We regret that one of our speakers, Katrina Mayson (on Elizabeth Bishop), is no longer able to attend tomorrow’s session.

accessories-text-editorNonetheless, we look forward to welcoming the last speaker of the term, the artist and academic Dr Bill Prosser (Oxford) on ‘Drawing—it’s a drag‘. See you, as usual, at 5.30pm in the Old Library, All Souls College for a glass of wine and some stimulating conversation.

7 Reasons Why Lists Are Slippery, Treacherous Creatures And Not Necessarily Your Friends After All

We are living in the Age of the List. Its empire extends from the crags of the Encyclopædia Britannica to the sweaty coast of BuzzFeed. There is a list for every second of the day, from Disney’s original 47 dwarves to the spiritually troubling effects of the baby aardvark. ‘Lists,’ as Don DeLillo declaimed twenty years ago, ‘are a form of cultural hysteria.’ They have colonized our food, our news, our emotions. They even got Wallace Stevens.*

reading-a-listicleAs every procrastinator knows, Stage 1 in the self-help world is the To-Do List. Even the first usage of ‘list’ in this sense—’a catalogue or roll consisting of a row or series of names, figures, words, or the like’—the OED attributes to none other than Hamlet’s more decisive echo (Horatio: ‘Young Fortinbrasse..Hath..Sharkt vp a list of lawelesse resolutes’).  The list is the communion wafer of the productivity cult that is Getting Things Done and has spawned a thousand apps.

  1. Break it down.
  2. Make a list.
  3. Just do it.

Simple.

But what if the list is not the silver bullet we were promised? Many über-procrastinators are diligent list-makers. My room is piled higher and deeper with shopping lists and future bibliographies, playlists and New Year’s Resolutions, holiday wish lists and 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

Why do my lists (crafty inky things) betray me? Here are 11 ways 7 ways that lists can go dreadfully wrong—and why we carry on writing them anyway.

Last-minute alternatives to Gone With the Wind's most famous line, after US censors decided 'damn' was too wild. From Lists of Note (ed. Shaun Usher, 2014).

Last-minute alternatives to Gone With the Wind‘s most famous line, after US censors decided ‘damn’ was too wild. From Lists of Note (ed. Shaun Usher, 2014).

1. Lists create a false sense of achievement. They are beautifully time-consuming in their own right. One journalist writes that list-making is ‘is the most effective temporary form of anxiety relief that I know of’—’aside from heavy drinking’, of course. Describing the ‘bliss, euphoria and an all-consuming calm’ that writing a list brings, another confesses, ‘It doesn’t matter that I will never look at it again.’ (The profession may attract some troubled individuals.)

Worse, you can cheat in your pursuit of the list buzz. Who hasn’t added something they’ve already done? The first item on any true procrastinator’s list is: ’1. Make List.’ Or look at this famous example by Johnny Cash:

johnny cash list

‘Cough. Pee. Eat.’ Might we be setting the bar a tad low?

2. This weird pleasure is down to the self-reinforcing joy of completeness. This is the ‘reassuring allure’ of the listicle: we can commit to their tiny size, and yet feel smug about conquering them. This low-effort completism is the curse of the perfectionist procrastinator, for the illusion of self-improvement that it fosters. You really ought to be able to name all 54 countries in Africa. Might as well binge-watch all of Orange Is the New Black now, so it doesn’t distract you tomorrow. And what if someone starts chatting about the Sixth Ecumenical Council at dinner? Click. Click. Click.

'Lists mean likes!' —XKCD

‘Lists mean likes!’ —XKCD

3. On the other side of the spectrum, lists are often aspirational rather than attainable. They are to work as the Ikea instruction manual is to the FjälkingeTheir relationship to reality is tenuous. The archetype is the bucket list, condemned by the New Yorker as ‘the YOLO-ization of cultural experience.’ A quick perusal of those astute folks on the internetz brings up the following mortality-cheating goals:

  • Learn how to knit
  • Paint smiles on all the eggs in fridge
  • Get stuff coated in gold
  • Discover element. Name after self.
  • Touch Christian Bale’s face

Just like my to-do lists: 40% banality, 60% wishful thinking.

4. Lists are the lazy man’s way of imposing order. They make a superficial kind of sense. Never mind that this order can be entirely arbitrary:

In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.
— Jorge Luis Borges, a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled “Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge”‘

This explains why so many academics love lists. They fit on PowerPoint slides, ensuring most social science presentations are a firing squad of bullet points.

THE LAKE. THE NIGHT. THE CRICKETS. THE RAVINE. THE ATTIC. THE BASEMENT. THE TRAPDOOR. THE BABY. THE CROWD. THE NIGHT TRAIN. THE FOG HORN. THE SCYTHE. THE CARNIVAL. THE CAROUSEL. THE DWARF. THE MIRROR MAZE. THE SKELETON.

