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.

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The flâneur

Around 1840 it was considered elegant to take a tortoise out walking. This gives us an idea of the tempo of flânerie —Walter Benjamin

Flaneur 2

From Louis Huart, Physiologie du flâneur (1841)

Flânerie, the art of the flâneur, means strolling, loitering, sauntering with no fixed intent but simply looking. Is the flâneur an exotic cousin of the procrastinator? That depends where you stand, or wander.

Insufferable idleness

Vagrants and prostitutes (the other kind of streetwalker) were increasingly unpopular with the nineteenth-century Parisian authorities. Contemporaries were quick to suspect this new figure too. As one dictionary of ‘popular’ French usage from 1808 defines it, un grand flâneur is

a lazybones, a loafer, a man of insufferable idleness, who doesn’t know where to carry his trouble and his boredom.

From Physiologie du flaneur

From Physiologie du flâneur

(We still see this today: the puritanical workaholics of the OED call him ‘a lounger or saunterer, an idle “man about town”.’ Ouch.) But over the course of a century flânerie was to develop its own rich philosophy.

Baudelaire and Benjamin: a pair of loafers

Though the French verb flâner is considerably older, the invention of the flâneur as icon is often credited to Baudelaire and his famous essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863). Dandified but incognito, he strolls amongst the crowds of Paris, just behind his pet tortoise:

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define…

The flâneur, its exponents argued, is a passionate observer of the human species, ‘botanising on the asphalt’ (Benjamin). He is an urban native, a connoisseur—Balzac called the activity ‘gastronomy of the eye’—of the great metropolis and its glamorous manmade ‘sensorium’. The wandering Wordsworth is denied flâneurhood: it is impossible in soggy Cumbria.

The flâneuriat argued that they concealed themselves behind their tortoises; their indolence was a mask. They were quick to differentiate themselves from the dreaded archetypes with which they might (somewhat justifiably) be confused: the idler, the self-absorbed dandy, the tourist, and—heavens forfend—the undiscriminating, slackjawed badaud or gawker. This ‘man of the world’ (and it is invariably a man) does not merely gawp or potter: he is, in the common image, a detective: it’s no accident that Baudelaire became obsessed by Edgar Allen Poe and his short story ‘The Man of the Crowd‘ (1840). The flâneur is an ethnographer with less stamina and better hats.

The impossible flaâneuse? George Sand (Baudelaire tellingly wrote her off as having the morals of 'janitresses and kept women')

The impossible flâneuse? George Sand (Baudelaire tellingly wrote her off as having the morals of ‘janitresses and kept women’)

Free radical?

So is the flâneur another Bartleby, an alternative icon in a world of capitalist drudgery? Benjamin certainly hoped so, resurrecting him as the archetype of urban modernity, empathetic and eye-opening in the face of alienation. Clearly the flâneur presents some small threat of deviancy, or else those sensitive lexicographers would be more relaxed.

Too distracted to see the obstacles of everyday life? (From Physiologie du flâneur)

Too distracted to see the obstacles of everyday life? (From Physiologie du flâneur)

But if he isn’t a simple idler or dandy, he is at best an ambiguously radical figure: a man of leisure, well-dressed, gregarious and late-rising. His love of window-shopping and department stores is a little too close to naked consumerism for comfort—and once women get into these activities they lose all their masculine charm—while his dismay at being seen as a mere gawper or tourist belies his pathological snobbery. The flâneur may be a man of the crowd, but he is no man of the people (‘Ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir être seul,’ sighs the epigraph to Poe’s story).

It is no accident that flânerie flourished in the great age of boredom (incidentally a word which was not ‘invented’ by Dickens, another famous city wanderer). For his spontaneity and freedom of action, Benjamin himself bracketed the flâneur with such unlovably idle figures as the the gambler, the drug addict and the student (and experimented with drugs and gambling himself). Not only managing but actually thriving in boredom he credited as perhaps the flâneur’s greatest contribution in the age of bureaucracy. The gambler merely kills time, but the flâneur ‘charges time like a battery’ through his attention to novelty, the transient and the ephemeral.

