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 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.

Cutting the Cord

 

We’re delighted to present Frank Hangler’s ‘Cutting the Cord’, winner of the 2014 Cunctator Prize, as generously judged by Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle of the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust.

Here’s Frank’s glorious poster (click for PDF); his paper is below.

hangler-procrastination-poster

 

Cutting the Cord: technology as the source of (and solution to?) procrastination

Procrastination is hardly a novel phenomenon, but in the digital era, it may have reached its apotheosis. Today’s Internet user is subject to a constant stream of e-mails, viral memes, addictive games, social media updates, and Wikipedia spelunking sessions. It’s raining lolcats and doges—and it would appear to be wreaking havoc with our productivity. “The hidden cost of Gangnam Style,” a chart recently released by The Economist, tabulates the opportunity cost to humanity of the 140 million hours we spent watching the rapper PSY’s horse dance antics: twenty Empire State Buildings, or six Burj Khalifas, or an entire Wikipedia (“Daily chart: The hidden cost of Gangnam Style,” 2014). No surprise, then, that many employers continue to block “time-wasting” websites such as Facebook or Twitter, or that studies have found that digital technologies are distracting to workers (R. Williams, 2014). Intriguingly, however, in combatting technological temptation, we are increasingly turning to technology itself. Some might grumble about the lack of character-building discipline this entails. But what is more interesting is what this behaviour tells us about life in the digital era.

The use of technology to prevent procrastination and encourage productivity is not new. In the 1920s, Science and Invention publisher Hugo Gernsback invented human blinders: “The Isolator”, a large helmet that restricted its user’s vision and hearing—and even supplied oxygen from an external tank to counteract drowsiness (Novak, 2013). For perhaps obvious reasons, The Isolator never quite took off. Some simpler technologies have been found more fruitful. The Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, advocates the use of a kitchen timer (such as the common tomato-shaped variety which lent the technique its name) to break up time into blocks of twenty-five minutes of work, followed by breaks of three to five minutes (Cirillo, 2014a, 2014b). Among other techniques, David Allen’s productivity manual Getting Things Done (2002) suggests a system of forty-three folders—one for each day of the month and month of the year—to help organize physical artefacts and reminders. More unusually, Internet critic Evgeny Morozov locks his smartphone and router cable in a timer-controlled safe, allowing him to work without the distraction of the Internet (Tucker, 2013).

The Isolator in action, via A Great Disorder

The Isolator in action, via A Great Disorder

In the digital era, it’s not surprising that such physical approaches have been either replaced or augmented by technologies running on the very devices that seem to have exacerbated the problem of distraction. Both the Pomodoro Technique and Getting Things Done have their own mobile applications. Some word processors, such as Microsoft Word, iA Writer, and Byword, virtually mimic the narrow eye-slit of the Isolator by offering different kinds of “focus modes”—for instance, by making the application full-screen or highlighting only the line of text currently being edited. At the more extreme end of the spectrum are digital implementations of Morozov’s safe: applications such as Freedom (80Pct Solutions, 2014) and SelfControl (Stigler & Lambert, 2014) that can be used to block the Internet, entirely or in part according to customizable blacklists, for pre-specified lengths of time. Nothing short of a reboot (in the case of Freedom) or specific technical knowhow (in the case of SelfControl) can re-enable Internet access once the digital timer has been set. (Freedom features prominent authors such as Nick Hornby, Naomi Klein, and Zadie Smith amongst its admirers.)

Other technologies exist that are only possible in the digital age. The WiFi-enabled “SnūzNLūz” alarm clock threatens to punish lie-ins with automatic donations to ideologically repugnant causes via direct debit (ThinkGeek, 2014). Though the SnūzNLūz was an April Fool’s joke, the concept of pecuniary punishment of procrastination has found traction in at least two real web-based services, Beeminder (2014) and stickK (2014). These sites reward the diligent, but their very business models are essentially wagers on the fundamental idleness of their customers. A similar service, RescueTime (2014), somewhat more benignly tracks and reports on how users spend their time on their computers from day-to-day—but without the risk of penalty, except for crises of conscience.

Beeminder and RescueTime logos

The names and iconography of these technologies provide interesting clues to how we think of procrastination and unproductiveness. The icon for SelfControl is a skull and crossbones (“death to procrastination,” it seems to suggest); Freedom’s is a clock (“time’s running out”). When we are quite literally left to our own devices, we are incapable of focus, self control, or, ultimately, freedom: we are slaves to our appetites, thralls to unproductivity. The promise of these applications is emancipation. But, some might argue, what about the virtue of actually practicing discipline, restraint, or willpower? Rather than growing in virtue by struggling with our temptations, we are offered the easy route of clicking a button, of being constantly nudged by timers and focus modes, of fooling ourselves into work. Using extrinsic approaches to eliminate distractions altogether seems like a quick fix, a cheat. We have replaced our forty days in the wilderness, with the attendant risks (and character-building rewards), with life in a hermetically sealed room—safe and unchallenging.