That was Ray Bradbury building a story. But it could just as well have been that anthropology seminar you sat through last Tuesday.

5. It’s easy to assume that if you imitate the trappings of horrifying overachievement, you’ll become a horrifying overachiever yourself. And successful people love lists.

But what if overachievers don’t make the best advisors? Zadie Smith summarized:

When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.

Thanks, Zadie. Other authors you might consider imitating (from Mason Currey’s great Daily Rituals):

  1. Francis Bacon: dined on rich food, a half-dozen bottles of wine, and garlic pills
  2. Ayn Rand: worked for 30 hours straight, powered by Benzedrine
  3. Patricia Highsmith: kept pet snails, which she smuggled into cocktail parties in her handbag

6. Once that deadline’s whizzed by, lists help you work out who to blame. Blacklists, grudge books, hit lists—all jolly distractions from the tedium of actual work.

7. Lists can grow and shrink along with your sense of self. You can relabel your blog post ’7 Reasons’ because you kind of ran out before 11. Or they can take on a momentum all of their own: an academic we know is writing a book on reference works, from Samuel Johnson to Hobson Jobson, and has an entire chapter entitled ‘overlong and overdue’. Lists are potentially infinite. For Umberto Eco, this explained why we love them: ‘because we don’t want to die’.

Isn’t this exactly what procrastination is—the triumph of hope over experience?

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* Do not click on these links. THEY ARE TRAPS. 

The dandies of Congo

In honour of Tamara Spitzer-Hobeika‘s talk on ‘Baudelaire’s dandy: the anti-procrastinator’ (29 October), we look at the unexpected reincarnations of the dandy 6,000 kilometres away from the poet’s hometown. You can find Tamara’s great guest post on Baudelaire and procrastination here

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‘My father was an elegant man… the kind of person to put a breast pocket on his pajamas.’

La SAPE is the world’s most debonair quasi-fictional organization. Featured by everyone from the New York Times to Ireland’s most famous brewery, it purportedly stands for the Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes—the Society for Atmosphere-Setters and Elegant Persons.

In reality the organization is probably the invention of migrant youths in Paris and Brussels. In their besuited beings, the dandy is transported from Paris to the twin Congolese capitals, Brazzaville and Kinshasa, and back. If Baudelaire’s dandy is an anti-procrastinator, la sape is a response to externally enforced procrastination. Left in the waiting room of history—through imperial rule and dictatorship at ‘home’, unemployment and discrimination in the European metropolis—the sapeur uses flamboyant high fashion as a refuge and a demand for respect. He (and, like Baudelaire’s dandy, it is always he) embarks on ‘a sort of Baudelairian voyage‘ between continents and ‘from social dereliction to psychological redemption’.

sapeurs 2

Digital life imitates art: inevitably the Société now has a Facebook page. La sape has a much older history, though, dating back to the first decades of the twentieth century in colonial central Africa. Young Congolese men ‘formed clubs around their interest in fashion, gathering to drink aperitifs and dance to Cuban and European music played on the phonograph’. They invested in canes, silk shirts, fob watches, monocles, gloves—even, we are told, ‘elegant helmets’.

These were not aristocratic dandies in the mode of Beau Brummell, however, but houseboys, bookkeepers, and small traders. They saved up their meagre wages to order the latest Parisian fashions from catalogues or were paid with their bemused masters’ second-hand clothing. The more enterprising even exchanged couture for exotic goods—animal hides, elephant tails.

sapeur 1930s France

Sapeur and anticolonial activist Maurice Loubaki and companion in Paris, c. 1931 (from Didier Gondola, ‘La Sape Exposed!’, p. 163)

Through their debonair dress and strict emphasis on personal hygiene, the Congolese sapeurs defied notions of racial inferiority by assuming the trappings of modernity and cosmpolitanism. More than merely imitating French haute couture, they sought to master it—to become connoisseurs. Like the fashionable men of the coast, brought in to man the colonial apparatus, the dignified, dandified native could in this way earn the envious label of mundele ndombe, ‘white with black skins’.

Although borrowing the ‘fashion lexicon’ of colonialism, the sapologist Didier Gondola notes that this process is ‘nonetheless inherently subversive’. In the migrants’ hands, it was swiftly translated into an assimilationist strand of the anticolonial movement. Petitioning for recognition as French citizens, the sapeur-cum-activist demonstrated his credentials with well-chosen accessories: cologne, a close shave, and a white mistress.

The 1950s saw a flowering of night clubs, beer halls, and the Congolese rumba in the twin capitals. Musicians, often paid in boutique clothes, did much to advance the agenda. They incorporated designer labels (or griffes) into their lyrics, and danced as dapperly as they dressed. As the iconic Papa Wemba sang later: ‘Don’t give up the clothes—it’s our religion.’

