Saturday, 8 October 2011

Theorising Age in Maastricht

Several CABS members are in Maastricht this week, taking part in the 7th International Symposium on Cultural Gerontology which is also the inaugural conference of the European Network in Ageing Studies. The title of the conference is Theorizing Age: Challenging the Disciplines and you can see the conferenc programme and all the abstracts here.

It's a conference that many CABS members have a soft spot for. We even went so far as to host it ourselves back in 2005. CABS has a symposium later this afternoon 'Critical reflections on biography and biographical methods' as well as CABS members having presented in other streams (because so many of us wanted to come that we couldn't all fit in one panel).

I've been periodically taking notes throughout, but there have been far too many interesting things to write them all up here (although there is more over on my personal blog, rememberingmyhat, if you are interested). What follows is some notes from just a few of the sessions that I thought might be of general interest.

I went to an extremely interesting panel called 'Critique of Ageing Well' which was mainly about critiquing what is variously known as active ageing, successful ageing, positive ageing, productive ageing and so on. There are, of course, nuances between these phrases, but the critique can be general as well as specific to particular approaches. This is something I've written about myself for K319, (in Learning Guide 2 - out this coming February!) but I wish I'd been able to attend this symposium first.

Just picking out bits from two of the abstracts gives you a nice, if very dense, summary:

[Debbie Laliberte Rudman, The University of Western Ontario, Canada]
... ‘positive aging’ discourses [can be] conceptualized as technologies of government. Such discourses enlist aging citizens in a duty to age well through shaping and idealizing possibilities for identity and activity. This [...] raises concerns regarding ways ‘positive aging’ discourses create demands for ‘aging well’ which are differentially achievable and narrowly defined.

[Thibauld Moulaert, K.U. Leuven, Belgium]
...International discourses of AA have slowly moved from a general framework supporting many dimensions of ageing toward a concentration of the active side, thanks to the confusing notion of "activity". Would it be possible that this trend consequently neglects some major aspects of ageing like its diversity and inequality? [yes!]

The final speaker, Silke van Dyk, University of Jena, Germany was the most challenging. It was difficult stuff and I was tired at the end of a long day (I'm going to ask her if she has a written copy of her paper) but what I took from it was a challenge not only to active ageing but also to where the critics of active-ageing often (probably inadvertently) end up.

Her argument was that active ageing is a paradigm of sameness - older people should be as much like middle-aged people as possible. But, in resisting this, critics of active ageing end up positioning older people as too different from younger people. They end up renaturalising old age as a homogenous category with its own characteristics distinct from those of younger people. Her answer was deconstructing chronological age and theorising midlife, via postcolonial and queer perspectives, which I think are good projects (although not as novel as she positioned them to be) but I'm struggling with quite how that would play out and how you could use that to challenge mandatory active ageing in practice contexts. I'd like to think more about this, though, as I do think she is on to something.

Phew! That was long and difficult, sorry. For some light relief (although also making serious points), and especially for Caroline Holland:

(cc Capital M)

I also went to a paper about cultural representations of the ageing of Lemmy from Motorhead. It was by Magnus Nilsson from Karlstad University, Sweden. I won't try to cover everything he said, just pick out some bits I was particularly interested in. Lemmy (or rather, Lemmy in his fans' imaginations) is the antithesis of healthy ageing. He's still drinking and taking drugs and having as wild a life as ever. In the famous song Ace of Spades he has apparently changed a clause so he now sings 'I don't wanna live forever ... but apparently I am'. His fans view him as indestructible, telling a joke that only two things will survive a nuclear holocaust, cockroaches and Lemmy.

I was interested that some audience members were quite uncomfortable with this. One commented that it was very ageist of his fans not to let him age and another pointed out how dangerous a role model he provided to other people who wouldn't be able to continue to abuse their health in these ways without major health problems or death. I can, of course, see their points of view entirely, but my own response was to enjoy the transgressive figure as a ripost to the pressures on people to age healthily. I mean, I wouldn't want to do it myself, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone I knew (or even to Lemmy himself, if it is indeed true - this presentation made no claims to be about the real Lemmy, just about his cultural representation) but I think we benefit from a wider range of models of ways of being older, including Lemmy.


  1. Did anyone make any link between Lemmy and Keith Richards? Or with the 'Growing Old Disgracefully' trope? Is anyone arguing that the 'counter-culture' of the 1960s and 1970s is being revived in the later life of that generation?

  2. Sorry for the late reply. I didn't see your comment until today - a problem of group blogs!

    Nobody in the seminar raised the idea of growing old disgracefully but I thought of it, having been well-trained by you! I guess it's probably inevitable that organisations such as GOD in the UK and the Red Hat Society in the US are actually pretty tame - organisations generally are, at least compared to wild individuals. I've not seen any suggestions of greater transgressive behaviours in the ageing baby boomer. Transgressions of what was previously expected of older people, sure, but not transgressions of what is generally expected of everyone, as Lemmy was claimed to embody.