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PROCRASTINATION
CULTURAL EXPLORATIONS
Wolfson College
University of Oxford
2 July 2014
SCHEDULE
the Leonard Wolfson Auditorium
8.30-9am
Registration
t
9-10am
KEYNOTE 1
Chair: Arthur Downing
Professor Avner Offer (Oxford)
‘When to Stop?’
t
10-11.30am
PANEL 1: PROCRASTINATION AND CREATIVITY
Chair: Dr Amia Srinivasan
Dr Will May (Southampton)
‘Porlock’s Whim: Poetry as procrastination’
Alex Belsey (King’s College London)
‘Angst, Apathy, and Indulgence in the Studio of Keith Vaughan’
Oliver Neto (Bristol)
‘“Preparatory to Anything Else”...: Joyce, boredom
and creative procrastination’
t
11.30am-12 noon
Coffee
t
12-1pm
PANEL 2: PROCRASTINATION AND RESISTANCE
Chair: Dr Tracey Potts
Dr Mrinalini Greedharry (Laurentian, Ontario)
‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Figuring procrastination as tactic’
Anna Della Subin (Independent)
‘Against Procrastination: Albert Cossery and the politics of laziness’
t
1-2pm
Lunch
11
3.30-4pm
Coffee
t
4-5pm
PANEL 5: REFLECTIONS ON SELF-HELP
Chair: Dr Amia Srinivasan
Dr Barbara Leckie (Carleton, Ontario)
‘Victorian Procrastination:
Or, Middlemarch as a primer on procrastination in ten easy lessons’
Dr Susan Machum (St Thomas, New Brunswick)
‘Overcoming Procrastination: A critical examination of trade books designed
to increase productivity and ensure things “get done”’
t
5.15-6.15pm (The Haldane Room)
KEYNOTE 2
Chair: Elizabeth Chatterjee
Dr Tracey Potts (Nottingham)
‘Undoing the Maths: Notes toward a genealogy of procrastination’
t
6.15pm
Drinks reception, Cunctator Prize Presentation
and Mañanarama Exhibition
t
7.15pm
Dinner
2-3.30pm
Parallel Sessions
PANEL 3: PROCRASTINATION AND TIME
Seminar Room
Chair: Elizabeth Dubois
Johannes Schlegel (Potsdam)
‘Procrastination as Deceleration in
Shakespeare’s The Tempest’
Lilith Dornhuber de Bellesiles (UC Berkeley)
‘The Queer Art of Procrastination’
Rebecca Birrell (Oxford)
‘“Coming Soon”: Rachael Allen, Sam Riviere
and a poetics of procrastination’
PANEL 4: PROCRASTINATION AND PLACE
the Leonard Wolfson Auditorium
Chair: Arthur Downing
Kamel Boudjemil (Sorbonne, Paris)
‘From Procrastination to Revolution: Guy Debord,
the Situationists, and the last radical avant-garde’
Pelle Valentin Olsen (Oxford)
‘Idle Days in Baghdad:
The emergence of bourgeois time and the
coffee shop as a site of procrastination’
Susanne Bayerlipp (Ludwig-Maximilians-University)
‘Procrastinating Abroad: Exchanges of letters and
moral discourse on academic travel in the age of
Erasmus and after’
2
MANIFESTO
I
t’s been called many things: a sin, an addiction, a disease, a devil. Estimates suggest that 80-95%
of college students engage in it, and 20% of people are chronic sufferers. For Samuel Taylor
Coleridge, it was ‘a moral idiocy, an imbecility of the will, a haunting, an emptiness, a posthumous
state’. For Abraham Lincoln’s wife it was her ‘evil genius’. For Thomas de Quincey it was worse than
murder. Lust? Morphine? Bad language on the Sabbath day?
We mean, of course, procrastination. It is ubiquitous—perhaps especially among academics and
writers. Yet for all the Wildean witticisms it has inspired, procrastination has remained remarkably
understudied. The vast majority of existing works are, unsurprisingly, prescriptive: it’s a dirty word.
There even exists a support group, Procrastinators Anonymous.
Existing studies are largely confined to behavioural economics and psychology. The social sciences
and humanities are delayed arrivals on the analytical scene. Yet many of procrastination’s most curious
aspects are not well captured by psychology or economics. Its study is necessarily interdisciplinary.
First, the English language is unusual in having a word for the phenomenon. Proverbs against
procrastination exist in many languages—but without any single-word equivalent. Nonetheless,
similar concepts and debates can be found outside the Anglophone world, like Goncharov’s Oblomov
(1859) or the francophone writings of the Egyptian-born Albert Cossery, ‘patron saint of laziness’.
