12. okt. 2013

A Sense of Time

Below is my essay, written for Maja Delak's solo performance What If? It was published in the performance catalogue, released on October 3rd 2013 - the day of the premiere at Old Power Station – Elektro Ljubljana as part of the City of Women festival.

The Slovene version of the essay is here. Photos from the premiere can be seen here (FB).

Tea Hvala
A Sense of Time

Habituation is a falling asleep or fatiguing of the sense of time; which explains why young years pass slowly, while later life flings itself faster and faster upon its course. We are aware that the intercalation of periods of change and novelty is the only means by which we can refresh our sense of time, strengthen, retard, and rejuvenate it, and therewith renew our perception of life itself. -- Thomas Mann
The Young Perspective
When I was invited to write an article about ageing I thought: but how come …? I am not old yet. I can’t write about things I don’t know, I grumbled, but then anyway searched for some gerontological references and read in the magazine Kakovostna starost (Good Quality of Old Age) that people between 60 and 87 also say that they don’t feel old.

No wonder. Because of the stereotypes we associate with old age, it would be downright self-destructive to identify with it. In a culture that celebrates youth, growing old can be nothing but horrifying or pitiful. There is a common prejudice about old people not contributing to society, that at best they are a burden, that in old age psychological and physical problems are inevitable and that the lives of the old are lonely and asexual. In short, a young perspective considers all those older than it a homogenous group, one that is radically different from “us”. Like other types of discrimination, age discrimination thrives in a world divided between “us” and “them”.  

You can be old in different ways. In a biological way (“wrinkles”), chronological (“social security number”) or social (“a pensioner”). When you are “out of time”, you’re old culturally, when you feel old, you’re psychologically old, when confronted with life expectancy data, you’re statistically old. But as it seems, being old is first of all arbitrary. In her study Aged by Culture (2004), sociologist Margaret M. Gullette says that it is culture that makes us grow older, not the body, while a young perspective is trying to persuade us that we have to feel bad about getting old and that we should start worrying about it as soon as possible, convincing us to search our bodies for signs of decline, while the age limit when we should be getting really worried is getting radically lower.

Progress and Decline
When exactly does growing up turn to growing old? Strictly speaking, we are getting old from the moment we are born. In this sense, ageing is first of all a story about the course of time, about how we can make sense of it. It includes both a wish to feel safe and a need for change: if we need to feel safe to imagine the future at all, then change invigorates our “sense of time”, as Thomas Mann put it in his The Magic Mountain (1924). Without change, turning points and moments of decision, time would be formless duration. Perhaps the lady quoted by the gerontologist Simona Hvalič Touzery in the journal Good Quality of Old Age had precisely this loss in mind when she said: “Experience tells me that younger women who are conscious of negative attitudes toward ageing speak about us older than 45 as old women. However, women over 80 have daughters who are 60 years old and granddaughters who are 40. We all lose by making a single generation out of us.”

Such levelling is also tenaciously present in this text in which I jump easily from descriptions of the “younger older” (including myself, a 33-year-old), the middle-aged people to third age people and fourth age people (over 75). But there is also a different reading of my young perspective: as resistance against such merciless boundaries, against the fact that we use ageing to explain also changes and traits not connected to old age. Of course there are several different explanatory systems; but in a world that equals ageing with old age and old age with gradual decline, there is no space for subjective time perception.

Margaret M. Gullette says that the ageing ideology has robbed grown-ups of a story about changing and developing through time, which we were used to hearing when we were young, up until the point of exiting the system of institutional protection (including our studies). This story can be summed up with a phrase used by parents to encourage their children in moments of hesitation, uncertainty or failure. “Don’t worry,” they say, “all in good time.” When optimism is replaced by the feeling that we are “in a hurry” or even that it’s “too late” to “undo the mistakes” and “make up for what’s lost”, then we know we are grown up. Gullette answers the question of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman about the purpose of the strategy of a pilgrim’s “progress” as follows: we consider this strategy a necessity that, along with our need for safety, ensures the survival of a heterogeneous but unified self through time, and on top of that opposes the depressed binary logic that in adulthood sentences us to the story of decline.

This ideology became more influential with the onset of science-based medicine. Prior to that, old age was valued precisely because of spiritual maturity and wisdom. The ageing body was not isolated but connected to cosmological thought systems and symbols. The equating of ageing with being superfluous was boosted by the capitalist system, which sees old age as mere cost and burden, while this lesson is quickly internalised by some already at their retirement although in many ways they help the younger generations financially and in terms of unpaid work. A young perspective doesn’t notice these contributions because it is influenced by the ideology that puts both “the young” and “the old” in a deadlock: on the one hand, it demands continual change and growth, on the other, it tells us we shouldn’t get old because only youth (or at least youthfulness) can ensure future success.