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Mobutu Sese Seko (left) in abacost and demure hat. Resembling a Mao suit or Nehru jacket, the abacost gained popularity with other leaders, including Siyaad Barre.

La sape was politicized once more in the face of the social tensions of 1960s Zaire. In 1974 President Mobutu banned Western suits and ties as part of his ideological programme of Authenticité, an attempt to ‘Zairianize’ national identity and eradicate the vestiges of colonialism. The suit was replaced by the abacost, an abbreviation of à bas le costume, ‘Down with the suit!’

In this context, the designer-suited sapeurs took on a radical light, their dress and public gatherings a form of civil disobedience. Some even developed manifestos and codes—though these focused more on the Ten Best Ways of Walking to Flaunt Your Versace, rather than freedom of assembly.

sapeurs shoes

Imelda Marcos, eat your heart out. Sapeurs became known for taking man-powered rickshaws to protect their shoes, much to the irritation of the nominally Marxist-Leninist regime in Republic of Congo, which banned the practice. The J.M. Weston gold crocodile penny loafers on the left are worth $1,750. In 2013, annual per capita GDP (at purchasing power parity) in the Democratic Republic of Congo was $747.

Today’s sapeurs are at least the third generation, and proudly boast of their pedigree. With a cigar and a bottle of beer in hand, they exude a sense of relaxed opulence. Their styles have updated with the times, now including London designers, kilts and tam-o’-shanters in imitation of an unlikely style icon: Prince Charles.

But, for all their Kenzo ties and Yohji Yamamoto jackets, la sape remains the hallmark of an underclass. For the Congolese psychology professor François Ndebani, la sape is a ‘hotbed of delinquency’, fuelled by drugs. In the banlieues of Europe, too, Congolese migrants face discrimination and underemployment. In the face of this, the sapeur is a defiant figure, dodging train fares and dominating public space to claim back the ‘colonial debt’. Self-respect is the priority: as one sapeur says, ‘A Congolese sapeur is happy even if he does not eat.’

Just as the uncompromising sensibility of Baudelaire’s dandy became equated with vacuous foppism and Walter Benjamin’s arcades with the Americanized mall, the sapeurs have been coopted. Congo-Brazzaville president Denis Sasou Nguesso elevated la sape as a form of cultural heritage, sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism. He slips into designer suits for foreign trips, earning him the nickname of ‘the Pierre Cardin Marxist’.

Solange Knowles with 'sapeurs'

Solange Knowles with ‘sapeurs’

In the West, too, the picturesque sapeurs have been safely recast as the consumerist icons of a rising Africa. Solange Knowles, Beyoncé’s little sister and famed Jay-Z basher, drafted them in for a 2012 music video. In January 2014 Guinness built an advert around la sape, prompting a wave of media interest. (Both videos were actually shot in South Africa.) Quoting—what else?—the poem ‘Invictus’, the growly voiceover declares: ‘In life, you cannot always choose what you do, but you can always choose who you are.’

Youth unemployment is becoming a hallmark of the twenty-first century. With little money and even fewer prospects, accused of procrastination and fecklessness, young men must pass the time. By taking up the dandy’s mantle and making themselves living works of art, are the sapeurs flamboyant rebels—or mere fodder for the fashion industry?

Baudelaire and procrastination: the flâneur, the dandy, and the poet

The following is a guest blog by Tamara Spitzer-Hobeika, one of our speakers in this autumn’s Procrastination Seminar. Come and hear Tamara discuss ‘Baudelaire’s dandy: the anti-procrastinator’ on Wednesday 29 October at 5.30pm in the Old Library, All Souls College, Oxford.

baudelaire 1855

Baudelaire, by the famous photographer and balloonist Nadar (aka Gaspard-Félix Tournachon), 1855-8

Il n’y a de long ouvrage que celui qu’on n’ose pas commencer. Il devient cauchemar.

The only difficult work is that which we dare not begin. It becomes a nightmare.*

—Charles Baudelaire

These words by the accursed poet, the writer of beautiful spleen and terrifying idéal himself, are a perfect mantra for anyone experiencing the entrancing throes of procrastination.

The sentence that follows them in his Journaux Intimes (1887)—“By putting off what one has to do, one runs the danger of never being able to do it”—confirms that Baudelaire was no stranger to procrastination. Since he speaks of it as danger, risk, or haunting nightmare, it is not surprising that he also offers thoughts on how to counter its siren call.

A few lines further, in a section titled “Hygiene. Morality. Behaviour.”, Baudelaire makes this note-to-self: “An abridgement of wisdom. Grooming, prayer, work.” As editor Claude Pichois explains, the poet viewed the ritual of prayer as a process through which to gather his spirits, focus on his work, and enhance his determination.