Speakers of Indian English have coined a new word, ‘timepass’, while Arabic has the nebulous taswif. Is
procrastination a uniquely anglophone concept, then, or a cultural universal?
Similarly, what is the relationship between procrastination and its (typically unpleasant) conceptual
and psychological bedfellows, from laziness and hesitation to boredom, fear, and disgust? The concept
of postponement has always appeared morally fraught—amongst classical authors delay had both its
defenders (Herodotus) and detractors (Cicero).
By the time it entered the English language in the 16
th
century, however, the connotations of
procrastination had become almost chronically negative. Preachers railed against it, and in 1742 Edward
Young coined its enduring epithet: ‘Procrastination is the thief of time.’ Today self-help literature
propagates ideals of risk-taking and ‘going with your gut’, with the procrastinator the entrepreneur’s
miserable inverse. Is it coincidence that condemnation of procrastination increased alongside the rise
of the factory, the office, and most recently the ‘portfolio career’?
Yet we also live in the age of spam, open-plan offices, and YouTube cat videos. The
boundaries of private life bleed into the workday and the public sphere through
flexi-time and social media. Does the organization of modern life inevitably
foster procrastination even while denouncing it?
Procrastination still has its defenders too: as a critical component of
contemplation and creativity (for Einstein and Bertrand Russell), a ‘weapon
of the weak’ against everyday exploitation (James C. Scott), or even part
of a revolutionary ‘right to be lazy’ (Paul Lafargue).Yet it may stall change
through tactical filibustering and bureaucratic inertia. Does procrastination
have genuine radical political potential, or is it an enforcer of the status quo?
It is with such open questions that this event begins. Moving
beyond self-help prescriptions or notions of irrationality, we
seek to explore the historical, social, and cultural dimensions
of this most pervasive and ambivalent of phenomena.
3
I never put off until tomorrow what I can possibly do—the day after.
—Oscar Wilde
SPEAKERS AND ABSTRACTS
K
eynote 1. Professor Avner Offer (Oxford)
‘When to Stop?’
Procrastination is part of the larger problem of indecision, which
is a pervasive response to uncertainty. Each disciplinary approach
frames it differently: as an algorithmic problem (economics, decision
theory), as a ‘wiring defect’ of the human brain (psychology), or as
fate (the humanities). Indecision predicaments considered include
moral autonomy, watching television, mate selection, thesis writing,
technological design, and military planning. Climate change is an indecision
problem which threatens civilization. The problem is defined, and solutions
are classified into algorithms, rewiring, and fate.
Avner Offer was the Chichele Professor of Economic History at the University of Oxford from 2000
to 2011. His most recent book, The Challenge of Affluence: Self-control and Well-Being in the United
States and Britain since 1950 (OUP, 2006), is a comparative study of consumption and well-being,
applying a dynamic conception of myopic choice to evaluate the experience of affluence in the two
countries. Currently he is writing a book on ‘From Social Democracy to Market Liberalism’, the shift
of policy norms from social solidarity to market individualism during the last four decades. He is an
Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford and a Fellow of the British Academy.
K
EYNOTE 2. Dr Tracey Potts (Nottingham)
‘Undoing the Maths: Notes towards a genealogy
of procrastination’
According to Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation
(2012), 95% of us procrastinate at one time or another. Not
surprisingly, the issue of self-control and personal productivity has
generated both clinical and popular interest, giving rise to a growing
body of professional and self-help literature. Both the World Health
Organisation and the American Psychiatric Association list procrastination
among a cluster of pathological behaviours that cohere in diagnostic
categories such as Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder (PAPD) and Generalised
Anxiety Disorder (GAD). At the same time, a veritable industry of cures, treatments and personal
growth advice has emerged, ranging from best-selling time-management titles to an expanding
universe of smartphone apps designed to keep us motivated and on task.
This paper seeks to question the so-called ‘solid science’ (Steel) that underpins much of the
research on procrastination. Utilizing a genealogical approach (Foucault), the aim is to undermine the
emphasis on cure and solution promoted by the clinic, and, more broadly, by self-help guidance, in
order to expose the operation of disciplinary techniques and institutions in the constitution of the
seemingly indolent, procrastinatory subject. Above all, the intention is to dismantle the equation of
procrastination with personality disorder and to disturb the mathematical and neurobiological modeling
that serves to ‘blackbox’ procrastination as a matter of evolutionary hardwiring.
