Post-Conference Overview

By Angelo Muredda and Aynsley Moorhouse

Between March 25-27th, 2011, scholars from disciplines as disparate as medieval studies, medicine, and gerontology came together at the University of Toronto for a conference on Aging, Old Age, Memory and Aesthetics. Generously supported by the Desautels Centre for Integrated Thinking, as well as the Jackman Humanities Institute and several other departments/programmes at The University of Toronto, the conference addressed a wide range of theories, institutions, and texts, all centrally preoccupied with modeling the embodied and cultural processes of aging (click here for the conference programme).

        The opening plenary address was delivered by Kathleen Woodward, Professor of English and Director of the Simpson Centre for the Humanities at the University of Washington. Professor Woodward addressed the critical importance of long-term care by examining the aesthetic shape that cultural anxieties about aging, particularly into the “fourth age,” take in a selection of texts ranging in genres from memoir to television soap opera to personal documentary. Turning from the ageist obsession with the failings of the aging body displayed in popular texts that treat nursing homes and assisted living as dreaded nadirs to which those in the “third age” must never fall, Woodward considered alternate conceptions of old age and care in recent fiction and documentary film. In Annie Dillard’s 2007 novel The Maytrees, Woodward found a model of eldercare based on obligations growing out of love, calling into question the institutionalization of care. In Cecelia Condit’s 2008 documentary short “Annie Lloyd,” an intimate portrait of the director’s dying mother, she found a transformative aesthetic that emphasized the lyrical and poetic potentials of old age, whereby stories become a treasure for the documentarian to collect. Surveying these positive examples, Woodward offered such alternative narratives as a path out of the mainstream fear of aging as extreme abjection and into a renewed ethical understanding of eldercare.

Following Professor Woodward’s call for new narratives of aging, the first panel of the conference addressed aging and creativity and was chaired by the distinguished historian of aging, Professor W. Andrew Achenbaum (University of Houston). Andrew DuBois of the University of Toronto closely examined Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years,” attending to its interest in non-contingent time as well as the generational tension between clinical and anecdotal knowledge of aging charted within the poem. Britt Rothauser of the University of Connecticut discussed the intersections between aging and disability in Cædmon’s Hymn. She considered how the poet’s inability to perform a necessary recitation marks him as a failed model of old age – impaired by memory loss rather than wise from accumulated knowledge – as well as a disabled outcast, jeopardizing cultural transmission in his inability to join the community’s collective memory. The panel concluded with a talk and audio installation from artist Aynsley Moorhouse of the University of Toronto, whose piece “Sounds of Forgetting” depicted a soundscape of dementia – a phenomenological effort to recreate the embodied process of a mind engaged in both remembering and forgetting. 

The second panel of the day revisited this discussion of creativity by turning to the poetics of late style. Germaine Warkentin of the University of Toronto took up the question of what happens to poets as they age with an examination of Petrarch. Alluding to the commonplace that with age comes mastery of poetic craft, Warkentin noted that the sonnet sequence has little sense of continuous time, and might thus hardly be considered the territory of the aged. Suzanne Bailey of Trent University turned to the poetry of P.K. Page, and her spatial representation of time as a point of intersection between the possibilities of here and there, reimagining chronology as a “temporal squint.” Page’s reorientation of time from a linear to a fractal arrangement, Bailey argued, enables a shift away from reductive conceptions of aging as a totalizing process toward an endpoint. Finally, Russell Brown of the University of Toronto read Robert Kroetsch’s nine novels as a coherent story of the journey of their author, a process by which he becomes restless, ventures out, and after various apprenticeships in the world, returns with a fresh perspective.

The third panel focused on performances of older age, primarily in photography.  Sabine Kampmann of the Max-Planck-Institute examined art historian John Coplans’s photographic investigations of his aging body in nude self-portraits that highlight fragmented parts of his body while omitting his face, a self-reflexive gesture to the shame and invisibility of those who inhabit abject bodies and feel they no longer exist. Coplans’s emphasis on heightening the visibility of deformities like his stooped posture, Kampmann proposed, offer an antidote against ageist notions of the self-contained ideal body. Lora Senechal Carney of UTSC continued this discussion of photography, considering the collaboration between photographer Donigan Cumming with nude subject Nettie Harris. Their work, Carney proposed, redresses simplistic readings of older bodies, directly confronting the photographic spectator’s taboos of looking with shame and repulsion while undermining the false objectivity of the documentary image, by emphasizing Harris’s transgressive performance of herself, and in turn opening up her right to be seen. Bente Vinge Pedersen of the University of Copenhagen then discussed a museum exhibit about aging and medicine in Copenhagen. The Oldetopia exhibit, she explained, displayed artifacts from the medical history of aging in the twentieth century, displayed research from various medical fields including twin studies and “visual age,” and finally highlighted aesthetically beautiful representations of old age in visual art. 