Indeed, although Baudelaire penned the figure of the flâneur who whiles away the hours in observant but unproductive wanderings, his journals show that he actually aspired to a work ethic that defies procrastination (“Work tirelessly six days a week”)—and that there is another key figure of his oeuvre which is closely connected to this preoccupation with time and creation: the dandy.

Dandy

In his essay The Painter of Modern Life (1863), Baudelaire depicts the dandy as a man stoically devoted to “cultivat[ing] the idea of beauty” in himself, assiduously crafting his existence into a work of art. While some are quick to discard the dandy as a superficial figure, the Journaux Intimes underline that Baudelaire’s dandy has depth: he is the “superior man”, who must “be sublime without interruption” and even “like to work”, so long as it is not for the mundane purpose of making a living—since he is by definition, as is clearly stated, wealthy and powerful enough to not be concerned with such trivialities.

The dandy’s meticulous grooming and steadfast commitment to sustaining a cold, proud façade (he has an “unshakable resolve not to be moved”) are less frivolous than popular opinion would have it: as Baudelaire’s above note-to-self indicates, they are an antidote to procrastination, a morally-driven behaviour at the service of creation. By dedicating his every minute to embodying his aesthetic ideal, unperturbed by the rest of the world, the dandy’s mere being—both in appearance and thought—is art, without having to produce anything outside of himself.

fleurs du mal-01

The poet, however, does not necessarily have this luxury. In his poem “La Fin de la Journée” from the iconic Fleurs du Mal (1857), Baudelaire writes that a poet always welcomes nighttime with a relieved “At Last!”—not only because he revels, in romantic fashion, in its soothing shadows, but also because it “erases everything, even shame”. Tormented by the pressure of time and productivity (daytime is “pushy and shrill” in the poem), the poet feels at home in the moment at which rest and sleep (darkly likened to entombment) are expected.

As evident in the use of the words ‘erase’ and ‘shame’, artistic self-doubt looms behind the poet’s procrastinatory tendency and his desire for respite from, even destruction of, his work. In Baudelaire’s “Le Confiteor de l’Artiste” (from the prose poetry collection, Le Spleen de Paris, 1869), the speaker, in awe of the splendour and vastness of the world, confesses: “The study of beauty is a duel in which the artist screams out of fear before being vanquished.” The poet is paralysed by the beauty that he sees in the light of day, unsure he will be able to match its wonder.

The dandy, untroubled by ordinary considerations or feelings (deadlines, bills, or low self-confidence are foreign to him), is indefatigably focused on being his own masterpiece (he must even “sleep in front of a mirror”, according to the Journeaux Intimes). The poet, confronted with the realities of life and his own anxieties, instead finds solace at night, when the spectre of what has not been achieved during the day fades. He can then stop writing and revising—or on the contrary, stop putting it off and quietly start all over again—liberated by the sense that the late hours demand nothing from him, that darkness is a blank slate.

Photo © JR_Paris, Flickr

Three visions for the (anti)-procrastinator: flâneur, dandy, poet. Photo © JR_Paris, Flickr

Baudelaire’s work is a Pierian spring for procrastinators. The flâneur, who merely promenades through the modern city, without aiming to create anything, may be the first of Baudelaire’s key figures to come to the procrastinator’s mind: how could the freedom of idling along the streets with no obligation not be tempting when faced with a daunting task? Moreover, as is commonly accepted, a stroll may spark renewed creativity (though that is not what the true flâneur seeks).

Yet Baudelaire’s oeuvre presents an alternate figure for procrastinators to draw inspiration from: the dandy, who pledges his life so entirely to his aesthetic principles (in a manner assimilated to ‘spiritualism’ in the author’s essay) that his every move serves to realise them. Those who have creative rituals may find a new spiritual leader in Baudelaire’s dandy and challenge themselves to emulate the constancy underpinning his sartorial and behavioural choices. As we have seen, Baudelaire apparently practiced prayer—as well as perfect dress—to concentrate his creative energy.

Nevertheless, given that neither of these “ideal” figures (who, it is important to note, are not in fact procrastinators, since they are not required to produce anything to begin with) represents a tenable way of life for the average person in our society, the procrastinator may simply find it reassuring to listen to the voice of the third figure, the poet, echoing through Baudelaire’s writing—a voice which speaks of uncertainty and fear, but still decides to ring out and not remain silent.

 *All quotes in English are my translations from the French texts.

The Procrastination Seminar: your handy printout guide

Less than a week to go until the first seminar, and our new and improved poster is crawling its way around the libraries of Oxford.

Check out our speakers’ bios here, and click here for your very own über-collectible PDF to print out and carry in your wallet. We look forward to seeing you at All Souls College next Wednesday. (Schedule updated on 14 October.)

 

Procrastination Seminar MT2014 small

The Procrastination Seminar speakers

CLOCK LOGO autumn-01After frantic last-minute negotiations, we’re delighted to unveil the provisional line-up for this term’s five sessions in the Procrastination Seminar.