Tracey Potts is Lecturer in Critical Theory and Cultural Studies at the University of Nottingham
and Visiting Scholar at Wolfson College, Oxford (2013-14). She is currently working on a cultural
biography of clutter and procrastination entitled Neither Use Nor Ornament, for which she has been
awarded a Leverhulme Research Fellowship.
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PANEL 1. PROCRASTINATION AND CREATIVITY
Dr Will May (Southampton)
‘Porlock’s Whim: Poetry as procrastination’
Emerson advised would-be poets that the only way to ensure a good morning’s
work was to put off social engagements for tomorrow: ‘I shun father and mother
and wife and brother, when my genius calls me [...] I would write on the lintels of
the door-post, Whim’ (‘Self-Reliance’, 1841). Whim becomes an early version
of the auto-reply, a way of excusing the creative artist from social or ethical
obligations to society. Yet Coleridge found the opposite tactic afforded convenient
excuses, too: the interruption of his ‘person from Porlock’ allowed him to publish a
poetic fragment in 1816 when, as Stevie Smith wryly surmised, ‘The truth is I think he
was already stuck / With Kubla Kahn’ (‘Thoughts about the Person from Porlock’, 1962).
Procrastination is both the expedient excuse to write poetry and the means to avoid writing
it: a poem becomes its own source of distraction. In this paper, I will explore the off-putting possibilities of
procrastination for modern poetry by looking at sonnets by E.E. Cummings, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Ashbery.
Through careful attention to the poets’ compositional practice and revisions, I will argue that while a poem might
be a form of procrastination, procrastinating over a poem has its own implications for form too.
Will May is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Southampton. He is the author of Postwar Literature:
1950-1990 (Longman, 2010), Stevie Smith and Authorship (OUP, 2010) and the editor of The Collected Poems
and Drawings of Stevie Smith (Faber, 2014). His current project is a cultural history of poetry and whimsy.
Alex Belsey (King’s College London)
‘Angst, Apathy, and Indulgence in the Studio of Keith
Vaughan’
By the early 1960s, British painter Keith Vaughan (1912-77) seemed to have
it all; widespread acclaim, famous friends, a doting long-term partner. Yet
during this period he confided in his journal an intensity of angst that eclipsed
anything written thus far in over two decades of journal-keeping. Sealed for long
periods in his home studio in London, Vaughan’s productivity and psychological
well-being were unravelling. Mounting frustration at the repetitious nature of his
social engagements, his disconnection from the city’s sexy young art scene, and an
impasse in his own visual practice was transforming him into a cantankerous recluse. Angst
fed apathy as he shunned his partner, rejected invitations, and declared himself out of ideas. Medicating himself
with alcohol and prescription drugs, he devoted himself more and more to his ‘indulgences’—a habitual pattern
of masturbation and self-flagellation that he dressed up in extensive journal entries as a mixture of aesthetic
and scientific ‘investigation’. This paper will examine the dynamic between the three forces of angst, apathy, and
indulgence and how they trapped Vaughan in a cycle of self-loathing and self-destructive behaviours; a cycle
that was only exacerbated by his compulsive yet conflicted accounts in his journal.
Alex Belsey is a PhD candidate in English Research at King’s College London. His doctoral research is an archival
project on the journal of British painter Keith Vaughan (1912-77). Alex is affiliated with King’s Centre for
Life-Writing Research and sits on the steering committee of the Postgraduate Memory Network. He is currently
co-editing the fourth issue of Stet, the online postgraduate research journal for the English Department at King’s.
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Oliver Neto (Bristol)
‘“Preparatory to Anything Else”…: Joyce, boredom and creative
procrastination’
According to his friend Frank Budgen, James Joyce once spent a whole day working on
the production of two sentences for his novel Ulysses. When Budgen asked him if he
was ‘seeking the mot juste’, Joyce, in a now famous response, told him that he had the
words already. ‘What I am seeking’, he continued, ‘is the perfect order of words in the
sentence’. This paper will demonstrate how Joyce’s manipulation of syntax and frequent
deployment of narrative digression, often to the point of pedantry, produce a textual
performance of procrastination. It is, moreover, the kind of hyperactive procrastination
commonly associated with boredom. Ulysses is full of characters who procrastinate in order to
either fend off or confront boredom. As so often in Joyce’s writing, the work’s thematic concern is
embodied by its linguistic medium. The result is a narrative whose procrastination evokes the disquieting experience of
being bored.
