are you involuted?

The caption to the comic reads, “Comrade, wake up, you still have overtime to work.”

There is much talk of neijuan (内卷) or involution in Shenzhen and indeed throughout China. The conversation is so robust, it even made the New Yorker (Yi-Ling LIU, May 14, 2021). Liu explains that China’s “involuted” generation is overworked, burned out, and despairing that life will get any better. Instead, of seeing rewards at the end of their hard work, they’re seeing just more pointless work. Indeed, as the comic suggests, crashing is often the result of neijuan. In popular culture, many young people have expressed their discontent through tangping (躺平), which translates as “laying down” but resonates with what US Americans would call getting out of the rat race. The expression is so popular, Alibaba even came up with a tangping app, which promotes making money through a relaxed, enjoyable lifestyle.

Of course, the tangping app is itself a symptom of involution…

I first encountered the term “involution” via Clifford Geertz’s Agricultural Involution: The Process of Ecological Change in Indonesia. Published in 1963, the book grappled with the question of how wet-rice agriculture was elaborated to compensate for the the contradictions that industrialization and urbanization had exacerbated on Java. Geertz describes cultural patterns which, “after having reached what would seem to be a definitive form, nonetheless fail either to stabilize or transform themselves into a new patter but rather continue to develop by becoming internally more complicated (1963:81).” On Geertz’s interpretation, Javanese culture attempted to manage the disruptions that modernization brought by intensifying their agricultural traditions. In turn, this led to ecological and social pressure without actually addressing the new situation.

Pransenjit Duara (1987) then picked up the term, defining state involution as “a variation of the state making process wherein the formal structures of the state grow simultaneously with informal structures–such as tax farmers and mercenary soldiers (“State Involution: A Study of Local Finances in North China, 1911-1935.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 29, no. 1, 1987, pp. 132–161). Duara argues that as China modernized, it dealt with the disruptions that modernization brought by expanding the realms in which the state operated. The expanding state is considered “efficient” when the state acquires an increasing proportion of resources collected. As Geertz noted, Duara emphasizes involution does not mean that there is proportional growth in resources, or through new forms of production, but rather through elaborating extant cultural forms. Where the Javanese elaborated rice production and its concomitant cultural rituals and forms and statuses, the Chinese elaborated state-society relations, increasingly bringing non-state people to act in its place.

Helen Siu has also used the term “state involution” to analyze the complicated state-society relations that obtain in China, where its not clear where the state-society boundary can be usefully or accurately drawn. After all, if working with the state to achieve desirable goals is honorable (at best) and coerced (at worst), it makes little sense to search for “pure” forms of action. Instead, the question becomes: what patterns are being elaborated and to what ends?

In Shenzhen, the city’s extensive volunteer network would be a contemporary form of state involution. For example, in order to roll out the current drive for covid-19 testing, grassroots government organizations have set-up pop-up testing stations throughout the city and in urban villages. Health personal do the testing, but crowd control is managed through a combination of the police and red-vested volunteers, who are an integrated part of the Shenzhen landscape. Volunteers work in the metro station, they work at any public gathering, and in hospitals and other public spaces. The important point isn’t simply that people who are not directly working for the state fulfill what are seen as state functions, but also that they see this as a meaningful way to use their free time. A picture of a pop-up testing station in Shenzhen, below. Many were open from 4 in the afternoon until midnight:

The question of ends and goals and intentions leads us back to young people’s use of neijuan in popular forums and in conversations about laying down. A circulating cartoon defines neijuan as:

First, [neijuan] is being used to doing something meaningless to the extreme. The example given is repeatedly adjusting the font for a powerpoint presentation.

Second, [neijuan] is to endure an appalling sense of ritual. The example here is focusing on the forms of a meeting, especially making sure pens and papers and water are all in the proper place.

Third, [neijuan] is making simple questions complicated. Here, the example is requiring three forms of one report–powerpoint, word and excel versions of the same report.

According to the expert, there are three kinds of neijuan: black hole neijuan, which is defined as the impossibility of escaping one’s fate; cog-in-a-wheel neijuan, which is defined as being passively pulled along by one’s position in the machine, and; self-revolving neijuan, where the person actively participates in the involution, despite feelings of unrest and anxiety.

In other words, while anthropologists have focused on involution as a cultural phenomenon, the Chinese discourse has focused on what it feels like to be involuted; how does it feel to be the substrate of involutionary practices?

The punchline to this comic is both expected and cynical; only the person in charge has the right to pontificate on feelings of neijuan; everyone else is substrate:

You think you can just resist involution??

That’s something that requires great force. So, before you’ve found a new lane or mastered your skills or been promoted

you better involute for me.

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