This unsolvable paradox can be really terrifying for people who have said their goodbye to youth. And the older we are, the greater the pressure – even young people live in fear of a future failure. An unconscious conviction that decline – similarly as disease – is just around the corner is quite common; it reduces life to biology understood as “destiny”. One of the more sad effects of the ideology of decline is that we close ourselves off, forgetting that people around us are getting old as well: our relatives, our neighbours, the whole world as a matter of fact. And because prejudice about decline and an inevitable deterioration has prevailed as the only true story about ageing, we can hardly recognise it as a cultural construct. If we did, the chances for critique, resistance and change would be clear as day.

The Denial of Ageing
A young perspective is characteristic for the consumerist culture that equates youth and beauty. In consumerist culture, the body is considered a project one should work on. It needs to be shaped and controlled as it presents the space of self-definition and, of course, consumption. Because the consumerist culture is visually oriented, new forms of self-control include ongoing assessments of our looks (in front of the mirror, in shopping windows, photos) that fuel our striving for absolute beauty. Advertisements contribute a lot to this, swamping us with images of naked and half-naked young women, as well as cosmetic surgery, convincing us that it can erase or at least cover up the signs of ageing. Advertising of “anti-ageing” cosmetics is addressing an increasingly wider target group, starting with 30-year-old women – and more and more 30-year-old men. Ads for medication, anti-ageing creams and special underwear that is completely non-erotic present us with bodies younger than the bodies of target consumers. If an old person appeared in such an ad, s/he would be a threat to the consumer whom s/he wants to sell the dream of eternal youth to.

Although we know that we cannot ignore bodily changes accompanying ageing, the idea about eternal youth seems infinitely attractive. It promises us success, independence and efficiency, namely, all that which conditions both autonomous identity and social inclusion. We are paying a high price for surrendering to this fantasy, because we have to, in the name of youth, give up many past aspects of our selves. Social gerontologists argue that the new, both physical and psychological challenges brought about by ageing change us although we remain the same, which means that identity is multifaceted. “In this sense, old age is no different than any other period of life,” says Molly Andrews, “changes are many and real; to deny them, like the people who are against age discrimination, would be foolish. But the problem is that it is difficult to recognise the difference between the denial of ageing on the one hand and resistance against social representations of ageing on the other.”

Striking Invisibility
Feminist studies about ageing usually start with an observation that in the academic and art circles there is a certain fear of ageing, which is characteristic for the Western culture, which means that ageing is something not talked about. If we do discuss the body, it is the body that is young or youthful and primarily healthy. The ageing body is in such conditions too visible and invisible at the same time – especially the female body, which is always judged from the point of sexual attractiveness and reproduction. Because the majority of old people are women, every old body, also that of a man, is feminised and double loaded with negative connotations. However, while we recognise a certain dignity in older men, we are extremely unfeeling toward older women. That’s why feminists say that women get older sooner.

Older women who want to be seen as sexual beings have their space carefully measured out: a pink suit with a youthful smile and giggling, the point of which is to block out any connection between age, sexual maturity and social power. We openly mock women who want to conform to the sexual ideal of an innocent, immature and helpless girl, saying that they should learn “to act their age”. We accuse them of denying their age and of self-deception; however, we should again ask ourselves whether the line between complying with social norms and resistance against them is in fact clearly defined. In other words: how can a woman “take care of her appearance” and “remain true” to her mature self in a society that ascribes beauty and legitimacy only to youth?

Feminist theory has long avoided ageing bodies. Out of complex reasons and also because of a common gerontophobia, it rather focused on younger, more attractive bodies and their media representations. Through this, it developed a series of concepts that tolerated resistance to the beauty ideal, for example, the “oversized body”, “disobedient body”, “untamed body”, “grotesque body”, “cyborg body” and “androgynous body”. Seen from a gerontological perspective, these expressions correspond to prejudice against old people, as has been noted by the sociologist Kathleen Woodward. For example, in an individualistic culture that associates an individual’s identity to her/his body (separated from others), the “untamed body” can be seen as a metaphor for incontinence. When your body starts spreading over its boundaries, when it uncontrollably excretes urine, you have to start doubting your autonomy as well as start to see yourself as a threat to the autonomy of others. Your “disorderliness” fills them with distaste or even disgust. In case of a disease that requires care, feminisation is followed by infantilisation. The status of a patient or an enfeebled person reduces one to a mere body, only a body, and by entering institutional care system this body is submitted to biopolitical control, which is most horrifying precisely at the everyday level, at the level of involuntary nakedness and bathing performed by, let’s say, a young and dressed nurse.