The broader aim of this paper will be to discuss how the novel form allows us to think about boredom-oriented
procrastination as a potentially creative and subversive phenomenon. I shall develop this idea by reading Ulysses
against two of Joyce’s contemporaries: Martin Heidegger and Theodor Adorno. While the two thinkers conceive of
the more fundamental experience of boredom in apparently different ways, both treat the role of procrastination as
an article of bad faith. Conversely, Joyce’s creative use of boredom-oriented procrastination in Ulysses demonstrates
procrastination’s radical potential.
Oliver Neto is a PhD student in English at the University of Bristol. His AHRC-funded project addresses the relationship
between boredom and narrative in modernist fiction. His current focus is on the work of James Joyce. Oliver completed
his MA at UCL, and his BA at the University of Sussex.
PANEL 2. PROCRASTINATION AND RESISTANCE
Dr Mrinalini Greedharry (Laurentian, Ontario)
‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place:
Figuring procrastination as tactic’
How might we think about the relationship between the practice of
procrastination and an ethics of resistance? Like most other concepts given shape
primarily in the domain of psychological discourses, procrastination is presumed to
be an affliction we find everywhere, in all types of people. Nevertheless, it is also
acknowledged to be a historically specific practice, one that belongs to modernity
and takes shape in relation to the material conditions that organize modern life.
Writing about Walter Benjamin, for example, Stephanie Polsky traces a particular tactic
of procrastination that was necessary for the survival of the German-Jewish petit bourgeois
subject under conditions of intense pressure to assimilate and eventually to disappear completely. However,
different historical explanations call a wide range of procrastinating subjects into existence. There is colonizer as
procrastinator (Young); colonized as procrastinator (Souchou); consumer as procrastinator (Bauman); and producer
as procrastinator (Bauman again). In the face of so many accounts of the procrastinating subject, can we distinguish
between the parts that procrastination plays in both upholding and unpicking oppressive social systems?
Through a close reading of Ann Cvetkovich’s account of psychic and political inertia in Depression: A Public Feeling, I
will argue that we can make some important distinctions, if we pay attention to the ways that procrastination is and
is not metaphorical. Reading literature confirms that everyone’s procrastination is different, but literary approaches
might illuminate the difference between figurative and literal tactics of procrastination.
Mrinalini Greedharry teaches literary theory and postcolonial studies in the Department of English, Laurentian
University, Canada. She is the author of Postcolonial Theory and Psychoanalysis (Palgrave, 2008) and has kept an
irregular blog about her own procrastination since 2011 entitled ‘Thinking from here to there’.
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Anna Della Subin (Independent)
‘Against Procrastination: Albert Cossery and
the politics of laziness’
The Egyptian novelist Albert Cossery wrote only when he had absolutely nothing
better to do. From his arrival in Paris in the mid-1940s until his death at ninety-four
in 2008, Cossery lived a life of extreme idleness, sleeping late, venturing out of his
austere room at the Hotel La Louisiane only in the afternoons, to sit in the Café de
Flore, watch the girls, and do nothing. On such a schedule Cossery managed to write,
in French, at the rate of one new, short novel roughly every decade. Yet the idle auteur
was no procrastinator. For Cossery, laziness was a refusal of the monetization of time,
a rejection of the very system in which productivity has value, in which one ought to do
something today instead of tomorrow. His literary activities were in service of the greater
cause: when asked why he writes, Cossery would reply, ‘So someone who just read me decides
not to go to work.’ It was a philosophy best captured in his semi-autobiographical novel Laziness in the Fertile Valley
(1949), about a family in the Nile Delta that sleeps all day. Idleness was a protest, a weapon, and an escape from the
evils and indignities of a world forever ruled by time-keeping tyrants, in which revolution is futile. With the colonial
occupation of Egypt in the 19th century had come the arrival of the clock, and the imposition of European notions
of time and punctuality upon the ‘indolent Orient’.
When Egypt gained nominal independence from the British in 1922, it was said that, having fallen behind the times,
Egypt, and the greater Middle East, was at last awakening—or must awake—from its long slumber into modernity.
The Awakening, or ‘Nahda’, has been used as the central, rallying image of every subsequent revolution in Egypt,
from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1952 coup to, most recently, the brief regime of the Muslim Brotherhood. This paper will
examine how Cossery, and contemporaries such as the Turkish satirist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar in The Time Regulation
Institute (1962), took on themes of sleep and awakening, timeliness and torpor, revolution and inaction in their
writings, to remind us that the clock is neither natural nor neutral nor nonpolitical—and as a means of refusing Time.