SelfControl logo

SelfControl logo

I think this view is self-flagellating, for three reasons. First, it’s possible that we worry a little too much about procrastination to begin with, at least in the sense that we see it as a danger unique to the digital era. The word itself has been attested at least since the sixteenth century (“procrastination, n.,” 2014); the fable of the industrious ant and the lazy grasshopper dates to the classical era. Nor should we begrudge ourselves reasonable leisure. “[H]umanity has at least been entertained,” The Economist wryly comments on their Gangnam Style infographic (“Daily chart: The hidden cost of Gangnam Style,” 2014). Though 16,000 human-years spent watching the video is an initially staggering statistic, it still means that, on average, each of the world’s seven billion inhabitants only spent 1.2 minutes of their time watching. This is hardly excessive entertainment. The Internet can be undeniably distracting; the claims it makes on our attention—possibly the last truly scarce good in the materially-wealthy West (see, for instance, Goldhaber, 1997)—can be profound; in the end, it is possibly even addictive (Young, 1998). But procrastination is not new. It is as old as work itself.

Psy: 'hardly excessive entertainment'

Psy: ‘hardly excessive entertainment’

Second, the notion that we should be alarmed at using digital technology to combat distraction plays into the idea of what the sociologist Nathan Jurgenson has termed “digital dualism”—that online life is somehow separate and distinct from “real” life (2011). Digital dualist narratives also tend to depict the “real” world as somehow purer or worthier than the digital one. The problem with digital dualism, however, is that there is not really any such thing as “cyberspace.” At a very concrete level, the Internet is physically grounded; though we feel as though we are peering through our computer screens into a separate digital world, it is as real as anything else we experience. It is more profitable to think of the Internet in terms of affordances: in other words, the modalities it permits and implicitly encourages, and those it denies or discourages. To return to the issue of attention, it may well be true that Internet technologies can be especially distracting; advertising, for instance, can be more intrusive than in traditional media, with full-page takeovers and auto-playing videos. And many (otherwise) intelligent people are spending a significant amount of time and effort designing ever more attention-grabbing distractions. “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” lamented former Facebook employee Jeff Hammerbacher (Vance, 2011). There is an arms race for our attention; faced with the unique challenges of Internet-related distraction, then, we should not feel bad about mustering technological weapons against the abuse of technology. We should not assume that traditional, offline techniques are better or more valid than online ones. Indeed, the proliferation of applications designed to help us focus is more an indication of ingenuity and adaptability in response to the onslaught of hard-to-avoid distractions. “Our brains are so easy to fool that it’s borderline embarrassing; you might as well salvage some self-respect by exploiting that fact,” writes the technology journalist Oliver Burkeman (2010).

Evgeny Morozov, by re:publica

Evgeny Morozov, by re:publica

Finally, we should not unnecessarily elevate the virtue of struggle. To be sure, discipline and willpower in the face of unavoidable temptation are laudable. But there is nothing unseemly—indeed there is something prudent— about avoiding temptation altogether; and thankfully, we need not take such drastic measures as St Francis of Assisi did when he flung himself into a rose bush. When we can help ourselves focus with software, coping with technological temptation by eschewing technology seems unnecessarily scrupulous. Morozov said about his safe, “It’s not that I can’t say ‘no’ to myself. I just waste too much energy having the internal conversation. I’d rather delegate the control to my safe and use my remaining willpower to get something done” (Tucker, 2013). Replying to those who ridiculed the practice, even this deeply techno-skeptical thinker said, “I have no problem with the safe, frankly. It fits very well with my vision for technology. It’s okay to delegate certain things to technology” (C. Williams, 2013). Applications such as Freedom and SelfControl do not operate autonomously. The user must still have the willpower to click the button that blocks their Internet, after all. And though that is a simple act, and is likely to be easier than exerting the full effort of our will to avoid distraction, it is not without virtue (Millgram, 2010).

In sum, then, we shouldn’t castigate ourselves for marshalling what defences we can against distraction, when it does indeed transition from reasonable entertainment to compulsive procrastination. Instead, it is worth pondering what our use of technology contra technology tells us about life in the digital age. It suggests that though distraction and procrastination are nothing new, the affordances of Internet-enabled computing—the near-ubiquitous connectivity, the malleability of web content, the steady stream of notifications—can exacerbate the problem; but other affordances—“distraction-free” modes, the ability to cleanly, easily, and reversibly sever our Internet connections—can similarly help us fight it. Another factor is that we now find ourselves enjoying entertainment on the same device we use for work. This can be undeniably problematic when, for instance, we spend too much time on YouTube rather than programming, researching, writing, or performing other work that is temporarily painful but ultimately satisfying.

