Old Age as a Shared Future: Age Studies in the Context of English Studies

Liz BarryMMUf

Chair: Dr Liz Barry, University of Warwick

This panel will share recent work at the intersection of age studies and English studies, showcasing some of the work that will appear in the 2020 issue of the English Association's journal Essays and Studies: 'Ageing and Literature'. It will look at the experience of growing old in Anglophone literature from the late nineteenth century to the present day, a period shaped by changes in longevity, a new science of ageing and geriatrics, the availability of state
pensions, and other phenomena of recent history. The work presented here will challenge the idea that old age is a period of relatively uneventful time that customarily falls outside the parameters of conventional narrative or lyric form. The panel will demonstrate, rather, that taking age as a symbolic theme can offer alternative narratives to dominant stories of capitalist productivity, scientific progress and masculine vigour. It will also present a rich and complex
image of the experience of ageing itself, in which burdens are alleviated as well as accumulate, grace found as well as lost.

This is an exciting moment for cultural age studies: a moment akin to second wave feminism which seeks to look beyond the representations of ageing in literature and culture (important as attention to the politics and form of such representation has been) to engage critical and theoretical paradigms, and enlarge the possibilities of literary studies in engaging with this complex and elusive phenomenon. This panel will gesture towards recent critical and
conceptual approaches that do this challenging work, the papers opening out beyond their respective case studies into a discussion of what is at stake, intellectually and socially, in attending in a concerted way to older age in the context of English studies.

‘‘‘A changing place called old age”: changing discourses of senescence and culture from the late nineteenth century to the present’ (Professor David Amigoni, University of Keele)

The paper will use recently published narratives as a lens through which to explore the culturally and historically transforming relationships between ageing and change narratives. It will account for the later nineteenth century, when, in response to profound demographic changes and greater visibility of an ageing population the ageing self became identified as an object of change, open to scrutiny and a source for generating insight and advice. The paper
will focus on titles such as Mortimer Collins’s The Secret of a Long Life (1875} and Nicholas Smith’s Masters of Old Age (1905). These late Victorian narratives were identified, codified and evaluated by some of the earliest works of scientific gerontology that also identified older people as a particular class of writing subjects (‘literature written by and about the aged’), including one of the founding texts of academic gerontology, G. Stanley Hall’s, Senescence
(1922). Hall also identified Harriet E. Paine’s Old People (1909) which, in its emphasis on frailty and loss of cognitive function, as well as forms of compensatory inner life, exemplifies a number of paradigms around inwardness, gender and disability. How do these narratives of age shape discourses of culture, and how did discourses of culture shape perceptions of ageing? How too have they shaped modern narratives of dementia, a new form of change narrative exemplified in Wendy Mitchell’s Somebody I used to Know, which presents to us new versions of disability and inwardness.

Age and anachronism in the contemporary dystopian novel (Dr Sarah Falcus, University of Huddersfield)

Dystopian novels of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries are inherently concerned with the exploration of lateness in the form of what Kermode calls ‘the sense of an ending’. In these worlds apocalyptic environmental and social collapse frequently result in societies where the life course, progress and the promise of the future are all disrupted by threats to generational continuity. The anachronism that then results is both reflective of science and speculative fiction’s central concern with time and the future, and specifically a temporal anxiety that brings together lateness as social and generational. This paper will consider generational disruption, ageing and anachronism in dystopian fiction of recent decades, focusing specifically on two novels: P.D. James’ The Children of Men (1992) and Yoko Tawada’s The Last Children of Tokyo (2014). Both depicting future worlds in which generational disorder is a key fear, these texts demonstrate how important ageing is to the dystopic imagination.

Critical Interests and Critical Endings: Cognitive Decline, Narrative Selves and Literary Form in Recent Fiction (Dr Liz Barry, University of Warwick)

In his essay on ‘Ageing and Human Nature’, philosopher Michael Bavidge contends that we can distinguish “between the end of our existence as animals, as human beings, and as persons.” And there is no guarantee, he goes on, that “these terminations will neatly coincide and harmonize with each other”. This paper will ask how far the cultural imagining of dementia in recent fiction might support the idea of these different endings, and how it navigates the different identities they presuppose. In what Stephen Post has called the ‘hypercognitive age’, what survives of personhood in the face of dementia and age-related cognitive decline, when memory and propositional speech are lost? And, if we come to this condition, how does this and should this bear on the question of our ending? The paper engages recent philosophical debates about critical interests, personhood and advanced age (Dworkin, Schechtman, Jaworska) in a reading of recent British and North American fiction, focusing in particular on Matthew Thomas’s 2014 novel We Are Not Ourselves.

Fri 12:30 pm - 1:45 pm