Anna Della Subin writes about sleepwalkers, grave worship, animal rights in Cairo, mummies, imperial Ethiopian
court etiquette, visions of the flood, thirteenth-century occulists, 300-year naps, resurrection, men becoming
gods, and gods becoming men. Her work has appeared in Harper’s, The White Review, BOMB, Jadaliyya, and The
Paris Review Daily, among other publications. She is also a contributing editor at the Middle Eastern art & culture
magazine Bidoun. She studied philosophy and classics at the University of Chicago and religion at Harvard.
Johannes Schlegel (Potsdam)
‘Procrastination as Deceleration in Shakespeare’s The Tempest’
Taking The Merchant of Venice as a starting point, my paper argues that the early
modern period witnesses an often neglected acceleration in various areas of life
and culture, in which discursive formations such as power, economics, mobility,
and (national) identity become intertwined. This goes hand in hand with the early
modern discovery of time—as recently described by scholars like Anthony Grafton—
which becomes a powerful instance of governmentality, and the sine qua non of
procrastination in the first place.
This paper, however, suggests that in Shakespeare, especially in The Tempest, procrastination
is introduced as a means of purposely decelerating and thus, to some extent, subverting said regime. It thus
challenges notions of subjectification and sovereignty. By means of the play’s self-referentiality, procrastination
becomes inseparable from the theatre itself, which becomes the medium in which the contradictory, simultaneous
anxiety of acceleration and deceleration is negotiated. In order to deal with the threat that is inherent to
procrastination, theatre, as I will argue, ultimately converts procrastination into productivity, thus rendering stasis
meaningful. Both procrastination and its theatrical transmutation contribute to an early modern cultural technique
of speed, that is a closely knit network covering gadgets, artefacts and infrastructures on the one hand, and skills,
routines, practices, and techniques on the other.
Johannes Schlegel teaches English literature and cultural studies at Potsdam University, Germany. He has published
on literary and cultural theory, Romanticism, and popular culture. Within a couple of weeks, he will hand in his PhD
thesis on evil in Romantic literature. In his next project, he will address early modern cultures of speed.
PANEL 3. PROCRASTINATION AND TIME (Parallel session)
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Lilith Dornhuber de Bellesiles (UC Berkeley)
‘The Queer Art of Procrastination’
Reading the practice of procrastination through the lens of contemporary
queer theory, this paper argues that procrastination is queer. Similarly to how
Judith Jack Halberstam reconceived failure as queer, this paper’s framing of
procrastination reinterprets a societally undesirable practice as interrogating,
critiquing, resisting, and ‘queering’ presumed definitions of labour, time,
accomplishment, and resolution. Drawing upon several significant queer
theoretical approaches portrays queer procrastination more vividly than as a
simple metaphor for defying neoliberal efficiency expectations and ideals.
When understood as the deferment of labour that would produce accomplishment or
resolution of responsibility, procrastination can be read as a temporary or provisional failure.
Applying abjection and temporality also contribute to a queer reading of procrastination. Describing gay male
subjectivity through the humiliation and othering of abjection, David Halperin explains how abjection can be a source
of pleasure and affirmation, a site of identification. Deriving from Michel Foucault’s views of space and time, queer
temporality transgresses traditional temporal delineations, presenting a scepticism well-suited to questioning the
temporal assumptions around labelling an action ‘procrastination’.
Looking beyond the political and moral implications of queer procrastination, this examination engages
procrastination’s theoretical encounters. The paper questions the value judgements behind procrastination as an
insufficient or even failing practice, considers an agent’s pleasure and affirmation deriving from subverting societal
expectation, and measures again what procrastination would comprise under a queered temporality.
Lilith Dornhuber de Bellesiles is a PhD student in the Rhetoric Department at UC Berkeley. After graduating from
Smith College, Lilith held a Research Fulbright in Germany, then received a graduate diploma in philosophy from the
University of St Andrews and MSt in women’s studies from the University of Oxford.
Rebecca Birrell (Oxford)
‘“Coming Soon”: Rachael Allen, Sam Riviere
and a poetics of procrastination’
‘Best Thing You Can Do Now is Do Nothing’ Sam Riviere’s poem announces half
way through his collection 81 Austerities, an overt reference to the theme of
procrastination that permeates his work. Primarily, it is the internet that facilitates
Riviere’s advice to his reader to ‘try not to *do* anything’ (‘Guide to the Liberal
Cities’) and, in particular, pornography. His poem ‘Coming Soon’ puns on the intimacy
of porn and procrastination, a relationship that according to Riviere’s archly self-
conscious ‘Index’ occupies the most privileged position in his collection.
