Age Studies, Part Two

, Bethany Stotts, Leave a comment

As reported earlier, one professor discussing age studies at the 2009 Modern Language Association Convention focused her talk on Ghost World’s messages about adolescence and other items of a more prurient nature. The other three speakers, however, drew a parallel between ageism and “neoliberal” economic policies.

Age as Class Conflict

Speaking on a panel entitled “Age and Affect: Fear, Denial, Fantasy,” Ph.D. candidate Andrea Charise discussed elder abuse as it is depicted in Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit and Anthony Trollope’s The Fixed Period. “In this paper I argue…that disgust is a prevalent and particularly dangerous affective response to old age and that we might read elder abuse as an acutely disgusted reaction that distances the aged body as a disturbing reminder [of] mortality,” she said. “Citing examples from Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, and Anthony Trollope’s The Fixed Period, my presentation will closely [redux] some of the elder abuse by drawing attention to literary strategies that themselves connote the forcible distancing characteristic of disgust.”

Quoting from University of Texas professor Thomas R. Cole’s 1983 work “The ‘Enlightened’ View of Aging: Victorian Morality in a New Key,” Charise said that

“Violence toward the elderly can be linked to what age theorist Thomas Cole has described as the 19th century’s construction of old age as a clinically distinct period of life. In response to Victorian moral values that celebrated independence, health and success, ‘the decaying body in old age…,’ he says, “came to signify [precisely] what bourgeois culture hoped to avoid: dependence, disease, failure, [and] sin.’”

Professor Cole’s next sentence, not cited by Charise, is even more explicit: “The historical key to understanding ageism and its contemporary critics lies here—in the emergence of a society committed to the limitless accumulation of individual health and wealth” (emphasis added).

Prof. Cole currently directs the McGovern Center for Health, Humanities, and the Human Spirit at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, is a visiting professor at Rice University and serves as an advisor to the United Nations NGO Committee on Ageing, according to his faculty bio.

Smith College professor D. Sabina Knight explored similar themes in her lecture on “Depreciating with Age: Changing Responses to Aging in Tibet, Taiwan, and the People’s Republic of China.”

“Today I’ll present [Xiao Shao’s] desolation about aging as representative of a key turning point along a trajectory wherein transitions to market capitalism and the embrace of neoliberal ideologies have profoundly altered understandings of aging in Taiwan, Tibet and the People’s Republic of China,” she said, referring to the protagonist in Chu Tien-Wen’s Notes of a Desolate Man.  “So to offer a concise preview of my argument, I see a shift from responses to aging stemming from interpersonal connections…of the emotions to responses limited to more individualistic conceptions,” she continued.

“The individualism and larger structural factors that exacerbate Xiao’s vulnerability to abandonment and disappointment become even more salient in recent works from mainland China,” she asserts, associating neoliberalism with these emotions. “Listening to the many moments of despair in these works I hear these voices as testimony to deep disenchantment with neoliberal conceptions of personhood.”

Professor Kathleen M. Woodward spent the end of her lecture on “Assisted Living: Age and Affect” quoting from professors’ favorite newspaper, the New York Times. The University of Washington at Seattle English professor read at length aloud from a Times article on the death of Evelyn Coke, a Jamaican-born home care worker who, eventually assisted by the SEIU, had sued to eliminate the minimum wage and overtime exemptions for home care workers.

“Yet, when [Coke] suffered from kidney failure, she could not afford a health care worker to take care of her,” Prof. Woodward continued quoting from the Times article. (This particular statement, cited by the Times, comes from a bicameral Congressional letter urging the Secretary of Labor to expand the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to cover home care workers).

“What is the affect evoked by this story? It will vary, of course, according to the reader, and, of course this is rendered in newspaper prose, but I hope it will be a strong sense of injustice and even outrage,” said Prof. Woodward.

As AIA has documented, ivory tower residents are often on the forefront pushing for progressive health reform. Similarly, Prof. Woodward lauded provisions within the health care bill. “Long-term care is an urgent necessity for frail, older women and men and I’m pleased and happy to report that there’s a provision—you may not know this—in both the House and the Senate health care bills that offer[s] long-term health care insurance,” she said. “That’s excellent, but first and foremost we need to attend to the way we understand the prospect of the fourth age and the care that’s so necessary.”

Ironically, cutting $500 billion out of Medicare in order to pay for health reform will likely cause shortages in, and not an expansion of, care for the elderly.

Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.