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.


Thursday, July 31, 2014

Not Swimming in Circles

Many people assume that Switzerland is everywhere and always perfectly organized, and that this is a country in which there is a place for everything (and everything is in its place).  They are surprised to learn that amidst the scrubbed sidewalks and manicured pastures there exist pockets of irrationality, small places where, hidden from the world, the locals indulge in a degree disorderliness that can only be called un-Swiss.  Nowhere is this more obvious than at the swimming pool.  Like buying a coffee machine, trying to fit in a thousand meters of freestyle during lunch break can be an existentially terrifying experience for the casual observer of Swissness.

Why do the Swiss swim this way?

In most parts of the world, pools are divided into lanes, within which swimmers agree to proceed in a clockwise pattern (and follow a few other rules of etiquette).  Abiding by this small rule allows far more people to use any given lane, and would seem the sort of thing that Helvetians would embrace with zeal.  And yet, Swiss natatoriums are instead perplexing tanks of entropy.

Not swimming in circles makes more sense when you consider the relationship that the Swiss have with their lakes.  The country's countless and beautiful Badis are wildly popular in summer, and have a fascinatingly unique status as public-private spaces. 

Clearly, Switzerland is a densely-populated and landlocked country.  Most citizens live in rented flats rather than sprawling suburban ranches, so the Swiss manage their public spaces carefully. 

In the Badi, you are out in the open, in social or public but not necessarily civic space: you stake our your square meters as expansively as you like, and set up your blanket and grill accordingly, leaving everyone else to find a different patch of grass.

It seems that this attitude has carried from the gorgeous alpine reservoirs into the chlorine-bleached boxes of tile to which the masochistically meritorious so rigorously subject themselves; the pool is a relief from the confines of apartment life, a small patch of nature to call one's own for a brief hour, with personal boundaries marked out by a towel and a blank stare.

There are no swimming pools in Switzerland.  Only very small lakes.