Yet here again we see the flâneur is no radical: his efforts are not especially political, but aesthetic and nostalgic. He does not so much escape boredom and consumerism as revel in it, marking the transition between the dandy of good taste and the dandy who relishes camp with detached, apolitical irony. Against alienation he can set only oh-so-postmodernist fragments of experience, a collapsing kaleidoscope. Is it any wonder that Walter Benjamin was unable to finish his project?

The undercooked flâneur

It is not as an anti-capitalist icon but as a heroic myth for writers that the flâneur owes his survival. He is, says one commentator, ‘the indulgent fantasy of the writer not writing but whose observing eye nonetheless transmits directly to the novelist’s page’, daydreaming his way to a critique of modernity. The problem is that this shortcut often fails to work. Several of the great flâneur-writers became crippled by perfectionism, that handmaiden of procrastination. Benjamin’s own massive work on the Parisian arcades, like Robert Musil’s vast, ambivalent and false-start-filled Vienna novel The Man Without Qualities, was never finished. The cities themselves got the better of the works.

In the end the flâneur met a Rasputin fate, killed by tortoise-crushing traffic, the democratization of city lounging and travel writing, the feminization of his favoured pastimes, and his own internal contradictions. As early as 1877 the writing was on the wall: the feminine word flâneuse appeared—to designate a kind of chaise longue.

'Flaneuse - eucalyptus - toile - fruity - pastel'

‘Flaneuse – eucalyptus – toile – fruity – pastel’

Nonetheless, though nineteenth-century incarnations of the flâneur may have missed it (and even Benjamin could not save him), there is radical potential in urban drifting. Ditching the cigar and top hat, its heirs were Britain’s critical psychogeographers, Guy Debord and the Situationist International—as our speaker Kamel Boudjemil (Sorbonne) will discuss on 2 July [sign up here today].

The snoozing spires

Oxford is, without doubt, one of the cities in the world where least work gets done.
—Javier Marías, All Souls (Todas las Almas, 1989)

Is Oxford especially procrastination-prone? Despite its profusion of clocks (‘The bells! The bells!’), the city prides itself on its timelessness. The spires dream. It is a ‘city preserved in syrup’, like an old-fashioned peach, or a dead wasp. Perhaps it is no accident that Alice in Wonderland was written here: a book of eternal teatime, where time is murdered, and it is always six o’clock.

white rabbitThere is something somnolent in the very air. ‘In Oxford,’ Marías continues, ‘just being requires such concentration and patience, such energy to battle against the natural lethargy of the spirit, that it would be too much to expect its inhabitants actually to stir themselves.’ For centuries the denizens of Oxford have done anything but work. They fornicate and take drugs (Kingsley Amis, Jake’s Thing), ‘snooze…in the arms of Duke Humphrey’ (Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night), wander the meadows and cart around teddybears. And, worst of all, they write Oxford novels. There were 533 by 1989 alone.

Surveying this literature, here are three key reasons why Oxford is the venerable home of procrastination.

Walls

Academic seclusion has all the inconveniences of a desert island, with none of its compensations: it breeds idleness, spite, intrigue, arrogance and strange lunacies.
—Cecil Day Lewis and Charles Fenby, Anatomy of Oxford (1938)

all souls sundial

Oxford’s walls and cloisters are a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, eccentricity, brotherhood, and tradition flourish. On the negative side, eccentricity, brotherhood, and tradition flourish. Jan Morris compared it to Kyoto: old, intensely private, provincial and stubborn.

Into the 1800s, unreformed Oxford was notably relaxed about academic work. The historian Edward Gibbon claimed that the fourteen months he spent at Magdalen were ‘the most idle and unprofitable of my whole life’. Adam Smith accused the professors of giving up ‘even the pretence of teaching’. John Wesley delivered a ferocious sermon at the University Church in 1744, castigating the university fellows for their

pride and haughtiness of spirit, impatience and peevishness, sloth and indolence, gluttony and sensuality, and even a proverbial uselessness.

(He was banned thereafter.)

