Body Capital:23-25 February 2017-copie

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The healthy self as body capital:
Individuals, market-based societies, body politics and visual media twentieth century Europe

An international conference, Université de Strasbourg
Salle de conférence, MISHA, Allée du Général Rouvillois, Strasbourg.
23-25 February 2017

Do you know how much rapid eye movement (REM) sleep you need to work efficiently, look at food labels to ensure that you are getting all the required vitamins and minerals or know someone who uses a step counter to know if they are getting enough physical activity? These are just a few examples of the perceptions of health and individual practices in twentieth century Europe. This century may be characterized by an expansion of products and techniques for the body and its health. These are not only witnessed by, but contributed to and were affected by, a flood of visuals that circulated transnationally and the advent of a media society. Bodily health has evolved as a new form of capital (Bourdieu 1979): a form of symbolic capital that can be transformed into economic capital.

The ERC funded research group “The healthy self as body capital: individuals, market-based societies and body politics in visual twentieth century Europe” led by Christian Bonah (Université de Strasbourg) and Anja Laukötter (MPIHD, Berlin) will research this understanding of body capital, and its history, by focusing on the history of visual mass media (film, TV, Internet) and inédits (amateur, family and private visuals) throughout the twentieth century in Europe and beyond.

The research project begins with the premise that visuals are not conceived merely as a mirror or expression of what is observed; visuals are regarded as a distinct, interactive performative power of mass media societies. We consider them essential and novel firstly because their distribution is considerably extensive, secondly because they transcend professional and social groups, thirdly because of their utilitarian character and fourthly they echo economic market principles in terms of promotion/communication. Herein, we suggest visuals have heuristic and analytic meanings.

Our objective is to understand the role that modern visual mass media have played in what may be cast as the transition from a national bio-political public health paradigm at the beginning of the nineteenth century to societal forms of the late twentieth century where better and healthier life is increasingly shaped by market forces/fundamentalism. Herein, the beginning of the nineteenth century is characterized by collective bodies, a work force and labour society, as well as state interests in being able to mobilize large cohorts of able-bodied workers, soldiers and colonial subjects and the late twentieth century is characterized by individuals, body capital in a consumer society, and market incentives – leading to what may be defined as commoditized or commodified bodies. We aim to study these developments through the lenses of the visuals in the histories of three European countries that are central to the economy and visual production, yet differ in their visual culture and their embrace of neo-liberal market policies during the twentieth century: France, Germany and Great Britain. Moreover the developments in and influences of the United States and Canada, as well as Russia/USSR, will be included as complementary references and as analytical counterpoints. Within this spatial historical framework the project focuses on four main fields of health interests in the twentieth century: history of food/nutrition history of movement/exercise/sports history of sexuality/reproduction/infants history of dependency/addiction/overconsumption. The inaugural conference of this research group to be held in Strasbourg (23-25 February 2017) will bring together topic and media related scholars from the fields of history, history of medicine, media studies, film studies and film history. The conference will approach and explore the broad field of the project’s research agenda with four distinct, yet overlapping, axes:

1. Between local formations and global realms

This panel will explore developments and relationships between the formation, activities and goals of global organizations (ranging from UNESCO to WHO) in casting and spreading their aims via visuals. It will focus on how global institutions conceptualized health issues as global issues and the role visuals played in these efforts. Moreover the panel will focus on local organized configurations (such as the amateur film movement) and how these groups used visuals as an expression of a new individual and collective understanding of health.

2. Between Medicine, Sciences and Markets

This panel will explore the connections and relationships in the history of medicine, between different scientific fields (from psychiatry, psychology to neurobiology and chemistry) and various industrial actors (such as pharmaceutical industries). The panel will not only explore how these different power players constructed and worked on the consumer with and within visuals, but also how the (economic) interests overlap between different fields and countries over the twentieth century.

3. Between state regulation and subjectification

The third panel highlights the role of visual media in two different agencies and their possible interactions. The efforts and practices of state regulation will be explored in considering how different European health systems shaped the efforts to enforce/educate its citizens to live healthy lives and how economic interests played out. Moreover, by focusing on the individuals’ perspectives the panel will not only explore how individual people reacted to these state efforts, but also how individuals actively performed health. Thus the panel will focus on practices of internalizations of health practices that have been described in concepts such as the “preventive self” (Lengwiler/Madarász 2010).

4. Between Collectivization and Distinction

The fourth panel explores how visuals play out in various developments within European countries and the USA, ranging from phenomena described as different forms of collectivization and distinction. On the one hand we find different forms of health related group configurations, such as self-help groups (for example, AIDS activists, AnonymousAlcoholics or obesity support groups), to promote new health related attitudes and practices. At the same time we find individuals organized in different distinct activity groups (such as Aerobics or vegan movements) that promote not only a new healthy life, but function as a new marker of social difference and class boundaries.


The inaugural conference of the ERC BodyCapital project held in Strasbourg (23-25 February 2017) brought together scholars from the fields of history, history of medicine, media studies, film studies and film history. The conference explored the broad field of the project’s research agenda with four distinct, yet overlapping, axes articulated as four panels. Each panel was opened with a keynote lecture that addressed the broader context of the panel, without considering audiovisual aspects. This was followed by a short introduction that tied the theme to the project’s objectives, then three papers by invited speakers and concluded with a commentary.

You can listen to the interventions by clicking the links below


Panel 1 – Global practices and local realities

Panel 2 – Health message AV: From patients to health consumers

Panel 3 – Education, influence and internalization

Panel 4 - New movements and bodies in intermedial forms