The older we get the more difficult it is to deny the fact that we are corporeal beings. Disease and pain remind us of that, that’s why it is nearly impossible to think about ageing without also thinking of the body, which, however, doesn’t mean that we have to return to biological determinism, which controls medical and partly also gerontological discourse. The problem is that, in Western culture, focusing on the body quite quickly assumes a degrading effect: only think of the long tradition of misogyny that still reduces women to mere bodies. Perhaps feminist studies avoided the discussion of older female bodies for such a long time also because they wanted to prevent degradation of people already twice discriminated against.

Julia Twigg calls attention to another problem that feminist studies are facing. Because ageing and pain underline the materiality of the body, we cannot read it exclusively as a culture-produced discourse or “text”. That’s why feminist gerontology tries to upgrade poststructuralist insights with observations stemming from the body’s materiality, while at the same time trying to avoid biological determinism and Cartesian dualism. The latter has constituted a radical dividing line between the body and the perception of identity, relying on the famous gap between our chronological age and subjective feeling of age, which is, of course, lower than the biological. Herein lies the additional reason why feminist gerontology, attempting to discuss the embodied self, cannot discard the materiality of the (culturally produced) body.

Performing Age
If we can perform gender, can we perform age as well? No doubt we can do it on stage, but what about in everyday life? Gender in real life has its own performative history, which becomes part of our personal history, if we learn to perform it well. When you take up culturally specific ways of behaving and habits as a child, you internalize them until they become self-evident, until they become a part of you. They are far removed from performance. However, this consolidation of habits is neither eternal nor final. In the course of our lives, we can take up new ways of behaving, new habits and new ways of defining ourselves.

Margaret M. Gullette gives us an interesting example of the performance of gender, which is inextricably linked to the performance of age, inasmuch as the way in which we read gender from bodies is closely tied to the way in which we read age. She talks about women, raised before the advent of feminism, which began to consciously change their postures, their ways of walking, their voices and facial expressions when they got in touch with the emancipatory movement. They began to use a more resolute voice in public, they abandoned the questioning intonation at the end of every sentence, they stopped giggling when embarrassed, but most of all they smiled less and put on a more serious expression, which communicated to men: “I am no baby, take me seriously.” Feminism, according to Gullette, did not dictate any concrete changes; it only set the general aim. Gullette says that she herself limited the swinging of her hips and prolonged and accelerated her steps. Her new voice and her resolute way of walking gave the impression that she was older, which had “corporeal/subjective effects, since I felt much more vital, stronger, but also safer from harassment on the street because of these changes.”

What seemed like a fake or like a skilful performance when making her first steps and creating new habits slowly turned into her new self, her new body, which made her feel comfortable. This body became as self-evident as her feminine body had been before. The latter seemed “silly” from her new point of view; now she viewed it as an exaggerated performance of femininity. “When I anchored myself in my new body,” Gullette writes, “I acquired a new self-evident body: the momentary and evident expression of my self, my psyche embodied in a specific time and culture.”

If we accept the dominant biological determinism, which claims that ageing is led by biological mechanisms which we cannot control, we actually may feel as victims of “the process of ageing”. Meanwhile, social gerontology emphasizes that ageing has its active side, which allows for intentional changes. Maybe it is then more appropriate to think of the body – analogous to how we think identity – in the sense of a series of trials, ever new performances that eventually, if we do not encounter too much resistance from the environment, stratify into new habits, a new body, which does not cancel all earlier selves. And if your body is simultaneously inhabited by your past, present and upcoming selves, then youth and old age are no more irreconcilable opposites, but a rich entanglement of experiences that call for a new culture, which would be kinder to the process of ageing and would not talk anymore of “the behaviour appropriate to your age”, but would instead discuss a “sense of time”.

Translated by: Katja Kosi and Katja Čičigoj
Proofreading: Eric Dean Scott


Molly ANDREWS (1999): “The seductiveness of agelessness”. In: Ageing and Society, n. 19, pp. 301–318.

Simona HVALIČ TOUZERY (2003): “Stereotipi in dejstva o staranju in starih ljudeh”. In: Kakovostna starost, year 6, n. 3, pp. 52–56.

Margaret MORGANROTH GULLETTE (2004): Aged by Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Julia TWIGG (2004): “The body, gender, and age: Feminist insights in social gerontology”. In: Journal of Aging Studies, n. 18, pp. 59–73.

Kathleen WOODWARD (2006): “Performing Age, Performing Gender”. In: The National Women’s Studies Association Journal, year 18, n. 1 (spring), pp. 162–189.

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