The first afternoon keynote was delivered by Ian Lancashire, Professor of English at the University of Toronto. Citing the findings of his recent research project, Lancashire argued that Agatha Christie’s late novels show signs that she was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Christie, Lancashire noted, was never diagnosed as such, and his research is consequently engaged in compiling quantitative evidence of the disease in her writing by comparing her late work to that of other writers who have been known to suffer from it. Lancashire identified a number of lingua markers of the disease in both speech and in writing, most notably the use of repetition, and stated that these markers come long before any outside signs of dementia. He argued that Christie’s narrative voice in her late novels resembles the work of Iris Murdoch, a diagnosed Alzheimer’s patient. Resemblances were noted in the occurrence of these lingua markers, which increased significantly over a period of twenty years in both cases. While Lancashire admitted that these markers might well be attributed to a stylistic choice, and acknowledged the extent to which they might in both cases be seen as an instance of late style in practice, he proposed that in this case the research points toward signs of Alzheimer’s. 

The second afternoon keynote was delivered by Linda Hutcheon, University Professor of English and Comparative Literature, and Michael Hutcheon, Professor of Medicine, both of the University of Toronto. The Hutcheons examined late style discourse in reviews of opera composers. They considered the ageist impulse behind critical assessments of the singularity of such composers, which emphasize the apotheosis of the artist reaching his peak at the culmination of his life’s work at the expense of a more nuanced discussion of the physical or social experiences of aging. Such casual uses of “late style,” they argued, took on a note of authority despite being largely ungrounded in a coherent system; some proponents of late style, for instance, emphasized wholeness and integrity – treating the final work as a redemptive swan song – while others saw as more characteristic a tendency toward dissonance and rupture. Throughout their paper, the Hutcheons raised the question of whether any meaningful generalizations could be made of late style, following from the boundless contradictions of reviews that treat composers’ later works as, variously, definitive final statements that consolidate a career’s worth of invention, chaotic digressions, and mere derivations of prior successes. Moreover, they questioned the extent to which even such positive generalizations might be productive, finally arguing that in their respective elision of distinctions in experience, exceptionalism and gerontophobia are masked twins.   

Day two began with a panel on aging and irony. Duncan McFarlane of the University of Ottawa revisited the critical history of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. He read the episode with the Struldbruggs as a satire not of the grotesqueries of old age, as is commonly held, but of the institutionalized cruelty of a society without ethical provisions of eldercare. Cynthia Skenazi of the University of California, Santa Barbara considered Montaigne’s treatment of aging as a rhetorical opportunity for the aging essayist to demonstrate his sprezzatura and boundless capacity for adaptation. Bill Randall of St. Thomas University extended this thread. His paper argued for an inherent connection between aging and ironic storytelling, proposing that old age enables the thickening of one’s life narrative because of its inherent ambiguities, contingencies, and contradictions.

The second panel of the day focused on intersections between aging and commercial culture. Wendy Mitchinson of the University of Waterloo examined the discourse of bodily self-fashioning through clothing as it was advanced over 50 years in the history of the Eaton’s catalogue. Mitchinson drew attention to the disparity in these ads between ideal and real bodies as well as the implication that the former might be better approximated through one’s sartorial self-presentation. She focused in this reading on the gender disparity that saw older men offered a greater range of individualization than woman. Linda Caissie and Deborah van den Hoonaard of St. Thomas University expanded on this discussion of the commercialization of aging. Their paper examined Moses Znaimer’s Zoomer Magazine, considering how the shift in ownership and management that saw it transformed from a socially responsible paper targeted at retirees to a primarily commercial venue aimed at “baby boomers with zip” resulted in a new emphasis on consumer accessorizing. The result, they pointed out, was a new conception of healthy aging as aspirational aging for the boomer set. 