Even in the twentieth century, Oxford’s ‘narrow serenity’ persisted, albeit with an increasing sense of paradise lost. The students joined drinking clubs and whipped off their trousers (Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall), or pinioned Jewish students ‘to the lawns with croquet-hoops’ (Jake’s Thing). Meanwhile the university fellows declaimed, discoursed, plotted and schemed, mounted the hierarchy, and exercised their eccentricities. Committees, lectures, papers, marking, and those pesky students: Isaiah Berlin (see our Cunctator Prize) complained of the ‘fearful time-eating occupations’ of university life, ‘devouring one’s substance’. The whole logic is that of Sayre’s Law—academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small. Recall that one of the fiendish tactics of Gaudy Night‘s villain was… maliciously blocking the SCR lavatories.

With all these other claims on their time, how could anyone get any work done?

High Street

In my first-ever tutorial, the professor asked us whether we had ‘developed any new vices’.

Max Beerbohm by Walter Sickert in Vanity Fair (1897)

Max Beerbohm by Walter Sickert in Vanity Fair (1897)

‘No?’ He whipped out a box of snuff.

No wonder Oxford is so serene. It’s drug-addled. And it’s a city of temptations. This is the tranquillized city that inspired a hookah-smoking caterpillar. Northern Lights begins in the Retiring Room of Jordan College, complete with ‘a basket of poppy-heads’.

Or else the Fellows are all drunk, as a German visitor complained in 1710. Little had changed 250 years later. So Philip Larkin could scribble: ‘I drove v. carefully after my 2 gins, 3 wines, 2 ports and 1 whiskey, a v. modest All Souls evening.’ Undergraduates learned from the best. ‘I cut tutorials with wild excuse, / For life was luncheons, luncheons all the way,’ Betjeman wrote (he was sent down).

Mind you, those opium dreams can be inspiring if not terribly productive, as Coleridge might tell you. ‘Oxford, that lotus-land, saps the will-power, the power of action’, Max Beerbohm began,

But, in doing so, it clarifies the mind, makes larger the vision, gives, above all, that playful and caressing suavity of manner which comes of a conviction that nothing matters, except ideas. —Zuleika Dobson (1911)

Pride and prejudice and zombies

Perhaps there is an even simpler explanation for the epidemic of lethargy. Oxford is a city of the undead.

Image via bloodymurder.wordpress.com

Image via bloodymurder.wordpress.com

Those ghostly moonlit towers are a clear breeding ground for phantoms. Think of all those detectives: Morse and Lewis, Lord Peter Wimsey, Gervase Fen, Dirk Gently. Poison, bludgeonings, gargoyle landslides, the odd mass suicide engendered by a foxy lady… There can be barely 27 of us still alive in here.

Some of its most famous alumni had the measure of the city. Algernon Swinburne claimed nobody in Oxford could be said to die ‘for they never begin to live’. Mere months after arriving at Merton College, T.S. Eliot agreed that ‘Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead’, and fled to London. ‘It is as though the genius of the city dries up the sap in you,’ wrote Jan Morris. The blood of its scholars, like Middlemarch‘s Casaubon, contains not human red blood cells but semicolons and parentheses.

Others have explicitly alerted us that the dead are walking Turl Street. Much-lampooned broadcaster Robert Robinson set his 1956 crime hit Landscape with Dead Dons in Warlock College. More recently the hero of Deborah Harkness’s historical fantasy trilogy (2011-) is, inevitably, a vampire at All Souls (or ‘the love child of a wedding cake and a cathedral’, as she describes it). Or, as Barbara Pym sinisterly hinted in Crampton Hodnet (1985 [1935-1941]):

‘Are there no sick people I ought to visit?’ asked Mr Latimer hopefully.
‘There are no sick people in North Oxford. They are either dead or alive. It’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference, that’s all,’ explained Miss Morrow.

The Oxford Internet Institute has taken this threat seriously: in 2011, it developed a map of the imminent zombie apocalypse. Southeast England is a hub of zombie consciousness, alongside Hollywood and Texas. The city’s timeless apathy is less surprising when you consider the reanimated corpses stumbling along Broad Street.

'Mapping Zombies', Oxford Internet Institute, July 2011

‘Mapping Zombies’, Oxford Internet Institute, July 2011

So, procrastinators of O-Town, which is it? Misplaced priorities, worldly temptation—or devoured brains?