But this convergence of uses actually points to another idea. The era of always-on Internet encourages us to actually reassess the idea of procrastination itself. The Silicon Valley venture capitalist Paul Graham writes, “No matter what you work on, you’re not working on everything else. So the question is not how to avoid procrastination, but how to procrastinate well” (2005). In fact, one study suggests that some kinds of “cyberloafing” might actually boost productivity (Academy of Management, 2014). Social media, Wikipedia, and online news are not necessarily “good” procrastination—but they should not automatically be considered bad, either. These activities can strengthen social ties, encourage learning, and invite serendipitous innovation just as much as they can distract us from the more important tasks at hand. Some work profits from long blocks of steady concentration, and for such times, we have applications such as Freedom and SelfControl—or safes. But having information readily available can also be a boon. The novelist Ned Beauman, though himself an avid user of Internet-blocking applications, nevertheless says the Internet is “Inextricably part of my method. […] I don’t consider Wikipedia a distraction; I find it really useful. Most of the time you’re learning something” (Wilkinson, 2012). What we should encourage is not a complete disconnection from technology to avoid procrastination, nor a condemnation of the Internet as an inherently procrastinatory medium, but rather a contextual approach—aided, when appropriate, by technology itself—that enables us to work when we need to, and surf when we don’t.

macfreedom logo

Frank Hangler is an MSc student at the Oxford Internet Institute, interested in big data, smart cities, and the rhetoric of technology. He has several years of professional experience in design and development. He holds a BA (Honours) in Political Science and a Bachelor of Computer Science, both from the University of British Columbia.

 

References

[Links active as of 13 June 2014]

80Pct Solutions. (2014). Freedom – Internet Blocking Productivity Software.

Academy of Management. (2014). Internet browsing at work? It’s a pause that refreshes workers and enhances their productivity, new research finds.

Allen, D. (2002). Getting Things Done. London: Piatkus.

Beeminder. (2014). Beeminder.

Burkeman, O. (2010). This column will change your life: Is self-discipline the key to success? The Guardian.

pomodoro techniqueCirillo, F. (2014a). Frequently Asked Questions. The Pomodoro Technique.

Cirillo, F. (2014b). Get Started. The Pomodoro Technique.

Daily chart: The hidden cost of Gangnam Style. (2014). The Economist.

Goldhaber, M. H. (1997, April 7). The attention economy and the Net. First Monday.

Graham, P. (2005). Good and Bad Procrastination.

Jurgenson, N. (2011). Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality. Cyborgology.

Millgram, E. (2010). Virtue for Procrastinators. In The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination. Oxford University Press.

Novak, M. (2013). Thinking Cap: A Helmet That Seals Out External Sounds and Sights. Pacific Standard.

procrastination, n. (2014). OED Online.

RescueTime. (2014). RescueTime: Time management software for staying productive and happy in the modern workplace.

StickK. (2014). stickK − Change Starts Now.

Stigler, C., & Lambert, S. (2014). SelfControl.

ThinkGeek. (2014). SnūzNLūz – Wifi Donation Alarm Clock.

Tucker, I. (2013). Evgeny Morozov: “We are abandoning all the checks and balances.” The Guardian.

Vance, A. (2011). This Tech Bubble Is Different. Businessweek.

Wilkinson, C. (2012). Shutting out a world of digital distraction. The Telegraph.

Williams, C. (2013). Google is run by adolescents, says Evgeny Morozov. The Telegraph.

Williams, R. (2014). Internet “fuels procrastination and lowers productivity.” The Telegraph.

Young, K. S. (1998). Internet Addiction: The Emergence of a New Clinical Disorder. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 1(3), 237–244. doi:10.1089/cpb.1998.1.237

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].

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 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?

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.

A hierarchy of procrastination

Not all procrastination is created equal. It is a capacious concept, it contains multitudes. While the word always suggests postponement and delay, whether this is negative or positive is more contentious.

Decisiveness is not necessarily a virtue—’more haste, less speed’, after all—while deferral can also mean defiance. Even acknowledged time-wasting can take quite different forms, with quite different moral valences. The ends may justify the means: your tweedy-browed academic, waxing lyrical over the Sauternes, is quite happy to admit to some procrastination while a team of subconscious elves do the hard work of creativity (Stephen King rather creepily calls them ‘the boys in the basement’).

Mother's ruin: pointless procrastination?

Mother’s ruin: pointless procrastination?

The means themselves vary in moral resonance too. Cleaning the house or immediately answering emails make you a good citizen. Self-improving procrastination (reading poetry, say) also seems somehow superior to endless consumption of TV or YouTube cats. These moral valences are not static or universal: the value of the leisurely musing young aristocrat or the uncommitted political leader has risen and fallen. One man’s brave refusenik is another man’s pretentiously idle French stereotype.

Here, then, is a first attempt at sketching a hierarchy of procrastination, as it appears to a middle-class Millennial in the town of Oxford in February 2014. (Click here for PDF.) What do you think?

Is the hierarchy neatly linear, or do we need to differentiate between the individual and the social? Can inactivity with external causes (structural unemployment, a culture of endless boardroom meetings) truly be called procrastination, or are behavioural economists correct in seeing it as the ‘quintessential self-regulatory failure’? How does this hierarchy vary over time and space? Does it, in the end, all come down to successful outcomes—or to social class?

hierarchy of procrastination