Prisonhouse of Age
Something has to be said about age and ageism, which is so pervasive in
our culture, that we're held down, tied up, unable to move. I'm told I
look good for my age; that I play like a much younger person. In a
performance I hear that a dancer, who died at 68, was in the middle of the
end of her life. A friend says that his uncle dying at the age of 72, is
quite old. Grandfathers and grandmothers on tv always look to retirement
and playing with the kids. Television ads are increasingly aimed towards
drugging us, those over 60 say, because of a variety of ailments we don't
have. We're frightened of falling and not getting up. We're no longer
mid-career artists, but a dying generation. We're waiting for the end.
Friends say that now we're waiting for us to die off, that every day
brings news of new deaths and again this isn't true. The rhetoric is
hurtful and isn't meant to be hurtful. The rhetoric is made out of bits
and pieces of the 'natural' progression from birth to death. We're the
AARP generation. We're the baby boomers are are demanding to suck social
welfare dry. We don't do anything. We're not worth listening to. We're
hippies and repeat the 60s. We just love listening to 60s music which
formed us. We're part of the social welfare state. Some of us who fought
in Vietnam are an embarrassment. Some of us who didn't are an
embarrassment. On tv we're told that 'all we have is our stories.'
If this happened to anyone at any age, the result would be unbearable.
We're not taken seriously. We're all waiting for us to pass away. We have
to prove ourselves repeatedly. We're the result of hidden prejudice. We're
on the way to dementia. We're on the way to Alzheimer's. We're told our
short-term memory isn't what it used to be. In the most well-meaning areas
of popular culture, we're forgetful. Our bones are weak and ready to
fracture. We have to exercise more. Our family has to be everything. We're
not eligible for grants and for jobs. We're eligible to die and the sooner
we do that, the less the embarrassment. In fact embarrassment is the key
to everything; we embarrass others. If we're sexual it's a joke. If we
remarry it's a joke. If we refuse our assigned place in the family it's a
I first ran into ageism at the age of 30, applying for a job as editor of
an art mag in Los Angeles. I've always been sensitive to it because I've
always been told I look and act 'younger than my age.' Now the violence of
age, an assigned number, a number we can't do anything about - almost but
not quite like the color of our skin - is foregrounded. I get turned down
for jobs because of it, illegal but of course there are always ways around
My own feeling? If I can't do something now, just as if I couldn't do
something at 20, then so be it; I don't belong where doing that thing is
impossible. But otherwise, leave me alone, judge me on what I make, what I
say, and leave goddamn age out of it. Don't call me a generation and don't
tell me my best days are behind me. Don't tell me I'm in my golden years.
This may all seem minor, idiotic, to you. You have no idea, at least in
the US, how pervasive this is. There are pockets of resistance - Eyebeam
for example, where I was resident until a week or two ago, is a healthy
exception. But almost everywhere, the codes are in place, they're
suffocating. I'm offered seats on the subway - because of age, not because
I need them. People condescent, smile at me, since apparently I'm no
longer sexual, have no desires, know my place. I'm told I'm a child again,
that the elderly are child-like. I'm told I'm living on borrowed time. I'm
told there's not much time left. I'm told I should be grateful. I'm told I
have a loving family. I'm told my grandchildren are my future. I'm told my
children are my future. I'm told I have no future.
I'm told about generations, that I'm of this or that generation, that it's
now the turn of a new generation. I'm told what our generation thinks and
I can't recognize that. I'm told repeatedly that we were born before the
digital age, that we think differently. The fact this isn't true, none of
this is true, with people I know and I'm sure millions of people in this
country, is irrelevant. I'm lectured _to._ I'm talked _to._ I'm taken out
of the realm of instrumental thinking, consigned to a real which is a
total mirage, told to act my age and behave myself. People don't tell me
to retire, but they assume I'm headed that way. My theoretical work is
assumed dated, somewhere back probably with existentialism or Bateson. My
mind is supposedly elderly. Am I repeating myself? Did I forget something
here? Should I send a birthday gift? Should I ask a grandson or daughter
to drive for me, since I'm constantly running off the road? Should I start
preparing for the end? Should I become a consumer of culture, preferably
old tv shows and books, instead of a producer? It's remarkable how well I
look for my age! It's remarkable I haven't had any major medical problems
yet, but wait, they're just around the corner. Do I have enough money to
do nothing? Should I do nothing? Should I worry about my IRA?
I don't expect this to change, not even with radicalism on the rise among
people I know. But I do want to say this - that when you see someone, at
any age, turning towards senility or depression, you might ask yourself
what happened to that person, how is that person perceived - by his or her
family or friends, by others in the community, by granting organizations
or hiring committees. You might look at studies of enforced helplessness,
you might think for a moment how age, like race, manifests itself today -
age more violently than ever, since we're assumed to be non-productive,
eating away at the very foundations of civil digital society, of
whatever's left of the commons, of the fabric of the sentient city.
What I'm talking about is being called a 'geezer' or 'old geezer' or 'old
man' with all the nastiness that implies. This isn't true of everyone, of
course, but it's miserable enough, that it's true across the board. In the
culture industry, such as it is, you either become blue-chip and/or elder-
statesman or woman, or you sink into oblivion. If I go into a gallery, I'm
immediately sized up in a certain way that parallels the not-so-subtle
hatreds against race in the 1930s. I recognize the violence of that
parallel itself, but there's no other way to describe it. Lyotard called
this kind of situation the differend, and there's been writing on and off
about the stigma that's applicable. We carry a sign on our foreheads, a
sign not of our own making or choosing, but one imposed on us culturally.
Whatever we do or accomplish is under or within the sign. Whatever we say
is already signed, assigned.
I'm sick of this, and this rant, so to speak, is nothing more than an
expression of that sickness. And I'm well aware that nothing will be done
about it, although things _can_ be done about it. I'm tired of ageist
remarks being 'let slip' accompanied by apologies. We have no slogans like
"we're here and we're queer." We're speechless. We're kept speechless.
We're irrelevant, just as this protest is irrelevant.
In the _foreground_ there are all the inadvertent and well-meaning
comments, advertising, stereotypes in the media. In the _background_ there
are concrete decisions being made against us, but 'benevolently' for us.
In the background, Foucauldian power violates the commons. In the back-
ground, the Occupiers don't see age as a problem. In the background,
they're waiting for our deaths, forgetfulnesses, incapacities, hostels -
they're waiting for our silencing. The _they_ is the Heideggarian They,
the They of doxa, the They of the obdurate, idiotic inert. The they is
always well-meaning; the They knows what's best for us.
On and on: This would kill _anyone,_ this misreading, misrecognition,
deprivation, fun-house mirror. Some people can ignore it altogether, most
of us can't. We live within a social order of _continuous violation._ And
there's no way out.