Interview with Joseph Vogl

January 17th, 2010 – , .

ML: Could you briefly describe what the core argument of the book is?
JV: In hesitation you recognize an aspect of a certain attitude towards the world that is characterized by its own internal economy and that embraces in equal measures aesthetic procedures, value- and knowledge systems. Hesitation has a long Western tradition of being equalled with indecision and as such it has been disqualified as a capricious act that frustrates work. Hesitation, however, can be seen as the active gesture of questioning in which work and acting takes shape not in their completeness but in the process of their emergence and becoming. Hesitation seems to draw a strangely blurred trail that becomes sharp and concise where a culture of the act and a culture of work break and reflect. It accompanies the imperative of action and achievement as a shadow, like a destructive opponent, and one could speak here of a hesitation-function: where deeds are manifested and where chains of action are organized, hesitation marks a pause, a discontinuation and a faltering. Therefore I understand hesitation as a distinctive activity in which the problem of decision-making takes shape.

ML: What is the difference between doubt and hesitation? Is the first one a state of not knowing how to act and the second one a postponement of acting?
JV: Doubt and hesitation are certainly related and in a history of scepticism, hesitation would definitely be given a place. The difference becomes evident when one looks at the basic forms of the two. When in doubt, reasons and motives have become weak, frail or hard to recognise. When doubting about actions or situations, a lack of argumentation manifests itself. With hesitation, on the other hand, an excess of (good) reasons and motivations causes the delay. The circle of alternatives and options is over-determined and the hesitation-problem consists precisely in having to choose in the face of strongly motivated opinions when not (yet) ready to choose. Unlike doubt, hesitation asks the insistent question of a choice to the second degree. With hesitation – and this makes it so uncomfortable – the question presents itself of having to make a choice between choosing and not-choosing. And while doubt tests an existing world on its internal consistency, hesitation brings us to the edge of an emerging world whose possible histories and futures have not been decided yet.

ML: Why is the re-appraisal of hesitation in our current times important?
JV: It is not so much about a reappraisal of hesitation but rather the recognition of the analytical power of this particular activity. This encompasses an idiosyncratic accuracy, an idiosyncrasy at odds with the solidity of value systems, the irrevocability of verdicts, the finality of solutions, the determination of consequences, the duration of conformities, and the weight of results; and a well-founded mistrust of any belief in salvation through progress. Hesitation demands revision. In hesitation a complicating meaning is articulated which, rather than looking for answers to questions and solutions to problems, assumes that the given answers and solutions contain more questions and problems. Hesitation treasures a suspicion of complexity. That is probably why it occupies a dual position today. On the one hand, it does point out that modern societies win their dynamic stability through the establishment of reliable automatisms: through the programming of individual intentions. The will of the system directs eligibility, controls the selection and makes individual decisions contingent and at the same time plausible. Hesitation would then be the time when the anachronistic question of the participation of ego and will in general procedures can be asked. On the other hand, it might gain some importance in the context of modern politics that are characterized by an increased effectiveness and efficiency. Even today, political power not only requires decisiveness but also speedy decision-making and the utilization opportunity. Here, hesitation appeals to the power to decelerate, the question of the consequences of actions and the consequences of those consequences, the inevitability of chains of action and reaction.

ML: Do you think that before the hegemony of economical thinking, there was more room for and appreciation of Zaudern?
JV: No. Hesitation has always been a disregarded entity. This is clearly illustrated in the ancient Christian sin of sloth, the acaedia. In the scholastic version hesitation meant not only the offense of failure to act, a kind of monk’s disease affecting the idlers and laggards who dwelled the confined spaces of a contemplative life. It stood for a vague disquietude of the spirit in the pursuit of things without any serious goal, a feverish idleness and passivity that could have disastrous consequences. Their darkest side lay in disbelief fed by the awkwardness of trying to come to faith at all. In the depths of acaedia raged a stubborn resentment against God’s good intentions. The sluggard doubted the meaningful outcome of history and cancelled his participation in salvation. Modern and contemporary economics have only changed the outlook of this with the condemnation of laziness, unproductiveness, distraction or lack of motivation.

ML: What are your opinions on the place Zaudern takes or could take in the artistic process?
JV: It is striking how, since the nineteenth century, hesitation does not only appear at the horizon of psychiatry as a disease of the will, as a pathological weakness of will. Rather, a number of hesitation-figures, ‘athletes’ of hesitation appear in literature, from Melville’s Bartleby and Valéry’s Monsieur Teste to characters by Franz Kafka, Robert Walser and Samuel Beckett. And let’s not forget Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. They apparently have a programmatic function, as figures that arise from a kind of intoxication of the will, and who, with increased effort, reject to – no matter what – be or do, or to believe that they might know anything, “the idea to finish anything loses all sense in a mind that knows itself thoroughly” (Valéry). All these figures are about a research program, the gesture of questioning, a gesture that in the strict sense gains in methodical and systematic character. Hesitation and its pause become a foundation and an operative field of the discourse itself. With hesitation an analytical method is formed within literature and the arts. Ultimately, it is about a representation that responds to the contingency of world situations. Instead of representing the world plastically, hesitation provides multiple and overlapping sketches of all possible worlds. If hesitation has a meaning, it shows that it is less about creations than about ‘de-creations’, less about work than about ‘de-working’.