This paper will argue that the theme of procrastination surfaces most strikingly in Riviere’s poetic
language. The impact of the internet’s compositional particularities, where one is confronted by ‘clips continually
suggestive because of similar content’ (‘Joe Dunthorne: Camradefest’), is replicated in the metonymic accrual of
meaning across the collection. Riviere pairs an imitation of the internet’s structuring principles with stylistic features
mimicking the procrastination attendant, or perhaps even implicit, in internet use. Aural and rhythmical features, as
well as meaning itself, function through intricately constructed systems of postponement, delay and deferment. I
will pair Riviere’s work with Rachael Allen’s comparable linguistic experiments in the ‘4Chan poems’, which take the
imageboard website as formal inspiration.
Using Allen’s attentiveness to gender as a point of departure, I will go on to discuss the politically oppositional
potential of procrastination in both poets’ work, with particular emphasis in 81 Austerities on the positioning of
procrastination against neo-liberal discourse on worklessness and dependency.
Rebecca Birrell is a student on the Women’s Studies MSt at the University of Oxford, funded by an AHRC
Studentship. She graduated in 2012 from University College London with a BA in English Literature and Language.
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Kamel Boudjemil (Sorbonne, Paris)
‘From Procrastination to Revolution: Guy Debord,
the Situationists, and the last radical avant-garde’
In 1953, Guy Debord wrote on a wall of the Rue de Seine in Paris the slogan Ne
travaillez jamais, ‘Never Work’.
Guy Debord never worked. He walked a lot in the streets of Paris, certainly
drank more than others and developed in his works (written or filmed)
theoretical weapons of uncompromising critique of modern society. He
considered this bit of graffiti of tremendous importance throughout his life,
including it in his autobiography, Panegyric (1989). The three words contain an
entire program that he intimately applied in practice.
This paper aims to examine how a group of young neo-avant-garde artists, mainly headed by
Guy Debord, radicalized through the influence of Marxism and established a program that contained a radical
refusal of work at the core of their political project. The Situationist International (SI), considered to be the last
avant-garde of the 20
th
century, reached the apex of its creative output and influence in 1967 and 1968 in
shaping the ideas behind the May 1968 insurrections in France.
Procrastination was, according to Guy Debord, a strategy for the ‘realization of the [Marxist] philosophy’, a way
to achieve in practice Paul Lafargue’s greatest hope of the right to be lazy (le droit à la paresse). This paper will
mainly focus on the Lettrist and early years of the SI movements. During this period, the Situationists and early
Lettrists had almost finished developing their arsenal of war against work and capitalist alienation, by developing
complex and obscure concepts and practices. This paper will outline these practices as a cohesive strategy to
avoid work, its alienation and at the same time subvert the city. It will explain how métagraphie, détournement,
dérive (drift), psychogeography, construction of situations, unitary urbanism... were developed all in order to
lead a life without work.
Kamel Boudjemil is currently completing his masters in law at the Sorbonne and will start a PhD in Political
Science and International Relations on the subject of human rights and corruption in the Arab world at CERI,
Sciences Po, Paris.
Pelle Valentin Olsen (Oxford)
‘Idle Days in Baghdad: The emergence of bourgeois time and
the coffee shop as a site of procrastination’
Recalling his youth in Baghdad, the Iraqi Jewish author and academic Nissim Rejwan
describes the ‘endless hours spent in Café Suisse on Baghdad’s main street’ and
writes, ‘the coffee shop was quite an institution. Apart from providing a haven
for us idlers, it was the ideal meeting place for friends, and it was there that our
endless conversations about politics, literature and women were conducted.’
Through an examination of a number of autobiographical works written by authors
and intellectuals who grew up in Baghdad in the first half of the twentieth century, this
paper explores how the coffee shop as an important social space came to simultaneously
represent both a site of procrastination and creativity—a creative procrastination.
More importantly, this paper argues that the notion of procrastination must be historicized and placed in a
temporal context. When the office became the fixed place for work and the classroom the prime place for
education, a number places outside of these institutions became increasingly problematic. The Iraqi state and
normative society rallied around vilifying the vices and dangers of the coffee shop, among other places. In fact,
the more time became measured, controlled, and organized, the more unsupervised intellectual activity raised
suspicion among Iraqi intellectuals close to the state. In other words, the notion of idleness and procrastination
emerged as a function of a new and modern temporality and became associated with a particular space, namely
the coffee shop. Baghdad’s avant-garde intelligentsia, however, did not accept the disciplinary discourses of the
state without a good amount of playful defiance and bravado.
Pelle Valentin Olsen is an MPhil candidate in Modern Middle Eastern History at St Antony’s College. He is
interested in Middle Eastern Jewish literature, thought and intellectual history. In the fall he is moving to the
United States to start a PhD at the University of Chicago.