All talks will be held on Wednesdays at 5.30pm in the Old Library at All Souls College on the High Street, Oxford (see our handy map). All are welcome, and of course the seminars are free. We will endeavour to provide wine and maybe even the odd nibble.

Note: this schedule was updated on 14 October.

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vince crawford15 OctoberProfessor Vince Crawford, ‘Now or later? Present-bias and time-inconsistency in intertemporal choice’

Vince is the Drummond Professor of Political Economy, and has a longstanding interest in behavioural and experimental economics. He boasts that he was thinking about preproperation (or precrastination) long before anyone else.

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22 October: Professor Diane Purkiss, ‘The writer’s brain: Ernest Hemingway’s traumas and addictions’

diane purkiss‘Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment,’ wrote notorious wit Robert Benchley (Chips Off the Old Benchley, 1949) in the now-classic slogan for structured procrastination. If side projects make you more productive, Diane is a Fordist fantasy. Alongside writer’s block, her areas of interest include the English Civil War; Milton and Marvell; the supernatural, especially witchcraft; women’s writing; food and food history; children’s literature; and writing mythical novels as one half of Tobias Druitt.

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John McManus29 OctoberJohn McManus, ‘Driven to distraction: football supporters, technology use and the politics of place-making’

John is an anthropologist of popular culture and migration, especially smartphone-wielding Turkish football fans. When taking a well-earned rest from the terraces, he can be found lending his voice to winsome indie-folk outfit the Yarns.

20140312_220600-004Tamara Spitzer-Hobeika, ‘Baudelaire’s dandy: the anti-procrastinator’

Tamara is a research officer with Oxford’s Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy. She has worked on such dilettantish topics as hate speech, missile defence policy, and nuclear proliferation—seasoned with a soupçon of Baudelaire.

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10624794_380127925483732_8954905304583990697_n5 November: Huw Lemmey (LimaZulu), ‘IT’S OK TO HATE YOUR JOB: digital procrastination as proletarian sabotage’  

Huw is an artist, cultural commentator, and sometime Guardian contributor. He tweets with terrifying fecundity @spitzenprodukte.

downingArthur Downing, ‘Procrastination, working-class saving, and institutional design in the nineteenth century’ 

Arthur is an economic historian, and one of the original organizers of our 2 July procrastivaganza. His DPhil looks at the saving patterns of working class households in nineteenth century Britain, and how individuals overcame their procrastinatory and myopic tendencies to put off saving. It hasn’t helped him be more self-controlled. He knows the words to nearly every Friends episode.

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12 November: Dr Bill Prosser, ‘Drawing—it’s a drag’

Bill’s drawings have been exhibited internationally. He was a Leverhulme Senior Research Fellow at the University of Reading and Andrew W. Mellon Research Fellow at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas. He has written on art and Beckett and is currently a Research Fellow at Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford.

Katrina Mayson, ‘Procrastination or professionalism? Elizabeth Bishop’s chronic “second thought habit”’

Katrina Mayson is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. Her research is on the lives of objects within Elizabeth Bishop’s writings, with a specific focus on her work as translator and the influence of Brazilian language and culture on her poetry.

The New York Times on Procrastination Oxford

Anna Della Subin, our conference programme declared, ‘writes about sleepwalkers, grave worship, animal rights in Cairo, mummies, imperial Ethiopian court etiquette, visions of the flood, thirteenth-century occulists, 300-year naps, resurrection, men becoming gods, and gods becoming men.’

Now our multitalented speaker has provided a wonderful précis of our 2 July conference, and a novel take on embracing idleness, in this weekend’s New York Times. See below—or click here for the original, complete with zingy cartoons by Viktor Hachmang.

 

How to Stop Time

St Expeditus, image from Catholic.org

St Expeditus, image from Catholic.org

“Procrastination, quite frankly, is an epidemic,” declares Jeffery Combs, the author of “The Procrastination Cure,” just one in a vast industry of self-help books selling ways to crush the beast. The American Psychological Association estimates that 20 percent of American men and women are “chronic procrastinators.” Figures place the amount of money lost in the United States to procrastinating employees at trillions of dollars a year.

A recent infographic in The Economist revealed that in the 140 million hours humanity spent watching “Gangnam Style” on YouTube two billion times, we could have built at least four more (desperately needed) pyramids at Giza. Endless articles pose the question of why we procrastinate, what’s going wrong in the brain, how to overcome it, and the fascinating irrationality of it all.

But if procrastination is so clearly a society-wide, public condition, why is it always framed as an individual, personal deficiency? Why do we assume our own temperaments and habits are at fault—and feel bad about them—rather than question our culture’s canonization of productivity?

