, then it is for the community to help them by advice and action, give them the possibility of spending their leisure time in a richer and more profitable manner.” (in Lofgren, p. 40)

The dangers of confusing the working and leisure classes have been easily resolved through a return to moral values that opposed idleness and profit. Free time borders death if it is not “properly” used, and a “proper” use brings about “profit”. This introduces a “tyranny of time” (in Lofgren’s words) that professionalizes every aspect of life, including “free time”.

In parallel one can easily guess the origins of the leisure industry in the strug­gle of distinction between rich and poor, “haves” and “haves not”, timely and timeless. The different modes of “spending the leisure” became in the last fifty years a clear distinction based on the power of “spending for leisure”.

Class, leisure, and civic participation in Romania

Socio-economic position largely determines the ways in which one passes one’s leisure time. Taste plays greatly in this, and it is always limited beforehand by one’s buying power. What quality of leisure can one buy for the money one has? Skiing for two hours and watching a movie are not equal ways of spending one’s time, and they are not equally valued in our society. Acquiring taste for skiing as opposed to taste for watching TV is part of the mechanisms of distinction operating at all social levels. 

Television is the cheapest leisure. If one wonders why television is so successful a business in Romania, it is enough to correlate the per-capita revenue with the hours of TV watching. I venture to say that there may exist a strong correlation between the two. But the important question is not “why” watching TV is the predominant leisure in Romania, but how this happened? And more important, what are the effects of this habit in long run?

I will sketch out two directions of possible future reflections on the matter.

Watching TV is a habit of using space and time that is acquired and may be reproduced through education. Immediately after 1990s, TV broadcasting was a new commodity accessible to the public at large in Romania; over a short period of time spatial rearrangements of house interiors developed around new consumption patterns and adapted the new uses of the TV set. The all too present big lunch and dinner table in the middle of the living room, sign of a cer­tain patriarchal order (Mihăilescu et al. 1995), disappeared miraculously, and was replaced by the small coffee table. While many times explained as a fashionable option, it may be important to underline that the big table impeded the comfortable watching of the TV broadcasting. At the same time, the explosion of cable TV and satellite programs encouraged an individual use of the TV set, a renegotiation of space and time among the members of families in order to adapt a diversification of possibilities of choices. Second and sometimes third TV set appeared in many urban Romanian households. At this stage (early 1990s), the TV set became the catalizer of the rearrangement of family relations, and mediator of new definitions and understanding of “individual choice” (Bălășescu 1996). Once put in place, although the TV as described lost its novel character, these habits are less likely to be modified, in spite of the new possibility of leisure that appeared in Romania’s public spaces. The (economic) difficulty of access to these new leisure industries only add to the reasons of perpetuation of, some say, excessive TV watching in Romania.

The complexity of the social transformations in the last ten years in Romania is hard to be grasped in few lines. Not only time, but also space and its percep­tion play an important role in the formation of new habits of leisure. Streets and parks, traditional public spaces, leisurely used for spending one’s free time, became epitomes of danger. Places of consumption like malls and/or bars, restaurants, and clubs appeared and proposed a distinctive way of spending one’s time. They form the new industry of leisure in Romania. In parallel, streets, because not “productive” (see above), are represented only as spaces of transition, and not of leisure. Access to the new spaces of consumption is part of the formation and display of a new elevated social status. Leisure on the street is at its dusk, and with it the positively conotated flâneur disappeared, replaced by the “dangerous” stroller. Caught between the possibility of watching TV, or that of being confused with a delinquent, a person who cannot afford to partake in the consumption of leisure industry most probably prefers to stay home and watch TV.

Much has been written on the new forms of civic participation and civic feel­ings, and its intimate link with the traditional urban public spaces of democratic access. Streets are these kinds of spaces, while leisure industry’s spaces are not. This is the second, maybe more important direction for reflection, pertaining to the political participation and the ways in which TV set (through setting rather than through the content of the broadcasting) influences the ideas of civic participation. The visual reproduction of images and the fascination of “mechanical reproduction” may be intimately linked with totalitarianism as form of social organization (Benjamin 1969). In the 1930s Benjamin discussed the modes in which one have access and partake in the consumption of cine­matography as opposed to theatre or other participative forms of art. He made the argument that cinematography encourages a form of passive engagement, of dull acceptation of the screen presentation that is somehow in the vicinity of acceptation of any other totalitarian form of governing. He wrote this in the historical con­text of the raise of fascism in Germany, in the 1930s, and observing the extensive use of propaganda inspired by and with the means of the Hollywoodian form of expression.

TV broadcasting has the same quality of proposing and imposing rather than encouraging direct participation (the participation in a diversity of inter-active competitions is also mediated). It is important to keep in mind that any re­arrange­ment of social relations is both empowering and disabling for the actors involved, and the consequences are not as easy to predict.

The entire complex of factors revolving around TV consumption in Romania (I have numbered schematically only few of them) may be interesting to consider from the perspective of the civic participation it encourages (or not). The setting of the TV (in one’s private quarters) encourages mediate participation in debates, for example, but discourages physical presence in the public spaces of the city. Losing their power of catalizing human interaction among a large variety of social actors, those spaces are redefined as potentially dangerous.

Meanwhile, the industry of leisure and the construction of semiprivate or pri­vate spaces that accompanies its development encourage a restrictive form of participation defined through consumerism. While TV is a predominant form of leisure for the disenfranchised, desirable spaces of the city are occupied by those who can afford to “spend their free time professionally” through consumption and not through idle presence in the streets. The direct civic participation in the life of the city and in the processes of decision making is discouraged by the new socially accepted forms of spending one’s “free” time.

To give a poignant example that would refresh our memory, one has to think about the events in Romania in 1989–1991. While the significant locus during the social movements in Romania in 1989 was the street, immediately after the new government took power, we witnessed the reframing of those who still claimed political voice through the occupation of public spaces as “hooligans”, along with the official stigmatization of the urban spaces they occupied, going as far as renaming some of those spaces (e.g. Piața Universității from Bucharest).

In the continuous reconfiguration of space and time one may imagine new forms of democratic participation emerging, but one may not forget Benjamin’s alarm facing the easiness with which mechanical reproduction of images induces facility in acceptation of forms of governance that wear the shiny coat of democracy.


26 April 2004

Irvine, CA



Reference List:

Bălășescu, Alexandru. 1996. Privindu-i pe telespectatori. Revista de cercetări sociale, no. 4: 130–139.

Benjamin, Walter. 1969. Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books.

Foucault, Michel. 1979. Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Vintage Books.

Lofgren, Orvar. n.d. Rational and Sensitive. Changing attitudes to Time, Nature, and the Home.

Mihăilescu V., V. Nicolau, M. Gheorghiu. 1995. Le bloc 311. Résidence et sociabilité dans un immeuble d’appartements sociaux à Bucarest. In Romania, constructions d’une nation. Ethnologie Française, XXV, 1995, 3.

Shakespeare, William. 2002. Hamlet. Edinburgh: Longman Group Limited Editions.

Tawney, Richard Henry. 1952. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.

Veblen, Thorstein. 1927. The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. New York: Vanguard Press