Last orders

Hurry up please, it’s time. 

Dearest comrades of the last-minute brigade—remember that registration closes at 23:59 this Thursday (26th June). That’s British Summer Time, for those of you who like to rely on the old timezone get-out-of-jail-free card.

Don’t put it off: click here post-haste to sign up.

(And, contrary to rumour, there is no prize for being the last one through the door…)


Our speakers

We’ve been beavering away behind the scenes. After looking at the provisional conference schedule, you can now find out more about our speakers here.


Don’t forget to register today to take advantage of the anti-procrastination early-bird offer!

Register today!

We are delighted to announce that registration for the conference is open now: click here for details, and here to go directly to the University Store.

Book now to avoid disappointment—and to receive an early-bird discount. In the words of another lovely Oxford clock, this time over the old drinking fountain (1899) by The Plain roundabout:

The water drips, the hours go by. Be warned, drink, catch them ‘ere they fly!

photo (19)

Registration: an ever-so-slight delay

Never ruin an apology with an excuse.
—Kimberly Johnson (attrib.)

We are very sorry for the slight delay in opening registration for the conference. This will be rectified very shortly, and you’ll be able to sign up online. Keep an eye out as we begin unveiling speakers, too.

In the meantime, we stick with the wise/faintly ominous words of Dorothy L. Sayers, which are now proudly emblazoned across Harris Manchester’s new clock tower:

It’s later than you think.
But it’s never too late.

In recognition of the college’s population of mature students, the bells will (deliberately) peal a D-sharp at two minutes past the hour. It ‘fits comfortably into Oxford’s idiosyncratic history of timekeeping,’ the local paper reassures us—and into some citizens’ over-optimistic schedules.

harris manchester tower


“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
—Douglas Adams

As students and academics (and general inhabitants of Planet Earth), deadlines plague our existence. CFPs, essays, book proposals, marking, funding applications, and—to my recent distress—Her Majesty’s tax returns. They all have a desired delivery date, and whether it’s mardy students or £100 fines, missing that date tends to have consequences.

Dispensing witticisms à la Adams is our—and, judging by your tweets, your—general approach to deadlines. But say it slowly and the word’s dark past is thrown into sharp relief: dead lines.

Most etymologists tend to agree that “deadline” has its roots in the American Civil War (1861-1865), referring to the conditions in which prisoners of war were detained.

Andersonville Prison

Naval Historian David A. Kelly, Jr. puts its earliest use in writing on 10 May 1864. In an inspection report for Andersonville, a hugely overpopulated prison in Georgia during the war, the Confederate Captain Walter Bowie wrote that:

On the inside of the stockade and twenty feet from it there is a dead-line established, over which no prisoner is allowed to go, day or night, under penalty of being shot.

Christine Ammer points to a similar use later that year. On 5 July Colonel D. T. Chandler reported the following, also on Andersonville:

The Federal prisoners of war are confined within a stockade 15 feet high, of roughly hewn pine logs, about 8 inches in diameter, inserted 5 feet into the ground, enclosing, including the recent extension, an area of 540 by 260 yards. A railing around the inside of the stockade, and about 20 feet from it, constitutes the “deadline,” beyond which the prisoners are not allowed to pass… [as a large portion is] at present unfit for occupation… [this] gives somewhat less than 6 square feet to each prisoner…

That the notion spread beyond Andersonville, GA, is attested by other accounts from prisons across the US. At Union Prison, Rock Island, IL, for example, Private John Cowherd was interviewed about the shooting of an inmate.

Question. What was the prisoner doing at the time he was shot at by the sentry at post No. 13?
Answer. Lying flat on his belly scratching under the fence.

Question. About what time do you think this occurred, and at what place?
Answer. About 11.30, on post No. 13, fourth front, Rock Island Prison Barracks, Ill., on the night of the 24th of October.

Question. What were your instructions?
Answer. To let no man come across the dead-line. If he did, halt him three times, and if he did not stop shoot him; and if he got across before I saw him shoot him without halting.

Indeed the idea was so widespread that by 1889, P. A. Bruce could use the term figuratively. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the “dead-line” Bruce writes of applies to the racial conflicts of late C19th America. Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 17.02.38In The Plantation Negro as Free Man, Bruce speaks of the racial segregation, and the opines of the white:

No one is more conscious than he of this underlying sentiment in the hearts of the white people; he knows very well that beneath the surface of their kindness to him, even when it takes the form of the most open and sincere affection, there lurks an active and resolute sensitiveness that would rise in alarm the instant he sought, unwittingly or intentionally, to cross the social dead-line.

