On Deadlines

It is not surprising that the etymology of the term “deadline” is allegedly derived from the use of a line drawn around prisons during the American Civil War. They did not have walls and prisoners would be killed if they crossed it.

And he, the said Wirz, still wickedly pursuing his evil purpose, did establish and cause to be designated within the prison enclosure containing said prisoners a “dead line,” being a line around the inner face of the stockade or wall enclosing said prison and about twenty feet distant from and within said stockade; and so established said dead line, which was in many places an imaginary line, in many other places marked by insecure and shifting strips of [boards nailed] upon the tops of small and insecure stakes or posts, he, the said Wirz, instructed the prison guard stationed around the top of said stockade to fire upon and kill any of the prisoners aforesaid who might touch, fall upon, pass over or under [or] across the said “dead line” …. [“Trial of Henry Wirz,” Report of the Secretary of War, Oct. 31, 1865]

One of the transparent mechanisms of control in the media industry workplace is the deadline. They are put in place to ensure the delivery of work and this second meaning apparently emerged in 1920s American journalism. Deadlines become a mechanism of control because they can be manipulated by editors and management. Most often is the practice of bringing a deadline forward so as to increase the productivity of staff. That way different teams can be played off against each other. Editorial files copy at accelerated deadlines and this puts pressure on design to prepare layed out and designed pages for pre-press.

There are multiple deadlines within academia. It is normally up to individuals to manage these deadlines. An added complication is that academics often organise work, and publications in particular, on the strength of social ties. The matrix of multiple deadlines by which individuals are suspended therefore gathers an affective dimension beyond the ‘regular’ anxieties of deadline pressures.

One of the tricky parts of setting journalism assessments is trying to incorporate learning outcomes that prepare students for working in the news-based media industry with multiple continuous deadlines. The classic example is the newspaper newsroom, but even my experience of working in monthly magazines involved multiple daily deadlines because our editorial teams worked across multiple publications at once.

The deadline organises a composition of power relations that bridiges those that belong to what Deleuze called the ‘society of control’ and what is regarded as the ‘disciplinary society’ (from Foucault). Workers are ‘imprisoned’ in front of whatever screen as part of whatever socio-technical assemblage will enable them to meet the deadline. There are more nuanced versions of this, specifically the relation between editorial teams (or similar) and production management. Editorial teams can feel a sense of camaraderie in the face of pressures from management. Even if you intensely dislike your co-workers, you still ‘get the job done’.

Amongst one’s academic colleagues this changes slightly, because it is not ‘management’ dictating when work is due, but your friends. A similar arrangement could be found in freelancing, but I am not sure. There is an economy of goodwill and effort determined by the distribution and access to opportunity. Some colleagues have access to opportunities, or they are good at creating them, others perhaps less so, or work on opportunities of different kinds. The point is that not only is friendship at stake in meeting deadlines, but so is the way access to opportunity is distributed.

Meeting a deadline requires one to be ‘at’ your ‘desk’ or your ‘office’ (or more generally an interface within an assemblage of productivity), and hence to be counted as being productive. As in Foucault’s disciplinary societies, this fixes you in space. For those that know writers or perhaps follow them on social media, think about how often texts about writing discipline circulate and the various practices and rituals performed by writers to get the job done. The deadline also involves the modulation of affective relations beyond anxiety or dread, like the prison without walls, a deadline also suspends those trying to meet it within specific relations of reciprocity. These relations are not premised on traditional antagonisms between workers and management; they are premised on relations of friendship.

I am thinking about deadlines because I am trying to meet about half a dozen at the moment and I am also waiting on others to meet deadlines.

3 thoughts on “On Deadlines”

  1. Interesting read Glen,
    I have recently received some freelance work from friends and have had some varying experiences. There always seems to be a tight expectation to come up with and present the creative response to the brief, yet their reply, changes, re-changes and payment seem to have no deadline because how can one set a deadline on a creative response / submission.

    Another freelance job for a friend was explained to me, and based on that explanation I quoted only one hours work. It took 3 hours, but the friend/client paid for the one hour up front before the job commenced and it seems those extra hours were free..

    Setting deadlines for friends that are also clients is tough – cause you are dealing with a friend in a commercial sense with comes back to ‘Never do business with family or friends”. You are always walking the line between both worlds.

    Another freelance job I did was a website for my local church. A paid job but after the website was complete it is now expected that all changes and updates will be handled by me and done for free.

    Another sticky situation.

  2. Glen, as you mention and Steve highlights above, I think freelance deadlines are especially affectively fraught because so much freelance work is gained through social ties, and another pressure to meet the deadline is ‘not wanting to let your friend down’. It really is a prison without walls.

    I’d be interested to read your thoughts on missing deadlines, and the accompanying rhetoric of ‘the excuse’. I think a lot about this because I often find myself writing grovelling emails apologising for my work being late, and justifying what time of day still counts as having ‘met’ my deadline. But on the other hand as an editor, I anticipate tardy submissions and build them into my production schedule. And sometimes, for instance, I’ll beg to be allowed until Friday, and my editor will say, “Hand it in on Monday.”

    Students of course are notoriously laissez-faire about handing stuff in on time. In the subject I taught last year, we had an assessment task that a student failed automatically if s/he didn’t submit it online by a particular time and date. I think only one of my 50-odd students failed this way, which shows that workers can be mobilised if ‘management’ offers severe enough penalties for missing a deadline.

Comments are closed.