Tag Archives: procrastination

Guest post: Procrastination Conference at OCLW

For your those of you supposed to be working right now, but are reading this blog instead, conference organizers Liz Chatterjee and Danielle Yardy share their  illustrated and humorous summary of the ‘Procrastination: Cultural Explorations’ conference at OCLW in July. This conference was the winner of the OCLW-TORCH postgraduate conference award, and the competition will be repeated this year. Stay tuned for further details!

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Procrastination: Cultural Explorations
2 July 2014
Wolfson College, Oxford
http://procrastinationoxford.org

Frontispiece of Anthony Walker’s 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.

A flâneur, ‘botanising on the asphalt’ (Walter Benjamin)

A flâneur, ‘botanising on the asphalt’ (Walter Benjamin)

 

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.

 

Samuel Smiles’ Victorian bestseller, Self-Help (1859)

Samuel Smiles’ Victorian bestseller, Self-Help (1859)

 

Self-Help

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?’ (link: http://writeordie.com/)—participants headed to the Mañanarama exhibition for some much-needed drinks.

The exhibition displayed a host of procrastinatory artefacts, including an Ostrich pillow (link: http://www.ostrichpillow.com/), 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.

Walter Benjamin biscuit cutter - Tracey Potts

Walter Benjamin biscuit cutter – Tracey Potts

 

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, on our website (link: http://procrastinationoxford.org/2014/07/25/cutting-the-cord/).

‘The Hidden Cost of Gangnam Style’, The Economist, 3 June 2014

‘The Hidden Cost of Gangnam Style’, The Economist, 3 June 2014

 

 

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.

 

 

Work in Progress Seminar 19th February 2014

Lucinda Fenny here, the final member of the OCLW publicity team, welcome to my first blog post and I look forward to sharing more of my thoughts with you over the coming months.

On Wednesday evening, in the company of an intimate audience, OCLW’s visiting members presented an outline of the work they are conducting whilst in residence in Oxford.  Everyone stuck to their allocated time of 10 minutes which was very impressive, and were able to give us a very succinct view of their, in some cases, vast topics, and the challenges that they face.  The seminar was chaired by Hermione Lee.

First to speak was Sophie Scott-Brown from the Australian National University in Canberra, who is working on a biography of the British radical historian Raphael Samuel.  She began by challenging the view of Samuel as a Marxist historian, instead describing him as a people’s historian, despite the difficulties in defining what that term actually means.  Sophie claimed that biography is key to bringing out Samuel’s architectural type, explaining why and how he did what he did.  She also emphasised Samuel’s relevance to contemporary debates on the social role of the intellectual and historian, he advocated for empowering people to speak for themselves.

Our second speaker was Jeffrey Gutierrez from Boston who talked about the issues that surround the editing of collections of letters, in particular reference to William Carlos Williams.  Jeffrey explained how the first edition of his letters were heavily censored, as the poet was still alive at the time.  An important question is how to transcribe Williams’ letters into print, as he often did something artistic with the form of them and although past editors have argued that his is of no relevance, Jeffrey contested this view.  He showed the audience two letters written only a few months apart.  One had been left uncorrected, and showed the state of Williams’ mind following a series of strokes due to the large number of errors.  The corrected letter gives the impression that Williams had made a miraculous recovery, which was, of course, not the case.

Maria Rita Drumond Viana highlighted the vast resources available in relation to W.B. Yeats and how fortunate she felt to now have access to them here in Oxford.  She put forward the notion of letters as a literary genre in themselves, in contrast to how they are used by other scholars, as documents, evidence and testimony.  This distinguishes what a letter says from how it says it.  She put forward the contested notion that the correspondence of a writer can be considered as part of their work, which is not possible with any other artist.  In the discussion this was further covered, where Maria Rita argued that while letters may not be considered part of a writer’s work, they can be included as examples of the way in which they write.

Finally Tracey Potts our visiting scholar from Nottingham University gave us an insight into the methodology and its problems when writing about the biography of objects.  Her work  focuses on clutter and procrastination, which Tracey was quick to point out was not a reflection on her own life! One of the problems when working with clutter in particular is how we deal with piles of stuff, and how we relate to the material world.  Clutter is a certain challenge as it is a thing that is not a thing. An important part of her work is extending the notion of agency to the non-human world, when at present humans are at the centre of the stories of things.  This counters the idea that humans control things; Tracey posited the fact that perhaps it was the other way around and that things might have designs on us.  To further pique our interest in her work she informed us that penguins and coffee tables are two cast members in the book.