The dead-line, then, was simply a line that should not be crossed.

Less darkly (and perhaps more apt for writers), deadline emerged as a technical term in printing in the early C20th. In his Printing for School and Shop (1917), Frank S. Henry warned:

If the chase is one that just fits the bed of the press, make certain that the type does not come outside of the dead-line on the press. There is a line marked on the bed of every cylinder press, known as the dead-line or gripper-line. If the form is placed too close to the edge of the chase and comes beyond the dead-line, the grippers will strike the type and batter it, and perhaps mash the grippers.

Still, then, violent stuff! Typeface set outside the dead-line would not be printed, and was at risk of total destruction. From its wartime beginnings to the printers shop, the deadline has been a threatening and oppressive force. Apt, then, for writers and the academy, and its final, more modern usage.

Clocks, Galle, Sri Lanka

Not long after its recorded use for typesetting, deadline came to mean a time limit, in the sense that we might recognise. “esp.”, writes the OED, “a time by which material has to be ready for inclusion in a particular issue of a publication”.

And that’s what we’ve set. We really don’t want to shoot anyone. Or crush them under our press. But we do want your papers for the Procrastination Conference on 2 July 2014. So: you have until Friday (4 April) to submit abstracts and bursary applications. Off you go.

The Great Cunctator

Fabius Cunctator

Statue at Schloss Schönbrunn, Vienna

← This is Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator, a monument to the virtues of positive procrastination. As consul and then Dictator, in the words of the eponymous military blog:

Fabius Maximus (280-203 BC) saved Rome from Hannibal by recognizing Rome’s weakness and therefore the need to conserve its strength. He turned from the easy path of macho ‘boldness’ to the long, difficult task of rebuilding Rome’s power and greatness. His life holds profound lessons for 21st Century Americans.

His controversial tactics earned him the honorific Cunctator, the great Delayer. (His other nickname, ‘Verrucosus’, came from his warty lip—or so claimed Plutarch.) Today he is credited as an inventor of guerrilla warfare and attrition tactics, at least among the US military establishment.

Fabius Maximus would lend his name to the Fabian Society, which became a byword for middle-class gradualism in the transition to socialism. Its colophon is, inevitably, the tortoise. As Fabian Tract No. 1 had it:

For the right moment you must wait, as Fabius did most patiently, when warring against Hannibal, though many censured his delays; but when the time comes you must strike hard, as Fabius did, or your waiting will be in vain and fruitless.

The Fabian tortoise, initially a Christmas card design

The Fabian tortoise, initially a Christmas card design (photo: Wikipedia)

Cunctation (to use the rather rude-sounding noun) survived into the twentieth century—and presented itself handily in the context of our conference. Wolfson College is the home of one of our sponsors and the conference dinner/Mañanarama exhibition. Its founder, Isaiah Berlin, was a political philosopher and one of the century’s great public intellectuals. He was also a perennial procrastinator and perfectionist, preferring gossip and academic intrigue to the anxieties of work.

The philosopher’s agents and publishers were left exasperated. His longtime editor Henry Hardy characterizes Berlin’s relationship with Oxford University Press as one of ‘frustration, misunderstanding, tergiversation, indecisiveness, prevarication, unrealistic expectations’.  An internal OUP note sighed in 1962: ‘Isaiah Berlin, the great cunctator, has again put off supplying the preface.’

In honour of the art of cunctation, and with the support of the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust, we are offering a £50 prize for the best graduate paper of the conference. For more information, see here.

So here’s to the gradual, the noncommittal, the dilatory. Here’s to the tortoises.

The Mañanarama: send us YOUR procrastinatory paraphernalia

As part of the one-day conference, we hope to hold an exhibition of cultural artefacts of procrastination: a MAÑANARAMA, if you will. (We tip our hats to Dr Tracey Potts, currently a Visiting Scholar at OCLW and one of our plenary speakers, for this marvellous name.)

These exhibits will be out for perusal (Insha’Allah) at the post-conference drinks reception, to be held at Wolfson College.

The Isolator, a particularly hardcore anti-procrastination solution (via

‘The Isolator’, a particularly hardcore anti-procrastination solution from sci-fi pioneer Hugo Gernsback, July 1925 (via

If you have suggestions or would like your own artefact(s) of procrastination to be displayed, get in touch. These might include everything from doodles and lists to terrifying Isolator-style commitment devices. ‘Analogue’ objects are preferred, but we can display images too. The deadline for submission is 30 May, giving us a little time to learn how to get into a display case, though we’d love to receive items earlier.

