The Identity Studies for Everyone

December 28, 2007

The annual meeting of the Modern Language Association showcases the cutting edge of literary scholarship. As session topics appeared in past years on black studies, ethnic studies, women's studies, gender studies, queer studies, class studies, and disability studies (not to mention combinations of those studies), the program reflected the many prisms, some of them narrow, through which scholars were analyzing culture.

Critics of the MLA love to mock the proliferation of identity-based studies while proponents see an embrace of diversity that has provided a fuller understanding of literature and art. As the MLA kicked off this year's annual meeting Thursday night, a session on the schedule proposed a new way to analyze: age studies.

While pediatrics and gerontology are established medical specialties, and sociologists and anthropologists have long looked at age and aging in different societies, humanities scholars have largely focused on other issues. The panelists at the MLA session and a growing number of other researchers are working to change that, publishing criticism that focuses on the age of characters and the meanings conveyed about age, aging, generations and identity.

A major contention of age studies scholars is that age isn't just about how the body changes as time passes, but about the way culture and society define people at various stages of life. These scholars say that they are applying the ideas of those who redefined the way gender and ethnicity are viewed.

"I think it is like each of the previous revolutions," says Margaret Morganroth Gullette, a scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center of Brandeis University. "We're all saying the same thing and that thing is: What you think is nature is culture. Women got it that gender was culture and people of color got it that race was culture, but everyone ages, and they age under the sign of biology, and they think they are being aged in the body -- innocently -- as if anything that happens in a culture is totally innocent."

In fact, Gullette says, society and culture -- not the body -- are defining age. She entered the field (as yet not really existing) writing books such as Declining to Decline: Cultural Combat and the Politics of the Midlife (University of Virginia Press), that focused on characters who are middle-aged. But she said she realized the topic of age needed broad attention. "The world does not need the life course divided into yet another piecemeal. It does not need to be dismembered anew," Gullette says. "I didn't want to create a field called midlife studies."

So Gullette started focusing on age, writing on topics such as the impact of stereotypes of members of the Boomer and Gen X generations -- both groups she believes are poorly served by the way media culture has defined them. Her latest book is Aged by Culture (University of Chicago Press). Another scholar who is considered influential in age studies because she was ahead of the curve in exploring it is Kathleen Woodward, a professor of English at the University of Washington. Her books include Aging and Its Discontents: Freud and Other Fictions and Figuring Age: Women, Bodies, Generations (both from Indiana University Press).

While a few such scholars have been writing for some time, it wasn't until recently that enough scholars were doing work to consider themselves a group. Leni Marshall earned her doctorate in English last spring from the University of Minnesota, and she has studied how self-help books deal with menopause and other aging issues. Marshall, who now teaches at Century College, says she felt "alone" in doing research on aging and culture so she started a listserv two years ago, and it has quickly grown to 250 scholars. (For information on the e-list, write here.)

Another sign of the field's growth is the launch this year of the Journal of Aging, Humanities and the Arts (sponsored by the Gerontological Society of America and published by Routledge). Topics of articles in the latest issue include "'The Journey, Not the Arrival, Matters' -- Virginia Woolf and the Culture of Aging," "The Joy of Aging: Alex Comfort and the Popularization of Gerontology," "Animating Grandma: The Indices of Age and Agency in Contemporary Children's Films" and "Envisioning Age Distinctions in 18th-Century Prints."

The editorial board is primarily made up of professors, but also includes a representative of the most powerful age-related organization in the United States: the AARP. Harry R. Moody is director of academic affairs (a position created three years ago) for the AARP. Moody, who previously taught philosophy at Hunter College, says that his discipline was ahead of other humanities fields in considering aging issues, but the work generally came out of bioethics.

Much of the scholarly attention to older Americans, Moody says, goes to medicine, or policy issues like Social Security or Medicare. "What is new here is looking not just at philosophy, but all the humanities fields and say: How do we focus on both the positive dimensions and some of the choices" related to aging, he says.

How much the focus of the emerging field should be on aging as opposed to age is something of a dispute and shows up in different names for the field, which has been called "aging studies" or "humanistic gerontology" or "cultural gerontology" by those focused on older people and "anocriticism" and "age studies" by those who want to study age more broadly.

Research in the field includes literary analysis, cultural studies, and policy -- frequently in combination.

Roberta Maierhofer, a professor of American studies and vice rector for international relations of the University of Graz, in Austria, is a literary scholar. She has written about how older characters in 19th century writing are frequently not major characters in the narrative, but are "markers" for social conditions, such as poverty or a loss of power. As popular culture has embraced more positive images of aging, Maierhofer says, she has been intrigued to see science fiction and detective fiction use minor characters with Alzheimer's disease in the same way 19th century writers used an older person.

Several things about age and aging make its literary analysis important, Maierhofer says. Because authors and readers age, they "cross boundaries" of age -- and while their generational identities matter, they change. One can read a work as a young or old person, but not as a black person and white person.

And with that change comes the other key fact of aging. "There's always going to be ambivalence -- because growing old leads to death."

That ambivalence may be part of why age doesn't get focus, even when it should. "Could the story of The Old Man and the Sea have happened if he had been 17?" asks Marshall. "Part of what makes this book important is the man's age. Conversely, Huck Finn, symbol of America -- he couldn't have been 47. Forty-seven was not a reflection of the national identity at the time, and nobody really talks about that aspect."

Adds Marshall: "Age is a very important layer."

Some social scientists are also embracing age studies as something distinct from earlier work by their disciplines. Stephen Katz, a professor of sociology at Trent University, in Ontario, says that traditional social science work dealing with age was "very structural," exploring issues such as aging and economic inequality, or the role of pension plans.

Katz, author of Cultural Aging: Life Course, Lifestyle and Senior Worlds (Broadview Press), says that the older model of work was too limiting. Today, he says, culture is so important in defining older populations, that such study requires approaches that are closer to humanities models. Among Katz's current areas of research: the culture of retirement communities, fashion of older people, the impact of Viagra, and the ways ideas of dependency of older people are changing.

"There's been this ironic great neglect of aging," Katz says. "I couldn't imagine a university where the English or sociology departments didn't have courses on gender or class, but you can have a department without a course on the culture of age."

Gullette is working on a book that explores the way negative images of certain groups of people have direct and in some cases seriously negative consequences on their economic status. The working title is "The Hidden Coercions of Ageism," and Gullette says that age discrimination is starting at much younger ages than people believe.

"I don't just mean attacks on people over 85 or prejudice against retirees," she says. Rather, she is talking about media images that portray everyone older than Generation X as being technologically illiterate and the language with which companies describe the benefits of "downsizing" their experienced employees (again, anyone older than Gen X). "We're talking about attacks on people because of their age and they are in their 40s," she says.

One question scholars in age studies say they are asked (and that annoys some a bit) is for their ages. In part, the frustration comes from a sense that the question belittles the field and all others that relate to people's identities, as if suggesting that only someone no longer young would find these topics relevant. But the question also reflects ignorance of the fact that some age studies scholarship is as likely to be focused on online tween communities as on senior centers.

The question reflects the tradition "to say that your body has to represent the world of your research," says Maierhofer, who has been working on these issues for more than a decade, going back to her 30s. "I started 'young' and people asked me my age, as if that made a difference in the studies," she adds. "That shows the ambivalence people have about age."

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