Yawn: Idleness and Boredom in the Late Ottoman Empire

By Avner Wishnitzer
Submitted to Session P4973 (Law, Legitimacy, and Laziness in Late Ottoman Imperial Culture, 2017 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
19th-21st Centuries;
Prominent philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Walter Benjamin considered widespread boredom to be one of the distinctive features of modern life, and yet, systematic research of the experience within the humanities has been thus far rather limited. The history of emotions was mostly concerned with more "dramatic" feelings such as love and fear and thus, while the number of psychological studies dedicated to boredom has been growing steadily, historians have rarely considered its implications.

The proposed study, then, is an attempt to historicize boredom by analyzing its relations with social hierarchies in the late Ottoman Empire. Relying on contemporary codes, school textbooks, journals, diaries, novels and memoirs, I argue that the late Ottoman discourse of "self-help" was not only about imperial "progress," but also a remedy proscribed by elite members to the boredom of their subalterns, which was considered a threat to established order. Yet, imposed activity could not alleviate the sense of powerlessness and meaninglessness that generated boredom to begin with.

Psychological study of boredom identifies different types of and reasons for boredom. One of main reasons for what is known as "state boredom" is the imposition of monotonous tasks that are experienced as meaningless and/or restrictions on movement that constrain one within an under-stimulating environment. Boredom in these contexts is the result of imposed powerlessness and is therefore closely associated with class, gender and age.

Hegemonic writing in the late 19th century Ottoman Empire began targeting the experience of boredom rather than the state of "idleness," which was often the concern of officials and moralists in earlier periods. Didactic periodicals warned children that "time passes slowly" when being inactive and encouraged them to study and work harder. Textbooks for female students repeatedly emphasized that a busy routine is the solution for the dull of domestic life. Yet, memoirs of former students in Hamidian schools and contemporary novels (e.g. Mehmed Rauf's Eylül) implicitly or explicitly associated boredom with the stifling atmosphere of the Hamidian period. Many of the addressees of the discourse of self-help simply could not help themselves as Samuel Smiles, Ahmed Midhat or Ebüziyya Tevfik preached them. For them life was not about possibilities and advancement but about the lack thereof. Behind the closed doors of hegemonic discourse, then, there lies a whole other history of inactivity and frustration, of longing for alternatives.