TransFORMations of the Body

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Popular Culture and the Biopolitics of Public Bathing in Budapest in the First Half of the 20th Century (1999)

Our view of existence can have only one center, and that is our body, the pure form of being that makes this view possible and provides strength, authority, and security, so that ultimately –I emphasize ultimately- nothing else should interest us but our body in all its possible aspects and manifestations. –Nádas Péter, The Book of Memories


The problem: transforming bodies

In the 20th century active knowledge of human body have come to occupy an increasingly central role in people’s consciousness, in their everyday practices and in significant public discourses. While in the 19th century human body had been an object of social explanatory models of the Enlightenment (such as the panopticon), the early 20th century has given primacy of new social practices (reform movements, such as vegetarianism, nudism and a wide range of sports) based on the forming culture of the metropolis. These new modes of physical existence seemed to provide a contrast to (and as well a cradle of) the techniques of modern biopolitics. This transformation of the human body that prevailed Hungarian society after the 1st World War had consequences on several levels.

Three research areas

My aim was to study the cultural and social consequences of this transformation divided into three research areas: (1) the care of body, (2) the medicalization of body, and (3) the hardening of body, In my (MA) thesis I have studied these three aspects on the example of a certain institution, namely the rise of open-air pools in Budapest in the interwar period. The growing number of these open-air pools provided me an interesting field to investigate the most significant social practices and discourses of the modern human body.

Two concepts

Throughout my research I relied on two central concepts of the social theory of body, that of Pierre Bourdieu’s habitus and that of Michel Foucault’s biopolitics. My aim was to elaborate the comparison between these theoretical research, therefore I tried to concentrate on the micro-level, where bodies are on display and in action. To give an example, I compared the use of the open-air pool by the communist sport movement in 1919 and by the extreme rightist MOVE (Association of Hungarian Armed Forces) mass training programs between 1920 and 1922. The short case studies of the unique institution of open-air pools,the social and political turmoil that had surrounded them provided further fragments of the history of everyday life and that of modern bodily existence in Hungary.


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