Aging: Provocation

Aging itself provokes. Movement and change are inherent in the concept, which means that acknowledging aging challenges fictions of stability and stasis. Those fictions, along with orderly ideas about aging that chunk change over time into culturally intelligible stages, age-grades, generations, and cycles seem to be part of the fabric of every society (despite wise anthropological attempts, like Caroline Bledsoe’s, to decouple lived and embodied change over time from codifications of it)(Bledsoe 2002). So then the question is, exactly what does aging provoke?  

Aging provokes disjunction. I have always lived and worked in places where selves are imagined to be discrete, continuous, contiguous with individual bodies, and whole. Anthropologists like Katharine Ewing and Michael Jackson have de-naturalized this idea, showing the homogenous individual self to be a non-universal Western construct, and by mapping the multiplicity of ostensibly unitary selves that people experience and enact even in the course of a single conversation (Ewing 1990; Jackson 1998). Nevertheless, the notion of the sturdy and singular “I” remains compelling, and aging can threaten it. 

For example, in cultures where older age is pathologized and youth lionized against a backdrop of Cartesian dualism, aging can provoke disjunction between mind and body. My grandmother, about to turn eighty, told me that she doesn’t feel eighty; she asks herself, “Who is this old woman?” when she sees her reflection. At least, she says, she doesn’t dress eighty – bringing her clothed body a bit back in line with her self-perception. My grandfather had a similar strategy for creating coherence between psychological and physical age in a society that marginalizes its elders. When I was eight, he called me over, and took off the captain’s hat that he wore daily, despite not being any sort of captain.  He bent down and showed me the carefully sprayed swirl of hair covering his bald scalp; a breeze came by and lifted the whole thing up like an opening manhole cover. “I’m actually bald,” he confided, “but I comb it over!”  

As these intergenerational encounters suggest, aging also provokes connection. In my research with older Mexican men experiencing urologic problems, it became clear that most had decreased erectile function but saw drugs like Viagra as silly and inappropriate (Wentzell 2013). Instead of medicating away a physical change associated with aging, they (with the help of their wives) came to see it as a bodily prompt to give up youthful sex-oriented masculinities and instead perform respectable older masculinities focused on emotional relationships with family. One participant called this understanding of the life course “the Mexican classic”; living it out enabled men to forge new connections with family members by connecting their physical and social changes with a pervasive cultural trope. In a sense, these men created connection through disjunction, reframing disjunctions between changing bodies and youthful masculinities as connections between those bodies and mature forms of manhood. Men made these linkages between new selves and culturally meaningful life stages in many ways; some said that slowing sex lives had led them to a beautiful “second stage” of marriage, while a retired electrician joked that cessation of sex is “part of being retired—I can’t work anymore!”   

Finally, what does writing about aging provoke? From my own perspective, it gives the writer a vantage that feels outside of the process; like Archimedes’s lever and place to stand, writing about aging imagines an impossible physical escape from the turning Earth. In a small, symbolic way perhaps it achieves that by creating an idea that might outlast the individual body. This illusion of distance feels comforting to me as a person in a culture where stability of self is a key credential for sanity and aging is linked to marginalization and decay. Having just discussed the gains to be made by productive disjunction, though, I end with a call for alternative accounts of aging that make different kinds of connections between changes over time among people, things and ideas.    

Bledsoe, Caroline H. 2002. Contingent Lives: Fertility, Time, and Aging in West Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ewing, Katherine P. 1990. "The Illusion of Wholeness: Culture, Self, and the Experience of Inconsistency." Ethos 18, no. 3: 251–78.

Jackson, Michael. 1998. Minima Ethnographica: Intersubjectivity and the Anthropological Project. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wentzell, Emily. 2013. Maturing Masculinities: Aging, Chronic Illness, and Viagra in Mexico. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

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Biographical Note: Emily Wentzell is an Assistant Professor in the University of Iowa Department of Anthropology. Her research combines approaches from medical anthropology, gender studies and science and technology studies to examine sexual health interventions’ gendered social consequences. She recently published Maturing Masculinities: Aging, Chronic Illness, and Viagra in Mexico (Duke University Press) and is currently researching the ways that Mexican spouses incorporate their experiences in an HPV transmission study into constructions of gendered and ethical selfhood.