THEORIZING AGE: CHALLENGING THE DISCIPLINES
7th International Symposium on Cultural Gerontology
Inaugural Conference of the European Network in Aging Studies (ENAS)
Maastricht University, the Netherlands, 6-9 October 2011
Convener: Dr. Aagje Swinnen, Center for Gender and Diversity, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
This conference discussed the challenges that inter- and multidisciplinary research on aging and later life faces. Not only do disciplines such as gerontology, sociology, history, philosophy, and the arts vary in the way they question age-related matters and implement various methodologies to provide answers to these questions. They also use different sets of concepts and terminologies, or use the same concepts but define them differently. Discipline-challenging dialogues were generated at this conference along three paradigm shifts in the cross-disciplinary study of aging.
First, the critical turn in gerontology refers to the meta-reflection on the nature and practice of gerontology within gerontology itself. Critical gerontologists scrutinize how gerontology is affected by the quest of the natural sciences for the truth of old age. Instead, they focus on the way knowledge about old age is constructed and explain how age, as a salient identity marker next to gender, ethnicity, disability and class, causes inequalities between people. These inequalities based on chronological and biological age are to some extent institutionalized.
- How can critical gerontology be made more visible in Western public spheres (where the doom scenario of increasing health care costs due to the exponential growth of the older population reigns) and academia (e.g. European funding schemes)?
- How can critical gerontology improve the voicing of the problems that especially the oldest old or the frail elderly face nowadays?
Second, the narrative turn in gerontology refers to the interest in the way age identities are constituted in and through narratives. The word narrative, as a widespread travelling concept, helps to define aging as a development through time, negotiating between personal aspirations and the expectations of the master narratives we are inscribed in. Narrative gerontology, on the one hand, starts from the metaphor of life as story and aims to get a better understanding of aging through the stories older people use to express their experiences. Literary gerontology, on the other hand, studies the cultural representation of aging and old age in literature, and, by extension, other art forms.
- Which conceptual and methodological tools are shared by scholars from a social sciences and humanities background who are inspired by the narrative turn? How can we evaluate the implementation of travelling concepts in different disciplines? How does the concept of narrative for instance differ in narrative gerontology and the study of stories of aging from a narratological point of view and are there fruitful overlaps?
- How can insights into fictional accounts of aging support the politics of gerontology, i.e. the improvement of the quality of life of elderly people, particularly those in the fourth age? How can we prevent that storytelling projects with elderly uncritically repeat master narratives of aging?
Third, the performative turn in gerontology, which may be called the rise of age(ing) studies, refers to the defining of age both in terms of being and of doing. Theories of performativity claim that age identities are formed and perpetuated through the repetition of behavioural scripts connected to chronological ages and life stages. Since these repetitions can never be identical to the original scripts, there is room for subversion and change.
- How can theories of performativity help to bridge the body/mind gap that many studies of old age involuntarily sustain?
- How can differences between the philosophical, linguistic and artistic definitions of performance fully be accounted for? How can we critically adjust and elaborate on the notion of agency that is connected to theories of performativity?
Program Overview (pdf)
Full Program (pdf)
Jan Baars is Professor of Interpretive Gerontology at the University for Humanistics in Utrecht, NL. He studied Social Sciences and Philosophy in Amsterdam, NL, Bielefeld, DE and Berkeley, US. His academic background in continental philosophy and Critical Theory (Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas, Foucault) has inspired him to help in establishing the paradigm of 'critical gerontology.' His main interests are theoretical and practical presuppositions in approaches to aging, especially concepts of time and temporality. His forthcoming book is called Aging beyond the numbers of Time. He is a fellow of the Gerontological Society of Americaand a member of the editorial board of journals such as theInternational Journal of Aging and Later Life and the Journal of Aging, Humanities and the Arts.
Thomas R. Cole is the McGovern Chair in Medical Humanities and Director of the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics at UTHEALTH in Houston, US. Cole graduated from Yale University (BA Philosophy, 1971), Wesleyan University (MA History, 1975) and the University of Rochester, (PhD History, 1981). He has published many articles and several books on the history of aging and humanistic gerontology and his book The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America (1992) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He is senior editor of What Does It Mean to Grow Old? (1986), and mostly recently, with Ruth Ray and Robert Kastenbaum, Guide to Humanistic Studies in Aging (2010). Cole serves as an advisor to the United Nations NGO Committee on Ageing, and various editorial and foundation boards.