Saturday’s keynote address was delivered by Stephen Katz of the Department of Sociology at Trent University. Katz considered the shifting position of the aging mind through the history of neuroculture. He began with a discussion of cultural conceptions of memory, from medieval notions of the mind as variously a wax tablet and something materialized and digested within the body to the Lockean sense, whereby it is a guarantor of rational personhood. From there Katz surveyed modern views of the intersection between memory and subjectivity, including Ian Hacking’s conception of the person as one who is constituted by remembered biography. In addition to this interrogation of historical formulations of memory, Katz then surveyed various efforts to localize the mind, from the work of Broca and Wernicke to distinguish between pathological and normative brain types, to more recent efforts to map the frontiers of the biosocial brain. The cognitive crises of the contemporary moment, Katz proposed, complicate the boundaries between supposedly normal and pathological minds, given the push to remake nature through technique in exercises like brain training. Katz closed with a reminder that memory is historically contingent and folded into conceptions of personhood, as well as a caution against modernity’s obsession with the supposed normativity of permanent, unwavering memory, and a final ethical call to not reduce the aged to a single organ.

The afternoon began with a panel on trauma and displacement in photography and literature. Jennifer Cador of the University of Victoria examined the epistemological dimensions of Vicky Marshall’s painting “Retired.” Following from Susan Sontag’s discussion of the shame and shock inspired in spectatorial situations that force one to observe a close-up of horror, Cador focused on the painting’s call to examine the structural interconnectedness of poverty and old age. Jodie Salter of the University of Guelph considered the figure of the racialized intergenerational old female storyteller in Canadian fiction, attending to how the past in such diasporic narratives is seen to seep into the present, affecting families and communities. Salter looked particularly at the representational ethics of the trope by which the old storyteller’s children bear witness to and subsequently retell their ancestors’ traumatic narratives. Joanna Dawson of the University of Victoria continued this thematic thread, turning to David Chariandy’s novel Soucoyant to consider how the pathological forgetting of age-related illnesses like dementia puncture nationalist progress narratives.  

This discussion of narrative transmission in age-related illnesses was carried on in the following panel on memory, dementia, and care. Kisha G. Tracy of Fitchburg State University offered a disability studies reading of medieval confessions, examining how the trope of confession in the work of John Gower hinges upon the successful performance of one’s recollection of a life narrative. Hannah Zelig of King’s College, University of London looked at the poetics of dementia in contemporary British poetry, considering the simultaneous deterioration of language and the compensatory imaginative gaps and spaces it opens up. Amelia DeFalco of McMaster University followed with a discussion of Michael Ignatieff’s novel Scar Tissue, emphasizing its depiction of care as a form of labour as well as an occasion for a sustained inquiry into another person’s unknowable alterity, which emerges as a story in need of redemption. The panel closed with Gary Kenyon of St. Thomas University’s call for a turn away from assessments of failed or successful aging to a discussion of meaningful aging, achieved through narrative healing. Geriatrician and author Dr. Michael Gordon of Baycrest Geriatric Health Care system then responded to the panel with a discussion of medicine as narrative. Gordon argued for the importance of literature in providing insight into illness, proposing that while clinicians see patients at crisis points, literature offers continuity.

The day concluded with a session on space and home. Annmarie Adams of McMaster University and Sally Chivers of Trent University examined what they termed the architecture of dependence in longterm care facilities in twentieth century Canada. Adopting a material culture approach, they considered as source evidence the depiction of a care facility for patients with dementia in Sarah Polley’s film Away from Her, considering the space’s simulation of a village community in its main visitor’s area as well as its cramped aesthetic in the unseemly upstairs ward reserved for patients in the fourth age. Suzanne England of New York University turned to home-based care in domestic spaces. England considered the moral and financial implications of non-kin care as depicted in Bruce Beresford’s film Driving Miss Daisy. Ulla Kriebernegg and Roberta Maierhofer of the University of Graz turned from these analyses of particular spaces to a more conceptual space: The European Network in Aging Studies. They argued for the importance of narrative gerontology as a means of speaking with other disciplines, proposing that the capacity of humanities scholars for reading gerontology as a cultural text is critical to the future success of aging studies.

