Tag Archives: debt

Pity for Man pt. II



Part II of this post.

Some months prior, I wrote a reflection comparing my previous experiences and hopes for (what I would call) an earthly communal paradise with Albert Camus’ The Fall, in which lawyer Jean Baptiste Clement confesses his selfish virtuousness in his unpaid work with orphans and widows – “the noble causes.” My encounters with the disabled and the poor in China left me not with a sense of deep sympathy, but a feeling of detachment, a complete 180 in comparison to my prior emotions of solidarity in my pre-China state of innocence, when I would watch the spectacle of the wretchedness of the Chinese poor behind electronic screens from the comfort of my airconditioned Canadian home. Justice spoke and I felt a vague wave of indignation, which I found to be empty once confronted in the flesh with dirty dismembered coal miners and rural sojourners who lacked refined and civilized urbanite mannerisms. My reflections led to a cynical conclusion as I realized that my solidarity and respect only extended to (wo)man in the abstract, not (wo)men in the concrete.

I thought of young university liberals full of moral righteousness and indignation as being unreflective and selfish unbeknownst to themselves, as they used the floating images of third world bodies as a way to clothe and brand themselves to gain status in a moral hierarchy and rise above so as to be able to look down on others from the elevated heights of ‘correct’ morality.

Jean Baptiste Clement confesses that he aimed for a moral highground that would let him become beyond reproach, setting him “above the judges whom I judged in turn, and above the defendant, whom I forced into gratitude.” While he may have provided his services gratuitously, with no strings apparently attached, even offering financial help to the family of the defendant in what appeared to be an action of pure kindness and benevolence, he did not leave them light and free but with the greater burden of existential debt.

Anthropologist David Graeber, writer of Debt: The First 5000 Years calls (in this interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnOqanbHZi4, 9:00 ~) debt a crucial aspect of human sociality. Debt cannot be reduced to control and slavery (a forcing into gratitude). Debt is the chain linking and creating a relationship between two social beings or groups, with mutual indebtedness being a sign of a social relationship. In fact, according to Graeber, the paying off of debt was an insult, a rejection of future social interactions.

In China in full contact with some of the impoverished Chinese, I felt repulsion. Forcing these people, who I could not begin to relate to, into gratitude (or debt) would have meant the formation of a relationship, one I was not adventurous enough to start. But my cynical conclusion does not necessarily extend to everyone else, who may be by constitution more willing to engage in a relationship with this ‘other’ a fruitful, longlasting dialogue between two equals both indebted to each other. For some, (wo)men in the concrete reaffirm their belief in (wo)man in the abstract.