Aging and Aging Trouble

All of us age. Every day, every hour, every minute. From birth onward—and not just once we turn 50, 55, or 60. Yet at some point, it seems, we become old. No longer moving, but static. Attributions upon attributions rain down on those who’ve passed a certain mark on life’s calendar. Individuality is a thing of the past. Their own individual desires, the ideas and forces that enable them to take flight, seem to have lost all societal relevance.

An unpleasant topic, then? Perhaps. But a necessary one. One that’s inseparable from all of our individual existences, that’s most intimately interwoven with concepts of life. We’re repeatedly, time and time again, too old or too young for something—for admission to the educational system, for movies and websites, for a scholarship, subsidies, awards, having a baby, wearing stylish clothing, starting a new life. That’s what society’s rules would have us believe.

Even though much awareness-raising still needs to be done concerning various forms of sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, and ableism, it has indeed been possible to establish a political self-understanding that takes societal mechanisms of power and exclusion into account. And particularly in places such as universities, people are now sensitised to these issues in manifold ways. But even so, nobody is entirely immune from injuring or denigrating others: precisely in those dimensions for which we haven’t yet developed much sensitivity, it does happen that we treat people in ways we’d prefer not to be treated ourselves. That we speak to them in ways we wouldn’t wish to be spoken to if we were to wind up in their situations someday. And this one specific situation, that of becoming ever older, is one in which all of us will eventually arrive—provided we live long enough to experience it.

Aging is living. And despite this, age is employed primarily as a marker of difference. Even if we’ve already deconstructed supposedly essentialist characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, social categorisation, sexual orientation, ableness, etc., revealing them to be social constructs, we do still think we can recognise when someone is old—going by their birth date, wrinkly skin, slower steps, tiredness, etc.

In recent years, I’ve been researching how agism hurts women. We all know these social attributions of wisdom to white-haired men, whereas white-haired women are viewed as old and unattractive. Every day, the media tell us: being old is something bad, while being young is good. Even more damaging, however, is what I call ‘internalised agism’—when we accept and integrate these societal valuations. Accepting them limits us, for we do so unconsciously. So we have to confront them! Take the idea of being too old to start something new, for example. I was 73 when I finished authoring my second doctoral dissertation. And in the USA, there already exists a counter-movement to research on the downsides of aging. We have to understand what’s exciting and good about it, in the spirit of: positive aging, wise aging, holistic aging.

Evelyn Torton Beck, Women’s Studies Professor Emerita, University of Maryland, College Park, holder of an honorary doctorate from the mdw

Back in 2003, I sent Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble-concept on a journey into gerontology and aging studies. ‘Aging Trouble’ expresses the disquiet and uneasiness of an era during which waves were being made by the discourse on age. It needs to be asked what strategies—perhaps even subversive ones—exist with which to undermine these antiquated constructions and topoi of age that, in reality, determine just how we are permitted to stage ourselves performatively as we age. In this spirit, the arts represent a high-quality corrective to gerontology. And yes, I understand myself—in the sense of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project—as an ‘arcAGE worker’, as engaged in rites of passage, but also as part of a spatial arrangement. And I’ve asked myself just what narratives are available to these aging-related biographical transitions and whether one might not also find alternative narratives with which to shape it.

Miriam Haller, cultural studies scholar, culturagogue, kubia/Kompetenzzentrum für kulturelle Bildung im Alter und Inklusion in Nordrhein-Westfalen

It was all the way back in 1973 that Susan Sontag established the notion of “The Double Standard of Aging”. Sontag criticised aging as society’s condemnation of women in a way that was tantamount to extinguishing their self-imagination. Even back then, she made it clear that what we’re dealing with here is a culturally defined category that generates realities. And even if isolated counter-examples do exist today, such realities are based on a polarisation of young and old that, in the Global North, looks as follows: masculine-connoted activity, energy, and power stand for youth, while feminine-connoted incompetence, helplessness, and passivity stand for being old.

Tragically, the public image of older women has hardly changed. In 1877, the future composer, conductor, author, manager, and suffragette Ethel Smyth, then just 19 years old, travelled from England to Leipzig in order to study composing against the will of her parents. And in accordance with her own wishes, she managed to see her first opera onstage before she’d turned 40. It was an enormous achievement, seeing as there were no female role models whom she could have emulated. But contemporary sources quite tellingly put greater emphasis on her age in combination with her physical appearance than they do on actual criticism of her works—with characterisations such as ‘no longer young, but of child-like mirth’, or ‘an approximately 48-year-old Englishwoman in drab, sack-like clothing.’ In her autobiography, she repeatedly employed humour to counter this sexist, ableist (she lost her hearing as she grew older), and homophobic (she became the life partner of Virginia Woolf at an advanced age) ageism with humour.

Angelika Silberbauer, University Assistant at the Department of Musicology and Performance Studies, chair of the mdw’s Working Group on Equal Opportunities (AKG)

The more thoroughly we deal with gender studies and/or diversity from a transdisciplinary perspective, the more sensitively we react to institutionally normative and socio-politically established age-related attributions. This is strenuous, but it also represents an important humanitarian impulse. For the ethical and political dimensions of this theme always end up converging on one single point: How do we treat ourselves and each other? This question must be asked anew time and time again. Because all of us, without exception, are confronted with aging and hence aging trouble—provided we live long enough to experience it.

aging and aging trouble. was alle erfahren, wenn sie es erleben. […what everyone goes through if they live long enough to experience it.] An mdw event for International Women’s Day 2021 featuring a conversation with Evelyn Torton Beck, Miriam Haller, and Angelika Silberbauer. Moderation: Doris Ingrisch

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