“What I didn’t do on my summer vacation”
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“What I didn’t do on my summer vacation”

It’s always the same pattern. I produce a proposal for a conference, slamming out the major idea and chief evidence in five to seven hundred words. Before writing the paper—or as a means of putting off writing the paper—I then “prepare”: I read, I take notes, I look at books of theory regardless of how tangential they might be, I read things I’ve read before (rather than re-reading the notes I took on them the first time). Somewhere in this process I’ll also re-encounter the primary text, sure I’ll discover that winning quotation, that richly overdetermined moment when new insights will tumble forth, a new and strong(er) theory will emerge, a definitive problem will have been identified. Once I’ve convinced myself that I’ve drunk deeply enough of the Pierian spring in question or when the conference is coming so close that I’m beginning to feel hysterical, I write the paper. Ten pages, double-spaced; no more, no less. Then I compare the completed conference paper to the original proposal to find exactly the same structures of thought, the same argumentative ideas keyed to the same moments in the text. It turns out that I had been ready to write from the beginning, but that after almost twenty years in the profession I cannot, will not, remember that I was ready to write. The combination of imposter syndrome (where I must read everything in order not to be [End Page 21] caught out) and procrastination (where I must absorb without generating) has produced the habitual, compulsive detour of over-researching before producing my own text.

Do not hear me to speak against the importance of deep reading, responsible research, or an overall resistance to the commodity production machine that can sometimes be academia. Rather, it’s the psychological texture of all of this that I want to mediate on. For as soon as I write those words “habitual, compulsive detour,” the subject matter of my thoughts also becomes their method: I am compulsively and habitually taken to Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle and to Peter Brooks’s argument about narrative as the mandatory detour we take from the inexorability of the end, of death, in order to produce through the death drive a “finished” narrative, a story or a thesis that finds completion on its own terms (Brooks). In this sense, my procrastination is my compulsive circling around the terminus of my own essay, my own completed offering. I will not die until my sacrifice is mature or until my gift is ready for exchange, my symbolic debt perfectly imagined. And to do this I must ignore—or rather forget—that the work of thinking has already been done. I must repeatedly and compulsively ignore that my new note-taking often replicates word for word what my earlier notes said, making me less like Wordsworth’s organic poet and more like Poe’s raven. In short, I must experience again and again the ways in which forgetting is a crucial part of research, or writing, and of writing later—that is, of procrastination.

But am I really talking about procrastination here? Don’t those words “habitual” and “compulsive,” words that I said took me directly to the repetition compulsion, also take me away from procrastination and into the very heart of what I want to say? Isn’t the Freudian mechanism really a strategy for getting the job done, for meeting the deadline? As my colleague Matthew Rowlinson has suggested, the agency of forgetting in procrastination is a strategy to replicate the pleasure of reading the material again, as if for the first time. Procrastination is in some respects a guilty pleasure, if “guilt” can be said to accrue around the responsible doing of one’s job as researcher and thinker. Perhaps then there is no such thing as procrastination. Or, that “procrastination” as we use the term is misleading, for if we ask what we are doing under the sign of “procrastination” we find that we are often doing things that enable the completion of...