9
PANEL 4. PROCRASTINATION AND PLACE (Parallel session)
Susanne Bayerlipp (Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich)
‘Procrastinating Abroad: Exchanges of letters and moral
discourse on academic travel in the age of Erasmus & after’
The ERASMUS program, the student travel bursary by the European Union, has
funded academic studies abroad for almost twenty years now. Yet, its reputation
has suffered severely due to the way ‘studying’ abroad is practiced by a number of
its scholarship holders—often resulting in a year of licensed procrastination. This
phenomenon, however, seems to be dating back at least as long as to the age of its
eponymous humanist scholar, Erasmus of Rotterdam.
Travelling abroad was fundamental to the circulation of knowledge, and this mobility, in
turn, played a major role in the development of humanism in England. However, even then the utility of such travel
was often questioned, accusing the students of procrastinating, instead of studying. Especially the University of
Padua, which fell under Venetian law, attracted numerous Englishmen. In his Historie of Italie William Thomas records
that the students came thither ‘under the pretense of studying’; Roger Ascham, Queen Elizabeth’s tutor, rails even
more fervently against the corruption of morals students in Venice are exposed to deriving from the distractions
offered by the liberties of the city. I will argue that the liberties of foreign travel and procrastination are closely
related in early modern discourse as liberty often has a negative connotation in these texts, referring to a lack of
(moral) constraints. In my paper I will investigate early modern forms of student procrastination and the reaction it
provokes, looking at exchanges of letters displaying strict hierarchies as those between fathers and sons as well as
students and masters on the one hand and moral texts, such as Ascham’s Scholemaster on the other. It seems as if
procrastination challenges these authorities, while being fostered by them at the same time.
Susanne Bayerlipp teaches English Literature at the Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich. She is currently working
on her PhD thesis ‘William Thomas and the Culture(s) of Translation in the mid-Tudor Period’ and has published two
articles on this topic: ‘Translating Iconoclasm: William Thomas’s The Perygrine and The Historie of Italie’ in Anglia
130(3) (2012), and ‘Early Modern Negotiations of the Questione della Lingua in William Thomas and the Florios’ in
Gabriela Schmidt (ed.), Elizabethan Translation and Literary Culture (Berlin, 2013).
Dr Susan Machum (St Thomas, New Brunswick)
‘Overcoming Procrastination: A critical examination of trade books
designed to increase productivity and ensure things “get done”’
With the rise of neoliberalism, it should hardly be surprising that the beginning
of the 21
st
century is fraught with an overwhelming number of self-help books
aimed at improving individual productivity. The notion that we are all in charge of
and responsible for our own destinies puts increasing pressure on us as individuals
to constantly perform. Your local bookstore is filled with advice on how to stay
productive, increase output and steadily climb to the top of the performance ladder.
This paper provides a critical literature review of twenty trade books—some hot
off the press and others top-selling classics—focused on ensuring readers become
more successful, more productive, more innovative, and more fulfilled. How will readers
reach such pinnacles? By following the advice, techniques and step-by-step instructions for
overcoming procrastination hidden within these texts, of course. The paper undertakes a critical discourse analysis
of these texts, the messages they transmit about personal responsibility and the specific productivity typologies
they purport work for overcoming procrastination. It concludes with a discussion of the relationship between this
literature and the larger neoliberal ideology within which its production is embedded.
Susan Machum is a struggling procrastinator—even when she succeeds at overcoming challenges and pushes past
stresses and anxieties to meet deadlines, she soon finds herself falling off the wagon and needing to climb the hill
again. Obviously, she has overcome her negative spirals at various points in her life. For example she obtained her
PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 1999; is an Associate Professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton,
Canada and has been holding a Canada Research Chair in Rural Social Justice since 2006. Nevertheless, the need to
overcome procrastination remains a constant feature of her life. She welcomes the idea of discussing this topic and
learning more about it with other academics.
10
PANEL 5. REFLECTIONS ON SELF-HELP
Dr Barbara Leckie (Carleton, Ontario)
‘Victorian Procrastination: Or, Middlemarch as a
primer on procrastination in ten easy lessons’
[Casaubon to Dorothea] I have insisted to him [Will] on what Aristotle has stated
with admirable brevity, that for the achievement of any work regarded as an end
there must be a prior exercise of many energies or acquired facilities of a secondary
order, demanding patience. I have pointed to my own manuscript volumes, which
represent the toil of years preparatory to a work not yet accomplished. But in vain.
