The Gift of Serving Man

by zunguzungu

I had my first class yesterday. And to introduce the discussion we were about to have on the Twilight Zone episode, “To Serve Man” (which you should view here) I asked my students why my friend Dan told me that he wanted to be around for flying cars, but not for alien contact. They suggested — perhaps more cogently than the way I’ll try to channel them — that the difference was between technology as human agency vs. technology as dependency: if we make flying cars, those cars are a function of our own abilities and power, whereas getting superior technology from aliens would make us dependent on the aliens, a demonstration of our inferior power. In such terms, interestingly, the very existence of charity as charity is a problem. Which means that it isn’t so much a question of what the motivations of the aliens will be; the simple fact that they will (in such scenarios) inevitably be technologically superior is the problem itself.

It’s an interesting connection, and tomorrow I’ll write more about “To Serve Man” itself. But to first frame the issues, as a fairly explicit allegory for inter-societal relationships, I’m interested how it situates the problem of charity and dependence as intrinsic problems, how sci-fi seems able to understand, almost implicitly, what international humanitarianism as a whole seems programmatically unable to: that producing relations of dependency by the engine of charity is not a “gift” except in the strictest Maussian sense. By that, I mean that “gifts” always imply relationships and obligation: you can neither give nor receive without producing new relationships of power and dependence (or at least no one ever does). Even if charitable giving doesn’t impose explicit conditions on the receiver, the manner in which “charity” comes to structure (and re-structure) the relationship between giver and receiver is almost inescapable: if you are dependent on charity, you will become dependent on the giver, which will give them power over you, even if they don‘t choose to exercise it.

(I’m actually thinking specifically of a friend’s fieldwork in saying this: one of the things she’s showing is that even to the extent that a donor intends its charity to be without consequences or conditions, the fact that the receiver wants to receive again causes them to behave as if conditions were being imposed, creating the bizarre situation, too, where the donor’s well-intentioned desire not to impose conditions only makes them all the more blind to the conditions they are actually imposing. Good motivations, in other words, are not only irrelevant, but presuming them to matter causes the donors to misunderstand what‘s going on around them.)

It’s interesting, then, that sci-fi in the West so completely understands this, how natural it is to fear aliens bearing gifts, regardless of their motivations, in contrast to how consistently myopic we in the West tend to be in our inability to read international politics through this perspective. Because of all the things “we” give “them,” it is totally clear that “they” owe “us” at the very least love and gratitude, while the kinds of conditions and obligations and burdens that always accompany every act of charity are almost completely unthinkable. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read and spoken with frustrated Western development workers and volunteers talking about the inexplicable way that the people they give to seem not to appreciate what they’re given or appropriately behave with the proper amount of appreciation. Because their motivations are good, they are shocked to discover anything less than total and complete reverence and gratitude. Yet a sci-fi story like “To Serve Man” doesn’t just understand or suggest this perspective, it practically presumes it.

This inability to understand is a function, I think, of what is taken for granted when we think about international charity: that it is natural for “them” to be dependant on “us.” And when sci-fi inverts the relationship, when we are invited to think from the perspective of the receiver instead of the giver (stripped by the allegorical fiction of sci-fi of any markers of ethnic or national particularity), not only are we suddenly able to see the relationship as unnatural, but we are abruptly able to think about the kinds of de-stabilizing effects that an imposed dependence is likely to create. The fact, in fact, that we can only seem to perceive this when the donors have been rendered as aliens speaks to how deeply ingrained these attitudes are, how necessary the defamiliarizing gesture of a story like “To Serve Man” is (as the story explicitly notes, by the way).