Oct 03 2008

Switzerland as the panopticon

by at 5:29 pm

There’s this idea in this country that everyone is assumed to know the rules and everyone follows them all the time.  This is well and good for the people who grew up with the rules, but for those new to them, it is a complete mess.  It is always completely unclear who to ask or where to look for information, if we even know that there is something we should be finding out about.  So we keep experiencing these frustrating surprises, which sometimes don’t matter much, and other times, really mess things up.

  • Two days ago, we missed a train because we couldn’t figure out how to tell which was the one we wanted.  Swiss transport is only efficient when trains aren’t late and when things are marked clearly enough that one can make the connection.
  • We still can’t figure out how the recycling system works.  Some things need to go on the curb on certain days, others to bins in the supermarket, others to the recycling center (I went there today…that was an odd experience filled with trucks and workmen and very few normal citizens on foot), and others ??? Whenever we try to find out this information, say by looking at the printed material, looking on the internet, asking people handing out postcards encouraging people to recycle, they never seem to know the answer.  Yet, we know that everyone out there somehow does it correctly, they just can’t explain it to us.
  • Whenever we go to stores, we wander around aimlessly, because aisles are not marked with what they contain, things are categorized differently here, and there is no one working in the store who you can ask for help.  Stores are huge here, but only carry a few brands of each thing or don’t carry essential items, so we find ourselves needing to go to multiple grocery stores in order to find everything.  Also, much of the stuff we want is apparently in France…but we refuse to go all the way to France to do our weekly shopping.
  • We need residence permits to get good deals here, but our residence permit takes 3 months to process—in the meantime, we have to have prepaid cell phones, have to pay more for transportation, etc.
  • My bank account came with online access, and the password never came in the mail, and when I tried to call, the line was down, and when I went to the bank, they said to call, and then I got a letter saying my online access would expire in a couple of days, and then FINALLY I got through on the phone, they mailed it, and I lucked out and was home when the registered mail came for me to sign or I would have had to get to the post office during opening hours to pick it up before it expired.
  • As perhaps the clearest example, all roads are 80km and highways 120km unless other wise marked—but no where does it say that, not on the streets themselves—and if another expat hadn’t told us, how would we have known?  How would we have even thought to look, and where would we look for that information?  Despite there being no notification of this, there is apparently very good electronic enforcement (cameras on the highways) and we might receive a ticket in the mail. Or so we’ve been told! (see panopticon theory, below)

It’s very odd.  The list just goes on and on with this kind of stuff.  The list above was just a little sampler. A lot of it sounds funny on the blog and in fact is funny in retrospect, but while it’s happening, it’s annoying!

Anyway, for those social studies students out there, I have this fledgling theory that Bentham’s panopticon does really exist, in the form of a country named Switzerland.  Michel Foucault used the idea of the panopticon to describe disciplinary societies.  Obviously, the Swiss government is watching everyone carefully—why else all of the registrations and formalities?  Yet, there are hardly any policemen, and no one knows when he is being watched, so he has taught himself to follow all of these petty rules without even realizing he has done so.  And there you get the docile body, Bunzli.

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