[Colloque] Televising the Socialist Body. Projections of Health and Welfare on the Socialist and Post-Socialist Screen

Past event

An ERC BodyCapital conference co-organised with the Centre d'études des mondes russe, caucasien et centre européen (Cercec, EHESS)


15 17 December 2021
9h 13h
Paris, France


International conference, 15-17 December 2021

Condorcet Campus, Aubervilliers (Paris), France

Television prospered upon a tension between education and leisure, which was especially acute in a socialist context. Televisions began to appear in homes in Eastern Europe after its stabilization as a socialist “block” dominated by the USSR. However diverse by nature and history, all the socialist regimes shared common strategies of mass propaganda, i.e. the intensive use of media to convert people and transform collective/individual behaviours. Television was supposed to be a new tool allowing direct normative shaping of every citizen, but also blamed in some circles for stimulating the disarticulation of the class/work/political collective. Moreover, it was uneasy to master: the authorities trained to produce an efficient TV discourse mainly focused on socialist progress (i.e. omitting shortcomings and problems from the picture), and the spectators learned to read it (i.e. to select the information) at the very same time. Finally, crossed communication around programs helped the citizens to identify themselves with a Soviet way-of-life more “normal” than in the past 40 years.

The question of the specificity of the Eastern case in the broader history of European television and the stakes of “socialist” body values merit both a nuanced assessment. The development of television coincided with a period in which ideas about the public’s health, the problems that it faced and the solutions that could be offered, were changing. The threat posed by infectious diseases and famines was receding, to be replaced by chronic diseases, which were linked to lifestyle and individual behaviour. Early in the 1920s’ Soviet Russia, and more generally after World War II, the state turned into a Welfare state. Medical care was granted all life-long. In exchange one had to adopt new hygienic habits and healthy conduct: every citizen now had the right, maybe the duty, to be “healthful.” An expert state-driven approach of the body commissioned the school and the mass media to purge the amateur popular perceptions of medicine. In Eastern Europe, the political power emphasized the necessity of a collective reshaping of the body, defining a “socialist” body (still to outline in general and in its national variations) that contrasted with its “corrupt” Western counterpart.

Watching TV in the 1950s-1990s was part of a shift towards more sedentary lifestyles, and also a vehicle through which products that were damaging to health, such as alcohol, cigarettes and unhealthy food, could be advertised to the public. In the Eastern part of Europe, where food was less scarce, alcohol and cigarettes affordable, the states endeavoured simultaneously to promote an ambiguous “socialist” well being and fight the usual “social diseases”, while also accumulating budget income from the consumption, even while condemning consumerism. Throughout the age of television, health and body-related subjects have been presented and diffused into the public sphere via a multitude of forms, ranging from short films in health education programmes to school television; from professional training videos to TV ads; from documentary and reality TV shows to TV news; but also as complementary VHS and similar video formats (i.e. bootleg recordings and copies) circulating in private and public spheres. Spectators were invited not only to be TV consuming audiences, but also how shows and TV set-ups integrated and sometimes pretended to transform the viewer into a participant of the show. TV programmes spread the conviction that subjects had the ability to shape their own body.

Bodies and health on television—and, more generally the interrelationship of the history of health and bodies—and the history of the various TV formats has not been extensively researched, in particular among the populations living under socialism and in transition to market-economy. The conference seeks to analyse how television and its evolving formats—contemporary, similar and yet differing in national broadcast contexts—expressed and staged bodies and health from local, regional, national and international perspectives. The conference seeks to better understand the role that TV, as a modern visual mass media, has played in what may be cast as the transition from a national bio-political public health paradigm at the beginning of the twentieth century, to alternative societal forms of the late twentieth century when (supposedly) “better” and “healthier” lives were increasingly shaped by market forces.

co-organised by ERC BodyCapital with the CERCEC (Centre for Russian, Caucasian and Central European Studies, EHESS), Paris, France.

The conference is open and will be in hybrid format, get the connection details here.

The conference will take place in-person; masks and pass sanitaire required. To attend in person, please register via email.