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‘Schools for the moral training of the people': Public Baths, Liberalism and the Promotion of Cleanliness in Victorian Britain1

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This article examines Victorian public baths as institutions of active, embodied liberalism: as political spaces where subjects went to practise and enhance their powers of self-government, and in so doing embody and perform a clean and respectable lifestyle. To some extent, public baths can be understood as disciplinary institutions. According to its promoters, personal cleanliness went hand in hand with sober, industrious habits and a conscientious sense of domestic and social responsibility. At the same time, they also formed significant ethical sites, for bathing was a privilege that had to be paid for and as such actively adopted as a lifestyle choice; and, to this extent, they were about facilitating, rather than coercing, a certain civilised freedom. Public baths also allow for an exploration of the material facets of Victorian liberalism, of its spatial and corporeal dimensions. Washing was a practice that not only took place within a privatising architecture but one that also entailed an intensified awareness of the materiality of the self, and especially its covering, the skin. As an art of the self, as a form of subjective individualisation, washing was at once an ethical and a sensory, a moral and a physical, enactment of power. résumé Cet article se penche sur les bains publics comme un exemple pratique et physique du libéralisme, comme un espace ou les possibilités de la connaissance de soi et de la gouvernementalité pouvaient s'exprimer. Dans un certain sens les bains publics avaient une fonction disciplinaire dans le sens d'un parallèle entre la propreté et la sobriété, la responsabilité et la domesticité. En un autre sens les bains représentaient un site éthique dans la mesure où ils restaient un privilège payant et un choix de vie qui facilitait plutôt qu'il ne forçait une entrée dans le domaine de la liberté et de la civilité. Les bains publics permettent aussi une exploration de l'espace physique et matériel du libéralisme et des rapports entre une entreprise de type privé et les soins du corps et plus particulièrement de la peau. Dans ce sens les soins corporels et les bains représentaient un ensemble d'exercices du pouvoir de soi sur soi: éthique, sensorial, moral et physique.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: March 1, 2006

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