—George Eliot, Middlemarch
This paper will read George Eliot’s Middlemarch through the lens of 20
th
and 21
st
century
procrastination self-help guides. Edward Casaubon famously procrastinates his ‘great work’,
‘The Key to All Mythologies’; by looking closely at his procrastinatory methods, energies, and excuses I want to
argue that we can learn something about both Eliot’s novel (and the 19
th
century novel itself as a procrastinatory
structure) and the rise of self-help literature on procrastination since the 1980s. I will distil ten ‘lessons’ from
Eliot’s novel and compare them to the ways in which procrastination has been discussed more recently. The paper
will, accordingly, combine a literary approach with the more recent work on the psychology and philosophy of
procrastination. It at once offers a ‘light’ reading of procrastination—ten easy lessons—and a reflection, following
the philosopher Mark Kingwell’s argument that procrastination is about living itself, on the relationship between
procrastination, knowledge, and mortality. When Casaubon dies with his great work unfinished, in other words, the
novel provides a perspective on procrastination that one does not find in the more upbeat self-help literature and
this perspective expands the field to embrace both philosophical and literary/historical approaches to procrastination.
Barbara Leckie is an Associate Professor cross-appointed in the English Department and the Institute for the
Comparative Study of Literature, Art, and Culture at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. Her publications include
Culture and Adultery: the Novel, the Newspaper, and the Law, 1857-1914 and Sanitary Reform in Victorian Britain:
End of Century Assessments and New Directions (an edited collection of documents), as well as many articles on
Victorian print culture. She has recently completed Open Houses: The Architectural Idea, the Rise of the Novel, and
Nineteenth-Century Modernity and is now working on a new project on Victorian procrastination.
The CUNCTATOR PRIZE
ß This is Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator, a monument
to procrastination’s virtues. Roman consul and then Dictator, Fabius
Maximus (280-203 bc) is credited as an inventor of guerrilla warfare.
Later he would lend his name to the Fabian Society, the byword for
middle-class gradualism in the transition to socialism.
Fabius Maximus’s controversial tactics earned him the rather
rude-sounding honorific ‘Cunctator’, the Delayer. (His other nickname,
‘Verrucosus’, came from his warty lip.)
In collaboration with the Isaiah Berlin Literary
Trust, we offered a £50 prize for the best
paper by a graduate student to honour the art
of cunctation. Berlin himself was something
of a procrastinator, leaving behind several
million unpublished words upon his death in 1997. Drs Henry Hardy
and Mark Pottle, co-editors of volumes three and four of his Letters,
1960-1997, have very generously sponsored and judged the Prize.
The winner will be announced at the drinks reception.
Cunctator, n. One who acts tardily, a delayer. (oed)
11
12
SPONSORS
We would like to thank the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (OCLW), The
Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), All Souls College, and
the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust for their generous financial support.
Procrastination: Cultural Explorations was the winner of the 2013-14
OCLW-TORCH Award for a postgraduate conference on life-writing and
the humanities. The competition runs annually, and more information can
be found on the OCLW website and blog.
CONVENERS
Danielle Yardy is a DPhil student in the English Department at Oxford. Her
thesis investigates the motif of burning at the stake on the early modern stage.
She completed her undergraduate degree at Durham University, before taking
her Masters in English (1550-1700) in Oxford. She is the lesser procrastinator of
the duo in charge, but recently engaged in an extended flirtation with 2048.
Elizabeth Chatterjee is a Fellow of All Souls College, and has been in Oxford for far
too long. Today her doctoral research takes her to Delhi, where she examines the
politics of electricity in India. Past procrastinatory pursuits alongside the DPhil include
travel writing, interviewing Indians about toilets, and learning the banjo.
Arthur Downing is an economic historian and a Fellow of All Souls
College. 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.
Amia Srinivasan is a Fellow in philosophy at All Souls College interested in
epistemology, ethics, metaphilosophy and feminism. Heroically suppressing her
procrastinatory tendencies, she recently finished her DPhil. She is now largely
back to her old ways, planning dinner menus and reading about otters. She will
join the UCL Philosophy Department in autumn 2015.
Elizabeth Dubois is a DPhil student at the University of
Oxford’s Internet Institute. She is interested in how technology
may be leveraged to increase democratic accountability and political
engagement. Elizabeth previously worked in politics, including for
a Canadian Member of Parliament, and in the realm of international
climate change policy.
Details coming soon at
ProcrastinationOxford.org
#procrastinox
@ProcrastinOx
In autumn 2014, the
conversation will continue
the Procrastination seminar
Michaelmas Term 2014
Wednesdays, 5.30pm
Old Library, All Souls College
all souls college