Cultural Narratives, Graphic Novels, Manga, Nerd Culture

Equvialent Exchange


Image from Tumblr 

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.

Cultural Narratives, Graphic Novels, Mental Health, Nerd Culture

How a Graphic Novel Helped me Cope with Clutter

There’s nothing like coming home to find the doorway blocked by five bicycles. I’m not a fan of walking sideways like a crab but I’ve done it regularly because I have to if I want to get inside my home. I’m a millennial living in the two bedroom apartment I grew up in. I do this because my beloved job – which I’m lucky to have – is part-time and pays minimum wage. I’ve crunched the numbers and I can’t make rent, pay back my student loan, and eat too.

“But what’s up with the bicycles?” you ask. Well, everyone in my family, myself included, has multiple hobbies and side projects. Repairing and selling old bicycles on Craigslist is one the more lucrative projects, so the bikes are here to stay. The result, when combined with our mountains of reading material and rescued furniture waiting to be repaired, is a state of constant chaos. Living surrounded by a dozen or so bikes, bike parts, repair tools, stacks of magazines, and piles of papers was normal for me until I went away for school. You can’t know that your normal isn’t other people’s normal until you have something to compare it to.

I love possessions as much as the next person. As a nerd I’m acutely aware how much nerd culture is about stuff. You want to show the world what you love so you buy the shirt that features the game/movie/show/comic symbol on it. This year’s merch will let everyone know you were at a particular festival or convention. Fashion speaks and nerd fashion does so loud and clear: This is what I love. This is who I am.

Household possessions are much the same. I like this fact: one look at my room and you know what you’re dealing with. My book shelves tell you things about me. The art on my walls tells you where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to. On my shelves are a few of my favourite things.

Everything in my room says something about me. What does a cluttered house say? Far too much.

In the graphic novel Bad Houses, by Sara Ryan and Carla Speed McNeil, every item piled around the protagonists’ hoarder house holds a memory. Danica struggles to hold onto the life she once had – the time when her husband was alive and when her daughter Anne was a child – and the things that remind her of happier times. Her memories physically invade the house and her hoarding reveals deep emotional pain.

Anne feels like their accumulated possessions are all speaking to her at once, whether she wants to hear them or not. This pains her, making her long for space of her own. When Danica hides some of the hoard in Anne’s room, to create an illusion of order for a house guest, Anne is reduced to tears. I imagine I’d feel the same way if my personal living space were taken from me.

Privacy Meme

Hands up everyone who knows this feel.


The millennial generation knows too well the need for a room of one’s own and the ache of lacking privacy. Many of my friends have lamented over not having any truly private space while living in their family homes. But when your parents are paying the rent, they don’t see problem with walking through your space to see if you left the window open or to retrieve a sock that made its way into your drawer. Logically they have a point, but the feeling of violation is almost physically painful.

The pain of losing privacy is second only to the pain of being surrounded by too much stuff. A heavily cluttered space is exhausting to look at. Too many textures, shapes, things can all come together and overwhelm your eyes. I find I’m anxious if I’m surrounded by too many things or if I have too little room to move. Different people respond to their environments in different ways, but hoarding draws out a visceral reaction.

My physical reasons for being unhappy around clutter are pretty obvious. Reading Bad Houses made me understand the emotional reasons for my clutter-anxiety: the things that clutter the main living spaces of the apartment aren’t mine and neither are the stories they tell. I worry that the stuff will creep into my room and start to influence the self-expressive space I’ve curated for myself. Like Anne, I hear and see more stories than I can manage whenever I’m surrounded by my family’s things. I can only handle so many memories, or so much information, at a time.

I’m not alone in worrying. My Mom was thrilled when I built her a little bookshelf out of old wine boxes. I did this thinking we’d free up space elsewhere, not thinking about how a collection of books reflect on the owner. When her books were on the shelf, she said she felt like her soul was suddenly bared there in the living room – and I knew exactly what she meant. By trying to help her I accidentally stomped on her sense of privacy.

Living with my family is a work-in-progress. It won’t be forever, but while I’m with my folks we’ll have to take turns filling the space we live in. And if all the things get too invasive, I’ll always have a book to hide in.

Bad Houses can be found here.