CLOCK LOGO 2

I was faced with these questions at an unlikely event this past July—an academic conference on procrastination at the University of Oxford. It brought together a bright and incongruous crowd: an economist, a poetry professor, a “biographer of clutter,” a queer theorist, a connoisseur of Iraqi coffee-shop culture. There was the doctoral student who spoke on the British painter Keith Vaughan, known to procrastinate through increasingly complicated experiments in auto-erotica. There was the children’s author who tied herself to her desk with her shoelaces.

The keynote speaker, Tracey Potts, brought a tin of sugar cookies she had baked in the shape of the notorious loiterer Walter Benjamin. The German philosopher famously procrastinated on his “Arcades Project,” a colossal meditation on the cityscape of Paris where the figure of the flâneur—the procrastinator par excellence—would wander. Benjamin himself fatally dallied in escaping the city ahead of the Nazis. He took his own life, leaving the manuscript forever unfinished, more evidence, it would seem, that no avoidable delay goes unpunished.

walter benjamin biscuit

As we entered the ninth, grueling hour of the conference, a professor laid out a taxonomy of dithering so enormous that I couldn’t help but wonder: Whatever you’re doing, aren’t you by nature procrastinating from doing something else? Seen in this light, procrastination begins to look a lot like just plain existing. But then along come its foot soldiers—guilt, self-loathing, blame.

Dr. Potts explained how procrastination entered the field as pathological behavior in the mid-20th century. Drawing on the work of the British-born historian Christopher Lane, Dr. Potts directed our attention to a United States War Department bulletin issued in 1945 that chastised soldiers who were avoiding their military duties “by passive measures, such as pouting, stubbornness, procrastination, inefficiency and passive obstructionism.” In 1952, when the American Psychiatric Association assembled the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—the bible of mental health used to determine illness to this day—it copied the passage from the cranky military memo verbatim.

And so, procrastination became enshrined as a symptom of mental illness. By the mid-60s, passive-aggressive personality disorder had become a fairly common diagnosis and “procrastination” remained listed as a symptom in several subsequent editions. “Dawdling” was added to the list, after years of delay.

While passive-aggressive personality disorder has been erased from the official portion of the manual, the stigma of slothfulness remains. Many of us, it seems, are still trying to enforce a military-style precision on our intellectual, creative, civilian lives—and often failing. Even at the conference, participants proposed strategies for beating procrastination that were chillingly martial. The economist suggested that we all “take hostages”—place something valuable at stake as a way of negotiating with our own belligerent minds. The children’s author writes large checks out to political parties she loathes, and entrusts them to a relative to mail if she misses a deadline.

photo (19)

All of which leads me to wonder: Are we imposing standards on ourselves that make us mad?

Though Expeditus’s pesky crow may be ageless, procrastination as epidemic—and the constant guilt that goes with it—is peculiar to the modern era. The 21st-century capitalist world, in its never-ending drive for expansion, consecrates an always-on productivity for the sake of the greater fiscal health.

In an 1853 short story Herman Melville gave us Bartleby, the obstinate scrivener and apex procrastinator, who confounds the requests of his boss with his hallowed mantra, “I would prefer not to.” A perfect employee on the surface — he never leaves the office and sleeps at his desk—Bartleby represents a total rebellion against the expectations placed on him by society. Politely refusing to accept money or to remove himself from his office even after he is fired, the copyist went on to have an unexpected afterlife—as hero for the Occupy movement in 2012. “Bartleby was the first laid-off worker to occupy Wall Street,” Jonathan D. Greenberg noted in The Atlantic. Confronted with Bartleby’s serenity and his utter noncompliance with the status quo, his perplexed boss is left wondering whether he himself is the one who is mad.

A month before the procrastination conference, I set myself the task of reading “Oblomov,” the 19th-century Russian novel by Ivan Goncharov about the ultimate slouch, who, over the course of 500 pages, barely moves from his bed, and then only to shift to the sofa. At least that’s what I heard: I failed to make it through more than two pages at a sitting without putting the novel down and allowing myself to drift off. I would carry the heavy book everywhere with me—it was like an anchor into a deep, blissful sea of sleep.

Oblomov could conduct the few tasks he cared to from under his quilt — writing letters, accepting visitors — but what if he’d had an iPhone and a laptop? Being in bed is now no excuse for dawdling, and no escape from the guilt that accompanies it. The voice—societal or psychological—urging us away from sloth to the pure, virtuous heights of productivity has become a sort of birdlike shriek as more individuals work from home and set their own schedules, and as the devices we use for work become alluring sirens to our own distraction. We are now able to accomplish tasks at nearly every moment, even if we prefer not to.

Still, humans will never stop procrastinating, and it might do us good to remember that the guilt and shame of the do-it-tomorrow cycle are not necessarily inescapable. The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about mental illness that it acquires its reality as an illness “only within a culture that recognizes it as such.” Why not view procrastination not as a defect, an illness or a sin, but as an act of resistance against the strictures of time and productivity imposed by higher powers? To start, we might replace Expeditus with a new saint.