        The third and final day of the conference began with a panel on aging and the body. Pia Kontos of the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute spoke about the importance of renegotiating and rethinking the nature of selfhood with Alzheimer’s. Looking to the late style of Willem de Kooning and William Utermohlen, she called for an embodied understanding of selfhood, disentangling the self from the cognitive to facilitate an enriched engagement with the world. Katja Goebs of the University of Toronto followed with an analysis of ancient Egyptian visual representations of old age, considering both positive representations of the contemplative wise old man as well as the marked absence of such desirable depictions of truly old age. Goebs also singled out a disparity between representations of men and women, the latter depicted only as eternally youthful and reproductive in nature, as well as between social classes. Julia K. Dabbs of the University of Minnesota then followed with a discussion of self-portraits by female artists Alice Neel, Sofonisba Anguissola, and Rosalba Carriera, considering their representations of themselves at the intersection of their respective cultures’ debates about old age, femininity, and art. Among these debates, she considered early modern culture’s tendency to conceive of the gifted artist as youthful, as demonstrated in some critics’ dismissal of Carriera on account of her blindness and supposedly consequent blinding of reason; against such popular constructions, Dabbs called attention to the subversive impulse of artists like Anguissola and Neel to emphasize their failing eyes. 

The next panel considered ways in which old age has been disciplined and institutionalized. Maierhofer addressed the difficulties western culture has in speaking of age, and the tendency to articulate it in spatial and metaphoric language. Her paper examined common ways of discussing aging in terms of movement: from describing life as a continuous process, to framing it as an open-ended narrative, to taking an interdisciplinary and intergenerational approach to time and experience. Andrea Charise of the University of Toronto followed with an analysis of contemporary responses to the supposed “silver tsunami” of the coming years, whereby a progressively aging population is likened to an impending natural disaster. Her discussion of the barely conscious figurative language in this catastrophic rhetoric of aging focused particularly on the language of capacity, and considered how nineteenth-century social and literary discourses similarly conceived of aging as a threat to the integrity of the social container. The panel closed with Sharon-Dale Stone of Lakehead University’s discussion of intersections between the rhetoric of aging and of disability, addressing the unrelenting valorization of youth, and consequent aversion to those segregated in the fourth age, from the early modern period to the present. Her paper closed with the assertion that we internalize ageist stereotypes, and the question of whether one experiences disability and decline in aging largely because one is culturally trained to expect it. 

        The final keynote address was given by Philip Sohm, Professor of Art at the University of Toronto. Examining the phenomenon of old painters repeating themselves, both in the art itself and in the late style discourse that has surrounded it, Sohm questioned whether we can remove the artist in an analysis of the artwork, and then problematized quantitative analysis of either an artist’s late style or the reasons behind the evolution of his or her work. He began by asserting that one need not be suffering from Alzheimer’s to repeat oneself, as indeed repetition has historically encompassed a range of motives beyond illness, from the affective to the aesthetic. Tracing alternate possibilities beyond the medical, Sohm outlined the supposed life course of the artist’s work as laid out by Roger de Piles, whereby an artist begins by imitating the style of a master, then moves on to create work of his own taste, and finally becomes an imitation of himself. He went on to probe the value of such analyses of late style, proposing that in their simplicity, they may be unequipped to consider the complexity of factors ranging from the financial (an artist might make reproductions of earlier work knowing that they will sell) to the nostalgic, as well as the stylistic – matters of taste. His subsequent discussion focused on the cases of Titan, a supposedly normal model of late style, and Willem de Kooning. Sohm concluded with a close examination of the ways in which the latter’s work marshals various elements of late style discourse, from neurocognitive readings of creativity amidst dementia to assertions of his late work’s respective stylistic fulfilment of his earlier work to its alleged loss of structural coherence. 

The final panel of the conference turned to speculative depictions of aging in fiction and film. Amanda Wicks of Louisiana State University examined the role of aging in post-apocalyptic contemporary fiction, considering how memory is conceived in these narratives as something that inhibits survival. The emphasis novels like Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro place on the necessity of forgetting, Wicks argued, serves to pathologize obsessive remembering where ageist fiction pathologizes memory loss instead.  Angelo Muredda of the University of Toronto followed with a reading of aging and form in Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook, considering how the novel’s modernist aesthetic of transcending the weighty corporeality of aging is undermined by the text’s frequent assertions of the primacy of the body. Far from being a model of the modernist redemption of the contingent world through myth, he argued, the novel is a testament to the impossibility of evacuating the embodied processes of aging. Cynthia Port of Coastal Carolina University brought the conference to a close with her consideration of aging, temporality, and reverse chronologies. Proceeding from Lee Edelman’s analysis of the idealization of the child in repronormative discourse that frames queerness as a kind of death drive, denying the future, Port considered how reverse chronology narratives such as David Fincher’s film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button refuse normative investments in the future, which treat old age as an insupportable burden – something to be endlessly deferred for the sake of generational continuity. 

We are delighted to announce the publication of our conference proceedings 
Stanford University's open-access humanities journal.