Cultural Narratives, Graphic Novels, Manga, Nerd Culture

Equvialent Exchange


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In order to obtain something, something of equal value must be lost.

This is the Law of Equivalent Exchange, the founding principle of alchemy in the world of Full Metal Alchemist. The manga series, and subsequent anime series, ask fascinating questions about the roles of science, technology, and religion.

The manga has the tightest fantasy-world formula I’ve ever encountered. The rules of alchemy are perfectly summed up in that first line: in order to create something, some other physical thing must be used up. In this way every character’s supernatural powers are limited. You cannot make something from nothing; if you want to create a giant wall to stop a flood, then you need enough surrounding ground or rock to provide the substance of said wall. If you disassemble something into it’s parts, then you now have the leftover matter to deal with. Bypassing the laws of nature requires huge amounts of energy and horrible sacrifice. In the Full Metal Alchemist’s world, power comes at a price, as is the way in our world.

The unlike many fantasy stories, the FMA’s cast is made up mostly of working people: machinists, doctors, engineers, farmers, soldiers, and tradespeople. Everyone in the cast – men and women, physically handicapped or not – works for a living and is proud of it. The only exception to this rule is a foreign prince, Lin. Lin is portrayed as an eccentric freeloader, who is an occasional ally, but mainly an unwelcome outsider. And while Lin does act as a mouthpiece for ideas about loyalty and leadership, because he is royalty, he is the odd one out. FMA is a fantasy story that has little time for the Divine Right of Kings, or even aristocracy. Rather, this is a story about the doings of alchemists.

Alchemists are the scientists of the FMA world. They are expected to serve the country that supports them and their work – and are called to task when this duty is not met. Even when the protagonists, Ed and Al Elric, are snowed-in at a northern army base, they are put to work to earn their keep. You’ll notice that this is a far cry from the Fellowship dining in various lordly keeps along their journey! Hospitality certainly exists in FMA’s world; it’s just underplayed. The expectation is that those who want to eat will work for it.

A day’s work for a day’s bread. Give and take.

Alchemy aside, it’s a rather capitalist idea.

There is give-and-take in all aspects of our lives too. Almost nothing is without cost in time, money, or effort. Like the alchemists, we recognize that you cannot go through life expecting something from nothing. The concept is presented in FMA as a moral philosophy, as well as a fantastical/scientific principle. On the surface, this seems like a good idea. It has balance, fairness.

But here’s where equivalent exchange breaks down as a moral philosophy: it leaves no room for gifts.

I don’t mean an exchange of gifts, the kind that has turned Christmas into a consumer holiday and has given birth to the shopping-incentive that is Valentine’s day. I mean an honest, simple act of giving someone something without any expectation of reciprocation. Giving someone something because you want them to have it, enjoy it, benefit from it. Not a loan. Not a favour to be repaid. Not a barter of goods or skills. Giving for it’s own sake.

In capitalist societies, such gifts are rare. Many things are gifts in name only: the drink from a flirtatious stranger at the bar, the condo development that includes the building of a public school, the tax-deductible donation. These come with an underlying quid pro quo; expectations of something in return. We know this instinctively. We see it outright, if we look clearly. And we look for it when an ambiguous gift is given.

Worse, this the give-and-take idea is often applied where it shouldn’t be. The notion of “earning one’s keep,” proudly a part of FMA’s ideology, can be too easily used as a conceptual stick to beat one’s dependants with. Internet advice blogger, Captain Awkward, wrote about this idea when she addressed the concerns of a controlling parent who wrote in to her:

“I think that the money you give your kids for their upbringing and education is a gift, not a down payment on controlling the rest of their lives.”

The good Captain makes a strong point. Give-and-take, or equivalent exchange, should not be applied to dependants. If it is, you end up with the real-life version of Principle Skinner lamenting “Mother…insists I pay her back retroactively for the food I ate as a child.” (Simpsons episode 7, season 8) The gift of help, when the recipient really needs that help or cannot manage without it, shouldn’t come with strings attached.

Now, in the doldrums between the Holidays and Valentine’s Day, I hope it gets easier to brush back the strings. In an economy that is unstable and at a time when everyone is a little less sure of their futures, give-and-take seems harsher than ever. True gifts may only get rarer, but I hope not. I think the only way to get through hard times is to give when you can without expecting something in return…and to receive without guilt. If this sounds difficult, that’s because it is. But in order to change bleak prospects, difficult things have to be done.


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