The 2 July procrastination-fest: a summary

This summary also appeared on the ever-interesting blog of one of our sponsors, the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing.

Procrastination: Cultural Explorations
2 July 2014
Wolfson College, Oxford

The Great Evil of Procrastination (1682)

Frontispiece of Anthony Walker’s The Great Evil of Procrastination (1682)

Thomas de Quincey claimed it was worse than murder. Krishna declared it a sign of a degenerate soul. For Abraham Lincoln’s wife it was her ‘evil genius’. Estimates suggest that 80-95% of college students engage in it, and 20% of people are chronic sufferers. Even the Ancient Egyptians bitched about it in hieroglyphics.

Lollygagging, swithering, dithering, dillydallying, shillyshallying. Procrastination is ubiquitous—perhaps especially among academics and writers. Yet it remains curiously understudied. It is a dirty word.

One balmy July morning at the very unprocrastinatory hour of 8.30am, we set about rectifying the deficit. A host of bleary-eyed scholars, students, journalists and miscellaneous others straggled in with a variety of excuses. Our favourite: ‘Sorry, I accidentally came yesterday.’

A mere two months later, we’ve finally got around to summarizing the day.

The economic approach

Though the humanities haven’t got round to saying much about procrastination, other disciplines have. Economic historian Avner Offer opened by summarizing the state of the field. Rational choice theory can tell us how long we ought to delay. Behavioural economics can explain why we delay. But the humanities can tell us what procrastination feels like: ‘indecision is destiny’. As one participant later suggested, it is only through such cultural explorations—from Hamlet to Homer—that we can understand ‘the phenomenology of procrastination’ in all its richness.

Homer Simpson, icon of immediate gratification

Homer Simpson, icon of immediate gratification

Avner concluded with some helpful advice about being more decisive. When to stop dating and put a ring on it? The optimal number of prospective mates to ‘sample’ is 37 (!!!)—or if you have lower standards, 12.

Procrastination, creativity, and form

Albert Einstein famously played the violin, while Keith Vaughan, mid-century British painter, prolific diarist and the subject of Alex Belsey’s presentation, was a prolific masturbator. The first panel tackled the fraught relationship between procrastination and creativity, the spectrum between Einstein’s creative ‘play’ and Vaughan’s self-loathing. Will May discussed poetry as product of and prompter toward procrastination, part of his broader project on the cultural history of poetry and whimsy. Rebecca Birrell later expanded this theme, with a sensitive exploration of contemporary poets Rachael Allen and Sam Riviere.

In his paper on The Tempest, Johannes Schlegel explored the possibility that procrastination describes the theatre, where the deceleration of real time to absorb theatrical time creates a meaningful stasis. Conversely, the modernist novel captures the flux of capital and commodity culture, argued Oliver Neto. Stephen Daedalus’s flânerie and the hybrid prose-poetry of Ulysses together evoke the widespread boredom of capitalist Dublin.

Resisting demonization

Ulysses thus offered an emancipatory opening in the face of colonialism and alienation. Later speakers took up this theme: the revalorization of procrastination as possibly positive.

Papers by Lilith Dornhuber de Bellesiles and Mrinalini Greedharry presented alternative subjectivities of procrastination. Lilith offered a theoretically robust ‘queering’ of mainstream conceptions of time, while Mrinalini considered procrastination as ‘an epistemological condition situated somewhere between awareness, habit, and unknowing’. Reading together postcolonial theory with Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling, she called for alternative—and more humble—forms of knowledge.

Two papers on francophone authors, by Anna Della Subin and Kamel Boudjemil, opened up more revolutionary alternatives. If procrastination depends on internalizing clock time, Anna Della argued, the debonair Egyptian novelist Albert Cossery lived and wrote a radical idleness entirely outside this model. The Marxist theorist Guy Debord chalked Ne travaillez jamais on a Parisian wall, Kamel noted; the booze-fuelled wanderings of his Situationist International attempted to subvert not only the notion of work but the bourgeois city itself.

Historically specific or human universal?

This raises the question of whether procrastination is a universal—all those hieroglyphic rebukes—or whether it is inextricably linked to a very specific ‘modernity’. Is procrastination a product of factory time and the Protestant work ethic, spread about the world via colonialism and the inexorable spread of capitalism?

Our speakers broadly agreed that perceptions and manifestations of procrastination are historically variable and culturally conditioned, from James Joyce’s Dublin to Cossery’s Egypt and the contested coffee houses of early-twentieth-century Baghdad (Pelle Valentin Olsen). Susanne Bayerlipp even uncovered procrastination in early modern letters. Young English travellers in Italy were chastised by their elders for sidelining their academic pursuits in favour of pleasure. The Erasmus program, she seemed to suggest, is named for the humanist scholar with good reason.