So far we have the offer of the shoelaces with which a successful children’s author ties herself to her desk, Ulysses-style; the floral washing-up gloves with which one journalist defers his work; and a wonderful anti-smoking cartoon.

We also welcome research posters (samples here) for presentation over a glass of wine. Send an abstract, and we’ll talk.

The Isolator in action, via A Great Disorder

The Isolator in action, via A Great Disorder


I never put off till tomorrow what I can possibly do—the day after. —Oscar Wilde

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln: ‘evil genius’

It’s been called many things: a sin, an addiction, a disease, a devil. Estimates suggest that 80-95% of college students engage in it, and 20% of people are chronic sufferers. For Samuel Taylor Coleridge, surveying the wreckage of his life, it was ‘a moral idiocy, an imbecility of the will, a haunting, an emptiness, a posthumous state.’ For Abraham Lincoln’s wife it was her ‘evil genius’. For Thomas de Quincey it was worse than murder. Even Radio 4 wrings its hands.

Lust? Morphine? Bad language on the Sabbath day?

We mean, of course, procrastination. It is ubiquitous—perhaps especially among academics and writers. Yet for all the Wildean witticisms it has inspired, procrastination has remained remarkably understudied. The vast majority of existing works are, unsurprisingly, prescriptive: it’s a dirty word. There even exists a support group, Procrastinators Anonymous.


Over the last year we five organizers have enjoyed many fruitful discussions on different aspects of procrastination. We swiftly realized that each of our disciplines—literature, history, philosophy, politics, and internet studies—had much to contribute.

Existing analytical studies are largely confined to behavioural economics and psychology. The humanities and social sciences have been delayed arrivals on the analytical scene. Yet many of the most curious aspects of procrastination are not well captured by economics or psychology. Its study is necessarily interdisciplinary.

Ivan Goncharov

Ivan Goncharov, creator of ‘the Russian Hamlet’

First of all, the English language is unusual in having a word for the phenomenon. Proverbs against procrastination exist in many languages—but without any single-word equivalent. Nonetheless, similar concepts and debates can be found outside the Anglophone world, like Goncharov’s Oblomov (1859) or the francophone writings of the Egyptian-born Albert Cossery, the ‘patron saint of laziness’. Speakers of Indian English have coined a new word, ‘timepass’, while Arabic has the nebulous taswīf. Is procrastination a precise and uniquely anglophone concept, then, or a cultural universal?

Similarly, what is the relationship between procrastination and its (typically unpleasant) conceptual and psychological bedfellows, from laziness and hesitation to boredom, fear, and disgust? The concept of postponement has always appeared morally fraught—amongst classical authors delay had both its defenders (Herodotus) and detractors (Cicero).

By the time it entered the English language in the sixteenth century, however, the connotations of procrastination had become almost chronically negative. Preachers railed against it, while in 1742 the poet Edward Young coined its enduring epithet: ‘procrastination is the thief of time’. Today self-help literature propagates ideals of risk-taking and ‘going with your gut’, with the procrastinator the entrepreneur’s miserable inverse. Is it coincidence that condemnation of procrastination has increased alongside the rise of the factory, the office, and most recently the ‘portfolio career’?

Yet we are also living in the age of the phone, spam, the open-plan office, and YouTube cat videos. The modern state is often criticized as dilatory and inefficient; the bureaucracy’s expansion informed the discovery of Parkinson’s Law (‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’). The boundaries of private life bleed into the workday and the public sphere through flexi-time and social media. Does the organization of modern life inevitably foster procrastination even while denouncing it? 

IMG_0309Procrastination still has its defenders too, as a critical component of contemplation and creativity (for Einstein and Bertrand Russell, among others). This subculture even has its own magazine—published only once a year, of course.

As this suggests, procrastination is political. Through quiet disobedience and work-to-rule strikes, it can act as a ‘weapon of the weak’ against everyday exploitation (James C. Scott), or even as part of a revolutionary ‘right to be lazy’ (Paul Lafargue). At the same time it may stall radical change through tactical filibustering and bureaucratic inertia. Does procrastination have genuinely radical political potential, or is it an enforcer of the status quo?


It is with such open questions that this conference begins. Moving beyond self-help prescription or narrow models of irrationality, we seek to explore the historical, social, and cultural dimensions of procrastination.

We welcome contributions from all disciplines and fellow-travellers in mapping this most pervasive and ambivalent of phenomena. Take a look at our call for papers, and get in touch