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 Telegraph on Procrastination Oxford

The ever-interesting author and critic Jane Shilling provided a rather lovely take on our conference on 2 July for today’s Telegraph. See below—or click here for the original.

 

The Precious Art of Procrastination

Jane Shilling visits the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing to explore procrastination, infamous as being the scourge of creative types

broken alarm clockTo Oxford, that humming hive of academic endeavour and fantastical far-niente, for a cultural exploration of procrastination convened by the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing.

Procrastination is notoriously the scourge of creative types, schoolchildren and journalists. Its patron saints are Dr Johnson, frantically scribbling as the printer’s boy waited to snatch the sheets with the ink still wet upon them; Cyril Connolly, morosely cataloguing the sombre impediments to good art (the pram in the hall, the blue bugloss of journalism, the charlock of sex, the slimy mallows of success, etc) while scoffing gulls’ eggs and failing to write a good novel; and Douglas Adams, the modern virtuoso of procrastination, who cheerily admitted that “I love deadlines, I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

The sacraments of procrastination are coffee, Red Bull, Pro-Plus and a lurid spectrum of less innocent stimulants. Its ceremonies are the missed deadline, the specious excuse and the exasperated riposte of the schoolmaster and editor. (I find there is something strangely comforting—even addictive—about the increasingly desperate enquiries of my editors as to when I might eventually file my copy. I tend to reply in the immortal words of Captain Jack Aubrey’s rebarbative steward Killick. Questioned as to the whereabouts of the Captain’s eagerly awaited dinner, he remarked dourly, “Which it will be ready when it is ready”.)

If procrastination were merely an example of what the Greeks termed akrasia—the habit of acting against one’s better judgment—it would be of compelling interest to philosophers and psychologists, but its role in artistic endeavour would be essentially that of the bad fairy at the christening. Happily, when it comes to creativity, procrastination has the mysterious homeopathic quality of being both poison and cure, inspiration and inhibitor.

The OCLW’s procrastination blog (at ProcrastinationOxford.org) offers a picaresque tour of the procrastinatory horizon, taking in such monuments of the art of stylish cunctation as the flâneur—the 19th-century embodiment of idleness evoked (and personified) by the poet Baudelaire. In his essay, The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire described the flâneur, strolling the city streets in purposeful aimlessness: “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 Situationist Guy Debord, strolling was a political act. “La dérive”, or drifting, defined as an unplanned journey through an urban landscape, was a medium both of authentic engagement with the “distinct psychic atmospheres” of the city, and a ludic subversion of the grinding monotony of advanced capitalism.

“Ne travaillez jamais”, Debord scrawled on the wall of the rue de Seine in 1953, and it was a maxim to which he adhered throughout his life (a martyr to the effects of lifelong alcoholism, he shot himself in 1994). A visitor to the Debord household observed that Mme Debord seemed to get very little help with the housework. “She does the dishes,” Debord explained. “I do the revolution.”

The fuzzy boundary between work and idleness was a leitmotif of the conference, with papers on “Idle Days in Baghdad: The emergence of bourgeois time and the coffee shop as a site of procrastination”, and the Egyptian novelist, Albert Cossery’s poitics of laziness. Cossery, who remarked that he wrote “only when I have nothing better to do”, produced eight novels in 60 years, written mostly at the Café de Flore, an establishment to which he once turned up in a wheelchair pushed by a beautiful blonde, still wearing the pyjamas of the hospital from which he had just fled.

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!”

So seductive a subject could scarcely be despatched in a single day. The conversation continues next term at a Procrastination Seminar, to be held on Wednesdays at 5.30pm in the Old Library at All Souls. Further details are said (appropriately enough) to be “coming soon”.

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.

emblem-multimedia

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

Deadlines

“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.