Monday, January 14, 2013


I watched Payback yesterday, the documentary based on Margaret Atwood's book — Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth — that served as the 2008 Massey Lectures (a book I believe I have a copy of, but have not read).

It covers the notion of debt, but primarily non-monetary debt: paying one's dues, paying for one's crimes — a debt to society.

This film looks at some particular cases: a code of family honour and revenge in an Albanian village, one man's time in prison for breaking and entering and his guilt for the seemingly irreparabe damage he did to an old lady's sense of security, the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and the working conditions of Mexican migrant tomato pickers in Florida. Conrad Black and Raj Patel have supporting roles.

The pacing's a bit slow (I've seen better documentaries lately, for example, Freakonomics), and it doesn't cover the material I'd expected to (I've read better treatments of the subject, like the anthropoligical persepective in David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years, which I admit I haven't yet read the whole of).

The movie finally comes together for me when the concept of debt, or payback, is rephrased as making reparation — what sets the balance right again. Money, time, spiritual penance? And of course there will be differing views on whether a debt has been settled depending on whether you're talking to a labour lawyer, a victim of crime, a priest, etc.

What makes this movie interesting to me, though, is that I watched it against the backdrop of a weekend in which I was immersed in Lilith's Brood, a trilogy by Octavia Butler in which extraterrestrials salvage humans and other species after Earth's nuclear destruction. The Oankali restore the humans and the planet, and restore them to each other, kind of.

The book makes me think of debt insofar as it questions: what do we owe our planet, our species, other species; to what do we owe our humanity (and how much of that debt is cultural versus genetic); to what extent would we owe someone or something for saving our life (or saving our species) and at what price?

That's fairly superficial, but there's something else too. I get the feeling we wouldn't have a sense of debt if there weren't a sense of honour or pride which could be injured. And that sense can originate within an individual, a family, a community, a species — any debt we feel is based in the thing, the unit, the code to which we feel allegiance.

So suddenly, this little science fiction trilogy is about a lot more than repopulating the planet — it's become socioeconomic. The Oankali call themselves a species of traders — they trade in knowledge and genetic material. A communal species with high intelligence, they claim their primary sense of debt is to the preservation, or continuity, of life.

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