Self-Help

Samuel Smiles’ Victorian bestseller, Self-Help (1859)

Samuel Smiles’ Victorian bestseller, Self-Help (1859)

Nowhere is this cultural contingency more apparent than in the flowering of self-help literature, explored by our three final speakers. Susan Machum provided a devastating summary of the endless lists of advice in twenty contemporary self-help books, noting the message of individual responsibility they propagate. In contrast to the fluffiness of this literature, Barbara Leckie offered a witty reading of Middlemarch as an exploration of procrastination—with Casaubon as the everyman academic.

The closing keynote, by OCLW visiting scholar Tracey Potts, presented a genealogy of procrastination. The work forms part of Tracey’s Leverhulme-funded research project for her forthcoming book, Neither Use Nor Ornament: Friction and Flow in the Information Age.

Tracey argued that the demonization of procrastination is a form of biopower, achieved through the factory, the military, and the clinic. Attendees were alarmed to hear that ‘procrastination’ appeared (alongside ‘pouting’ and ‘stubbornness’) in the American Psychiatric Association’s 1952 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—as a direct import from the US military.

Swiftly procrastination became reconfigured not as a behaviour, but as a symptom of a pathological personality. This theme is continued in contemporary self-help books, more and more colonized by cod-neurobiology.

Tracey concluded the conference with a rousing call to resist moralization and medicalization. ‘The maths simply doesn’t stack up,’ she argued. Not all causes of delay are down to individuals ‘choosing’ failure. And, following Zygmunt Bauman, ‘indolent people are only a problem in a society of producers.’

Mañanarama

After a stimulating communal discussion—covering everything from zero-hours contracts to the masochistic writers’ aid Write or Die—participants headed to the Mañanarama exhibition for some much-needed drinks.

Walter Benjamin biscuit cutter, from the personal collection of Tracey Potts

Walter Benjamin biscuit cutter, from the personal collection of Tracey Potts

The exhibition displayed a host of procrastinatory artefacts, including an Ostrich pillow, a 91-year-old magazine advertising wacky invention ‘The Sleep Eliminator’, original documents from the Situationist International, and Tracey’s very own Walter Benjamin biscuit cutter—made, of course, while avoiding work.

The Cunctator Prize for the best graduate paper (sponsored by the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust) was awarded to Frank Hangler of the Oxford Internet Institute. His lively paper, ‘Cutting the Cord’, assessed technology as both the source of and solution to procrastination.

You can see the full paper, along with other exhibits, here.

Questions left to ponder

After the conference we were still left wondering: what exactly is procrastination? If we’re not happy with the economists’ model, how can we begin to define it? What is its relationship with cousin concepts, like idleness and boredom?

More terrifying was the realisation that maybe we academics are the peculiar ones. As Jane Shilling summarized for The Telegraph:

It was during a paper on Procrastinating Abroad that the God in the machine made an unexpected appearance. We were considering Hieronymus Turler’s 1585 warning to the concerned relations of 16th-century gap-year travellers: (‘Three things come out of Italy: a naughty conscience, an empty purse and a weak stomach’) when from somewhere in the roof came the clarion sound of a duo of distinctly unacademic voices engaged in an animated discussion of air vents. Above the sussuration of ruffled scholarly feathers, a quick-witted attendee remarked, ‘I hate to tell you, but they’re probably working!’

Interested? We’ll be debating all these questions and more next term at the Procrastination Seminar, on Wednesdays at 5.30pm at All Souls College.

Further details…are coming soon.

The Procrastination: Cultural Explorations conference was generously supported by OCLW, TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities), and All Souls College.

The Thief of Time

‘Procrastination is the thief of time,’ runs the most famous line from Edward Young’s Night-Thoughts. (‘Collar him!’ added Mr Micawber.)

night thoughts

Another of our Mañanarama posters (PDF here). Edward Young was a Fellow of All Souls College, host of the Procrastination Seminar in autumn 2014

Edward Young is today now largely forgotten: his ‘religious enthusiasm and epigrammatic density cost him readers’, his biographer informs us, while his reputation was further dented when George Eliot attacked his ‘radical insincerity’. But the adage lives on.

Here it is in a nineteenth-century Ohio guest book,

Procrastination thief of time ohio guestbook

here in the title of an intriguing set of essays on procrastination (2010)

Andreou White thief of time

as well as a Discworld novel (2001) in which a sinister race of ‘Auditors’ attempt to take the scientific quest to manage time to its logical conclusion—by freezing time through the perfect clock

Terry Pratchett thief of time

and here, most wonderfully, in the 1930s in the hand of Time magazine, in a letter sent to late-paying subscribers.

Letter from Time magazine

From Successful Collection Letters (1941) via Letters of Note (2012)

It was apparently quite successful. As Young reminds us a few lines later, ‘Be wise today; ’tis madness to defer.’