Anne Basting (PhD) is the Director of the Center on Age & Community and an Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre at the Peck School of the Arts, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, US. Basting has written extensively on issues of aging and representation, including two books,Forget Memory: Creating Better Lives for People with Dementia (2009) and The Stages of Age: Performing Age in Contemporary American Culture. Her numerous articles and essays have been published across multiple disciplines including journals such as The Drama Review, American Theatre, and Journal of Aging Studies, and anthologiesFiguring Age, Mental Wellness in Aging, the Handbook for the Humanities and Aging, and Aging and the Meaning of Time. Basting is the recipient of a Rockefeller Fellowship, a Brookdale National Fellowship, and numerous major grants for her scholarly and creative endeavours.
Roberta Maierhofer is Professor at the Department of American Studies of the University of Graz, Austria, and Adjunct Professor at Binghamton University, New York. Since 2007, she has acted as Academic Director of the Center for the Study of the Americas of the University of Graz. Her research focuses on American Literature and Cultural Studies, Feminist Literature and Research, Transatlantic Cooperation in Education, and Age/Aging Studies. Roberta Maierhofer holds a master’s and a doctoral degree from the University of Graz as well as an M.A. degree in Comparative Literature from SUNY Binghamton. In her monograph, Salty Old Women: Gender and Aging in American Culture, she developed a theoretical approach to gender and aging (anocriticism).
Margaret Morganroth Gullette
A recipient of NEH, ACLS, and Bunting Fellowships, Margaret Morganroth Gullette is a scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University. Her book,Aged by Culture, was chosen as a “Noteworthy Book of the Year” by the Christian Science Monitor. Declining to Declinewon the Emily Toth Award as the best feminist book on American popular culture. Margaret’s focus on the midlife (the Midlife Fiction series: Safe at Last in the Middle Years and Declining to Decline) has expanded to become a new approach called Age Studies. In her recent book Agewise:Fighting the New Ageism in America, Gullette critiques the ageism and middle ageism that drive discontent with our bodies, our accomplishments, and our selfhood after youth, and even endanger our end-of-life care.
Philip Tew is Professor of English (Post-1900 Literature) at Brunel, the elected Director of the UK Network for Modern Fiction Studies, Director of the Brunel Centre for Contemporary Writing (BCCW), Co-Editor of both Critical Engagements and of Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary Relations. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Member of the Royal Society of Literature. Tew’s major research interests are various, including deploying narrative for sociological research, post-1945 and contemporary fiction and culture, and theoretical readings of literature generally. Together with a team of academics from Brunel (including Dr. Nick Hubble and Dr. Jago Morrison) Tew is the principal investigator responsible for the "Fiction and the Cultural Mediation of Ageing" project which forms part of the “New Dynamics of Ageing“ initiative.
Kathleen Woodward is Director of the Simpson Center for the Humanities and Professor of English at the University of Washington, Seattle, US, and Chair of the National Advisory Board of Imagining America. Woodward holds a BA in Economics from Smith College, Northampton, US and a PhD in Literature from the University of California at San Diego, US. She is the author of Statistical Panic: Cultural Politics and Poetics of Emotions (2009) and Aging and Its Discontents: Freud and Other Fictions (1991). She has published essays in the broad cross-disciplinary domains of the emotions, women and aging, and technology and culture in American Literary History, Discourse, Differences, Generations, Indiana Law Journal, SubStance, Journal of Women’s History, Women’s Review of Books, South Atlantic Review, Studies in the Novel, and Cultural Critique.
International Journal of Ageing and Later Life Special Issue
Aging, narrative, and performance: essays from the humanities
The six essays included in this special issue, which have been developed from papers presented at the Maastricht conference, offer examples of humanities approaches to aging. We are glad that IJAL, an interdisciplinary journal with a social science focus, has, for the first time, agreed to cluster humanities essays resulting from a conference in a special issue.
We trust that the work included here furthers the communal project of encouraging the sharing of knowledge and approaches across disciplines, and helps to illuminate the many meanings of aging and their implications for some of the societal challenges that lie ahead. The texts considered in many of these articles happen to be films (documentaries and features) and plays, but the insights they offer, which are drawn from approaches to cultural age and age as narrative as well as the performativity of age, model the ways in which these categories can help highlight the interdisciplinary relevance of humanities research on aging.
The articles can be accessed via the following link: