June 15, 2022 Neologism China Yi-Ling Liu Rebecca Solnit

Here’s an article in the New Yorker that discusses an old term that has found new meaning in present-day China: Involution. It describes the struggles of the young generation that’s overworked but undercompensated, under the pressure of sky-high societal expectation but without any hope of fulfilling them. The worst part? People are fully aware of it.

(The) theory of involution holds that a greater input (an increase in labor) does not yield proportional output (more crops and innovation). Instead, a society involutes. The Chinese term for involution, neijuan, which is made up of the characters for inside” and rolling,” suggests a process that curls inward, ensnaring its participants within what the anthropologist Xiang Biao has described as an endless cycle of self-flagellation.” Involution is the experience of being locked in competition that one ultimately knows is meaningless,”

It’s easy to mock the tendency to give new names to age-old phenomena (even if the terms themselves are old), but author Yi-Ling Liu makes argues that naming a specific condition of the present is an act of liberation and a move toward a cure”:

Instead of allowing our words to deteriorate into a slush of vague intention,” as Rebecca Solnit wrote, what if we named things with greater truth and precision? What if people called the brutal hours imposed by the tech industry corporate feudalism” and the dangerous demands placed on delivery workers a form of exploitation? What if the students toiling away in front of their computers, depleted and tired, are not involuted but, rather, to borrow a phrase from the late David Graeber, victims of a profound spiritual violence?” What if we used a more explicit term to describe the effects of an involuted system, such as, say, technocapitalist authoritarianism?”

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