Heroes of reluctance. On hesitation as an active act

January 17th, 2010 – , , , .
Published in Tubelight.

People who hesitate before they answer a question, who don’t find their words quickly, who sometimes don’t know what to choose; we put them away as spineless and lacking determination. We appreciate those who respond and decide quickly, always have ready answers, who know what they want. In the essay Über das Zaudern, the German philosopher Joseph Vogl re-assesses the space between action and inaction: the space of hesitation. This reevaluation of hesitation as a positive act is of great importance, not only within the domain of philosophy but also in the arts, politics and business. Vogl’s argument deserves our attention because it proposes an alternative strategy in which the pause, the reexamination and the act of questioning are given a central position.

I heard Vogl talk about hesitation during Manifesta 7 in 2008, when the Berlin Mobile Akademie projected video conversations with him on the facade of the post office in Trento. In an e-mail interview I asked him some additional questions. I asked him, for example, what the difference is between doubt and hesitation: two acts that are very similar at first glance. “When in doubt,” Vogl explains, “reasons and motives have become weak, frail or hard to recognize.” In other words, the doubter lacks sufficient or proper arguments to make a decision. “With hesitation, on the other hand, an excess of (good) reasons and motivations causes the delay. The hesitation-problem consists precisely in having to choose in the face of strongly motivated opinions when not (yet) ready to choose.” Hesitation is regarded in our culture as a form of weakening of the will: “Hesitation has, in a long Western tradition, been equaled with indecision. As such it has been disqualified as a capricious act that frustrates work.” Until today we condemn “unproductiveness, distraction and lack of motivation”. What makes Vogl’s essay unique and worthwhile to consider is the fact that he grants hesitation analytical power. Thereby he offers an alternative to a culture and politics dominated by action, fast responses and the use of opportunities.

The analytical power of hesitation lies in the countermovement of this act “against the solidity of world systems, the irrevocability of verdicts, the finality of solutions, the determination of consequences, the duration of conformities, and the weight of results”. In a culture dominated by the laws of action, hesitation is more than the lack of movement. For Vogl, the hesitator is a hero of reluctance: “hesitation accompanies the imperative of action and achievement as a shadow, as a destructive opponent”. In hesitation, the problem of decision taking acquires a particular form, it shows itself and is therefore made visible. Hesitation calls for a revision and is imbued with the sense that every answer and every solution always include new questions and problems that again must be answered and resolved. Hesitation confronts us with “the question of the consequences of actions and the consequences of those consequences, the inevitability of chains of action and reaction”.

The book takes us through a history of notorious literary hesitators, from the Greek tragedy Oresteia by Aeschylus and Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein trilogy to Herman Melville’s novella Bartleby, the Scrivener and the work of Franz Kafka and Robert Musil. These “hesitation-figures, athletes of hesitation”, perform a programmatic function in nineteenth-century literature. “These figures arise from a kind of intoxication of the will, and reject, with increasing effort, to – no matter what – be or do, or to believe that they might know anything”. The literary hesitators embody a research program in which the “gesture of questioning” is systematically investigated. In literature as well as the arts, hesitation, questioning and the introduction of intermissions form an analytical method of what one could call the hesitation-discourse. Artists will, whether consciously or not, experience or employ the act of hesitation. Like hesitation, art can create an in-between space located between action and inaction, which embodies a counter-gesture against the growing desire for consequences and effectiveness. Like hesitation, art can bring us “to the edge of an emerging world, about which possible histories and futures nothing has been decided yet”.

What appeals to me in the work of Vogl is not only his virtuoso style of writing, the smooth way in which he uses language and concepts, or creates words and concepts when there are none available for what he wants to say. Besides this, the core of his argument is convincing: In a world dominated by economic laws hesitation is an important instrument that enforces a pause, asks for the consequences of consequences and forces us to reconsider decisions, answers and solutions. In other words: perhaps we should allow ourselves to hesitate more often, take the act of hesitating more seriously and above all, no longer disregard the hesitators among us but recognize them as heroes of a countermovement.