The putative case for lying down

June 23, 2021 08:56
Photo: Xinhua

A recent phenomenon has taken China by storm – more specifically, it has gained substantial traction amongst the country’s youth and millennials. “Lying down” denotes a mixture of anti-materialist minimalism, and the pursuit of contentment independent of success along external, “objective” dimensions.

The outlook arose as a responsive strategy towards the surging “involution” in Chinese society – an inward-looking vicious cycle of counterproductive competition, that amounts to little more than a structural and structured trap of human capital, coerced and driven to perform all sorts of inane tasks and work, as a means of staying alive in the hamster wheel. And indeed, stayin’ alive is by no means easy, with the rising living costs, increasingly competitive work environment, and precipitously narrowing options for many lower-middle and grassroots youth in the country.

I have written elsewhere (in Chinese EJ) that lying down is not the answer. Here I’d like to play Devil’s Advocate – and make the putative case for lying down. Two comments before the substantive argument – the first is that I seek not to justify that lying down is, all things considered, indeed justified; the second is that this piece should be read in conjunction with my column this Monday, in which I delineate the dangers and drawbacks of “lying-down philosophy”. With that said, here are several reasons as to why the opting for minimalism, de-cluttering, and a relatively thrifty life – could indeed offer the path out and forward for many living under the asphyxiating pressures of the modern age.

Firstly, lying down restores agency to the subjugated individual. Modern society imposes all sorts of constraints, expectations, and judgments upon us – which in turn shackle and condition us to accept un-freedom as a given, to take restrictions as a warranted and natural compass orienting our actions. This should not be the case. And in many instances, when we do in fact realise our fundamental un-freedom, the default tendency on our part is to either embrace it with defeatist resignation, or to flagrantly ignore the circumstantial reality that we inhabit. Neither, I suggest, is the way to go. To accept the proposition that we are un-free, would dissipate our resolve and willingness to take on the status quo, to transform structural injustices that permeate our world today. Yet to ignore the realities and confinements that we must acknowledge, would steer us down an even more perilous path of wishful thinking.

Lying down is the “balanced” option here – it encourages us to see ourselves as voluntary, free agents, who are capable of adjusting and adapting our mindsets. Yet it also compels us to reckon with the environmental and social factors that render us less free, less responsible, than mainstream narratives often induce us to believe we are. This is crucial – by exempting us from unjustifiable responsibilisation without thereby paralysing us (or convincing us that we are, indeed, unable to act, to think, to behave otherwise), the “lying down” ethos is liberating; it equips us with the optimism and openness to take things as they come, without thereby conceding that we can do nothing to transform the events that befall us. The Archimedean mean, indeed.

Secondly, however, lying down remains a powerful tool of critique. The hegemonic narratives taken for granted across a plurality of rapidly developing or developed countries – is that individuals ought to contribute productively towards their respective societies; this comes with a heightened sense of collectivist obligations and ethic in China. The act of lying down offers a counterbalance against this mainstream, normalised narrative – it suggests to us that we cannot and should not take this for granted, as a default. Instead, it is imperative that we call out structural subjugation and incentive structures that nudge us towards over-work and over-drive, at the expense of individual and interpersonal relationships.

Now, the critic may posit – surely, we can spend more time with our families and friends; we could take time out to avoid burn-out; we could withdraw from the hedonistic treadmill, without thereby committing to the outlook embodied by “lying down”. To argue that taking relationships, friendships, self-care seriously compels us to lie down, may seem to some an excessively quick move.

Here’s the thing – for a very long time, we’ve seen calls for self-care and paying attention to one’s own relationships and friends, as a critical component of attempts at redressing internal failures and inadequacies within the capitalist, neoliberal model. These outcries and recommendations have, in turn, largely fallen on deaf ears, as the productivity-driven economy absorbs, internalises, and assimilates those who seek to resist the system from within – the ultimate danger in gradualist, adaptational/mitigatory strategies, rests with the fact that they may end up inadvertently legitimating the very institutions individuals are seeking to escape.

We need a more radical, defiant act, in order to stand and be counted. The modern capitalist economy needs structural reform – even if not overhaul; piecemeal changes and adjustments cannot, and will not, serve as the way out. To lie down is not akin to accepting the contours and vicissitudes of fate – it is instead to seize the day, and make the most of it, whilst one can.

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Assistant Professor, HKU