Monday, October 5, 2015

Having Emotions

The German-speaking Swiss are famously serious folks, but never let it be said that they lack emotion.  Indeed, they're practically bursting with the stuff. Why?

The earnest anthropologist is sometimes overwhelmed by the frequency with which usually staid advertisements invoke 'emotion.'  The same word that sells condoms to the Swiss also sells them family cars, or registration for the local marathon. This makes tracking the semiotic in- and ex-tensions of the word very difficult, and leads to a disturbingly profound (and damnably elusive) question: what, exactly, are Swiss emotions?

The linguistic anthropologist finds fertile ground in the word 'Emotion,' since, although it translates directly to the English emotion, in German it carries an entirely different set of connotations.  This is a fine example of the Helvetian habit of importing English words, the better to exploit their symbolic value as excitingly exotic.

It also alerts us to a more subtle but altogether more important answer:  while the Swiss value control and social harmony, their native language - indeed their native cultural aesthetic - lacks the vocabulary to capture what is meant by the foreign 'emotion.'  The latter, in Switzerland, is a portal to romanticism, adventure, sensuality, and often a vaguely spiritual otherness.

Truly autochthonous feelings, therefore, are discussed in the local language, while the other sort can be altogether more safely bandied about in arms-length Swinglish.  A good Swiss might occasionally be miffed that a train is late, or pleased to see Federer take another title, but is as a rule not overcome with emotion.

So it is that we learn that the Swiss find it far easier to talk about someone else's emotions.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Pursuing Practical Anarchism

The epidemiologist David Coetzee recalls walking through Zurich in the wee hours of the morning and finding himself at a crosswalk next to two punks. These were punks of the old style: anarchists covered with tattoos and swathed in leather and denim clothing adorned with discarded tartans and safety pins.  And yet, they stopped alongside him and waited patiently - without a car in sight - until the light turned green.


As always, the Swiss are to be commended on creating a society that functions so beautifully. The anthropologist of power knows, however, that everywhere that there is a social structure, there is someone rebelling against it.  Even that rebellion is inevitably shaped by its culture; so it is that even in Switzerland, the anarchists are still, well, Swiss. 

We might consider James C Scott's descriptions of the everyday rebellions of the marginalized, fighting to stake out a tiny piece of symbolic turf in the perpetual dance of oppression and resistance.  For the Alpine ruffian, outright insurrection isn't just unlikely: it's not even in the vocabulary.  Instead, he must find ways to comment on the Swiss system without fundamentally destabilizing it.

Therefore, what matters more here than the content of his resistance is its appearance: this explains why graffiti is such a hugely popular form of creative resistance among young Swiss. Like dressing up as a punk and then acting fairly decorously in public places, this is a form of defiance that aims to accomplish nothing more than to advertise itself as defiance.

The arms race of social rejection among the marginalized is a redundancy in Helvetia: by the time he has left the house, the Swiss punk's rebellion is already complete.