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Under the Magnifying Glass

What does involution, Naomi Osaka, and languishing have in common?

Issue 1 - 6.22.2021

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Introduction from our Head of Content, Emily Chen:

Welcome to ‘Under the Magnifying Glass’, a new Studio ATAO newsletter series that takes a closer look at each of our Understanding... topics through the lens of current events. I hope this new series can break down what feels like complex, theoretical ideas into more digestible concepts that regularly show up in people’s lives everyday.

Our first deep-dive will analyze scarcity mentality through 3 recent articles — one about the state of Chinese youth, another about Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open, and a final on the concept of “languishing.” We hope this will provide a more complete perspective on how scarcity and competition enables capitalism to continue thriving.

It’s been incredibly meaningful for me to see and hear the ways in which our content has impacted people — from reading DMs about how it has validated the experiences of BIPOC, to being in conversation with others actively working towards modes of sustainable solidarity. I’m excited to begin this new adventure with everyone, and hope we can grow this initiative together. Please direct any and all feedback to me over at emily@studioatao.org, and join us virtually for “Group Huddles” (sign up here) where we gather to unpack these topics in an intimate setting.

What does involution, Naomi Osaka, and languishing have in common?

In 2020, a picture of a student at an elite Chinese university took the media by storm. In the image, the student was precariously riding his bicycle while using his laptop. Almost immediately, it was turned into memes referencing the idea of involution.

Involution, a term popularized by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, is the inverse of the ideals of capitalistic market evolution: despite more labor input, the same or decreasing output in the form of product or innovation is seen. Anthropologist Xiang Biao explains that when “caught up in this system” of diminishing returns, there emerges an element of personal anxiety and helplessness. Despite being aware of larger systemic failings, workers (and in this case, students) in hyper-competitive environments still feel extreme pressure to keep up with demands of more of their time and effort, resulting in an “endless, energy-draining loop...locked in competition that [they] ultimately know is meaningless.”

While involution is not yet mainstream in the U.S., we see it as an eerily perfect way to capture the effects of late stage capitalism in our society. In an age marked by globalization, competition, wage stagnation, and rising inequality, workers are still expected to give more and more of themselves for less and less in return. Today, those working full-time at the federal minimum wage are only making $3,000 above the poverty line — not nearly enough to cover basic living expenses.

Rather than demand our governmental institutions address these issues through social safety nets (e.g., subsidized housing, Medicaid, SNAP, or universal basic income), the American public is taught to dismiss the struggles of others as individual moral failures. Narratives like the myth of meritocracy or a post-racial society discount how inequitable systems dictate differences in opportunity, and instead encourage us to compete for remaining resources.

In this state of scarcity, exploitative policies are easily justified and explained away. Capitalism has socialized us to believe that “everything, everywhere, [can be] commodified and consumable,” and our bodies, mind, time, etc. are no longer ours but monetizable inputs. Work and productivity increasingly creep into our free time, and our emotional, mental, and physical well-being become necessary sacrifices in the “endless, energy-draining loop” to simply hold onto our slice of a shrinking pie.

Recently, the backlash against tennis player Naomi Osaka’s refusal to attend press interviews during the French Open fully displays this concept. For those unfamiliar, Osaka published a (now-deleted) public statement on her Instagram saying that due to mental health reasons she would not attend post-match press conferences at the French Open. She explained the anxiety she felt during interviews, and how little regard the press has for the players (with some having broken down after being asked probing questions). She was subsequently fined $15,000 by the tournament organizers for not fulfilling her “contractual media obligations,” and was threatened with suspension from future tournaments. This led Osaka to withdraw from the tournament completely. In her second statement, she explained she had “suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018” and wanted to “exercise self-care” by avoiding the press.

The divided public reaction to Osaka’s actions shows how thoroughly our society justifies harm in the name of capitalism. For example, tennis legend Boris Becker stated he “always believed [press was] part of the job” and that Osaka needed to learn how to “cope with the pressures of facing the media” if she wanted her tennis career to continue. This zero-sum approach to work and success is the scarcity mentality in action. Deeply instilled scarcity breeds the idea that if we want to progress, we must sacrifice some aspect of ourselves. (This idea of sacrifice is also why Americans regularly do not use their vacation days.)

Rather than remove or reconsider the processes and systems creating toxic, oppressive environments, late capitalism offers more consumerism and commodification as a potential solution. Statements that hint Osaka could leverage this incident as “a good story that sponsors will want to be a part of,” follow the same pattern of distraction as calls to #BuyBlack to close the racial wealth gap. These strategies undermine the need for large-scale change or governmental intervention on institutional discrimination by encouraging the public to settle for short-term economic incentives.

What happened to Naomi Osaka is a prime example of when the “absence of well-being” has become so normalized in our society, it is considered an undue privilege to prioritize our mental health needs. This “absence” manifests as feeling “despondent, drained, and worthless,” which even has its own term: languishing. Coined by sociologist Corey Keyes, languishing “is a sense of stagnation and emptiness” that we believe is the emotional consequence of involution, scarcity, and capitalism.

But there are ways we can fight back. Just as Osaka stands firm in her values and needs, we can similarly find “act[s] of quiet defiance against languishing.” Psychologist Adam Grant suggests finding your own points of “flow,” or the “elusive state of absorption in a meaningful challenge or a momentary bond.”

We are especially drawn to the idea of building relationships that can offer these moments of flow — an action that requires us to free ourselves from the drive to achieve at the expense of others. The first step we can take towards that process in our personal life is acknowledging where the false narrative of scarcity influences our decisions. The hyper-competitive environment and extreme pressure we find ourselves in — captured by the idea of involution — also shape these decisions. Who in our close, casual, or professional relationships do we feel compelled to hoard resources from? Why? The next is clarifying where our internalized sense of self-worth comes from. Capitalism encourages us to measure ourselves by output and our ability to consume; can we reevaluate worthiness based on our ability to fulfill important needs like rest and well-being?

Together, we can collectively shift the idea of productivity from profit to one rooted in mutually beneficial relationships.

What's Next?

If you're interested in reading more about scarcity mentality, check out our toolkit Unlearning Scarcity, Cultivating Solidarity for the Asian American Community for a deeper examination of scarcity and how it is reinforced by our current social systems. While this toolkit centers the Asian American experience, we hope its findings are also useful for other BIPOC and folks with other marginalized identities.

Since the publication of this newsletter, there have been updates to the three articles mentioned in the piece:

If you're looking to discuss the themes from this newsletter with other like-minded folks, join us for our next event dissecting scarcity and trauma with Canh Tran, clinical social worker and founder of Liberation Healing Seattle. We'll end the event with a "Group Huddle", a set of small rooms where folks can openly discuss their questions, thoughts, feelings brought up by this piece.

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