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

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

I would prefer not to

‘You think I’m gonna let some clock tell me what to do?’

a chronically unpunctual civil servant says incredulously at the outset of ‘Procrastination: a modern malaise’ (Barbara J. Moore, Antioch Review, 2004). The situationist Guy Debord emblazoned an even more radical sentiment across a Parisian wall in 1953:

Guy-Debord-Ne-travaille-jamais

(Debord, beloved of punk bands and slacker filmmakers, never did work in any conventional sense: he found a rich patron. Before that his wife ‘supported them both by writing horoscopes for racehorses.’ He was unimpressed when his slogan became a ‘comic’ postcard.)

This post is dedicated the great refuseniks of life and literature—those brave souls who have had the courage to say NO to the modern 9-to-5 (or, today, 24-7) world of work. Such icons are precious. After all, what other role models does history provide for quitters? Nixon, Edward VIII, Sarah Palin, the ex-pope, and Anthony “Wiener” Weiner.

Just say no

Perhaps the most famous refusenik of them all came a century before Debord’s graffito. In Herman Melville’s 1853 short story, Bartleby the Scrivener is hired as a copyist. He seems a decent enough chap. Then one day he presents the narrator, his new boss, with what is to become his catchphrase:

via Avidly

Image (reproduced on a thousand T-shirts) via Avidly

Prefer not to work, not to answer questions, not to move out of the office. Mild, unprepossessing, hostile to change, this most minor of bureaucrats is an unlikely hero, an inverted Oliver Twist with his painfully polite declaration. It becomes clear that he has no friends, no home, no hope. He is a curiously ambivalent refusenik.

Yet this enigmatic figure has become a quiet icon. So many interpretations have been piled upon his pale and silent self that Dan McCall wrote of ‘the Bartleby Industry’, within which the story itself had become all but lost (The Silence of Bartleby, 1989).

Bartleby the everyman

benaffleckdogmaThese glosses vary wildly. He has, inevitably, been read as autistic, schizophrenic or depressed—all that staring at walls—yet Deleuze found him ‘violently comical‘ and the 2001 film somehow managed to introduce ‘sitcom elements’. Ben Affleck’s Bartleby in Dogma (dir. Kevin Smith, 1999), meanwhile, is a murderous rogue angel finally slain by God Herself, aka Alanis Morissette.

Literature has parasitized the scrivener too. The copyist becomes the noble wordsmith, rejecting the demands of pulp fiction. In Enrique Vila-Matas’s crafty ‘metafiction’ Bartleby & Co. (2000, trans. 2004), he becomes the emblem of all ‘artists of refusal’, including Kafka, Beckett, Musil, Duchamp, Rimbaud, and a host of lesser-known figures. Some, like the reclusive, hunchbacked narrator, can’t or won’t write. Others, most famously Pynchon and Salinger, shun the limelight. Thus even Bartleby’s eventual fate—a quiet hunger strike unto death against the unfeeling world (‘Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!’)—is interpreted as that ultimate refusal, suicide.

Bartleby is the 99 percent

iwouldprefernottostrikeIf artists have the leisure to kill time (and themselves), it is the world of labour that has most recently embraced Bartleby. He’s one of the army of disposable workers, made redundant from the Dead Letter Office of Washington and surviving only on ginger-nuts. The scrivener thus became an unexpected symbol for the Occupy movement. Melville’s subtitle is, after all, ‘A Story of Wall-Street’. His baffled employer-narrator is a corporate lawyer; he’s basically the first man ever to work in an office cubicle; and eventually he ends up squatting in the office, all the while refusing to touch money. ‘Bartleby,’ the Atlantic pointed out, ‘was the first laid-off worker to occupy Wall Street.’

At the movement’s height the IWPN2 catchphrase did the internet rounds. But such is his inscrutability that Bartleby can be interpreted in the opposite fashion. For the New Yorker he is the mascot of social media fatigue: ‘Apathy muddled by strong opinion and obstinacy, the scrivener would fit right in among my generation, posting weary outrage in comments sections.’ In the twenty-first century his rallying cry would be trimmed—to ‘Meh.’

The messianic scrivener

Melville, 1870

Melville, speculated to be the model for Bartleby, along with Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, Bleak House‘s ‘Nemo’—and Jesus Christ

As if this were not burden enough, a bunch of people have claimed that Bartleby, like Josef K., is Christ. Yes: the quiet bureaucrat as a wandering pilgrim sans Samaritan, Lazarus or a figurative leper (though an older author saw him simply as a corpse). He is Heidegger’s broken tool, a thing of questionable status—like the letters of the dead he used to handle.

The most high-profile exponent of this notion is the Foucauldian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. His most celebrated concept, the ‘state of exception’, is Bartleby-based. He was inspired enough to write a commentary on the short story in 1993. Homo Sacer (1995, trans. 1998) again presents the scrivener as ‘the strongest objection against the principle of sovereignty’.

Bartlebyism is not procrastination in the sense of idleness, Oblomov’s paralysis or Jerome K. Jerome’s gentle chuckles. It requires exertion and, however inchoate, a sense of politics. His mantra is truly subversive, because it ‘resists every possibility of deciding between poten­tiality and the potentiality not to.’ Agamben’s Bartleby is therefore not pessimistic  but redemptive. He is a messiah who would ‘fulfil the Torah by destroying it from top to bottom’—and so enable us to live a life of possibility.

sickle and mouse

Much ink has been spilled on academics’ and freelancers’ self-exploitation. (And half of us even use a programme called Scrivener!) Tired of your endless scribblings, marking, emailing, reviewing, tweeting? Repeat that great, curiously British mantra:

bartleby swoosh

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.