Remembering My Hat

24th April 2011

Currents in a metaphorical and literal stream

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Back in 2002, when I was writing up my PhD thesis, I came up with an image that helped me think through a sticky patch in some of my theorising. It was of a stream of water, where the general flow is in one direction but local currents and eddies may mean that at some points water is flowing in different directions, including contrary to the main flow.

Today I managed to film a perfect example of this:

You can (I hope, dodgy camera work notwithstanding) see the general flow of the stream from the stick floating downstream. But the polystyrene block has got stuck in a local circular eddy which means it keeps being pushed up against the weir again. I watched if for about 10 minutes and it never moved downstream.

In my thesis, I was imagining the water in the stream to be ‘narratives about later life sex’ and arguing that there was a general flow of what people were able to treat as unproblematic and straightforward when talking about this topic. This was that older people are broadly asexual and less-and-less interested in sex. However, in my own data, and increasingly in the media at the time (and much more so since) there was evidence of a contrary flow, asserting that of course older people remain interested in sex and sexually active. (There were other sorts of contrary flows too, but those were by far the commonest two).

I was interested in the ways that different types of narratives about older people and sex were treated as canonical or not in different contexts. So, for example, I found that, in the context of my research interviews, the idea that some older people are still happily sexually active could be treated as entirely unproblematic and not requiring elaboration or justification. People talked as if they were not aware that the general current of the stream was running in the opposite direction from what they were claiming. I was interested in how they were able to do this (having established to my own satisfaction that my diagnosis as to the general direction of the stream was correct). The metaphor of a somewhat turbulent stream was my idea for how this works.

I argued that some parts of my research interviews were parts of the stream where the current was flowing in the opposite direction from the general flow of the stream. My metaphor of a stream helped me to deal theoretically with the issue, common to the critical discursive psychology I was doing at the time, of reconciling a fine-grained kind of analysis looking at the immediate orientations of participants with a wider interest in general societal trends which may not be visible in the immediate data.

I argued then that some streams were more turbulent than others and it certainly seems to me to be the case now that the ‘older people and sexuality’ stream has got more turbulent in the 10 years since I was doing this research, with features about sexy grandmothers a seemingly regular feature on Channel 4.

I’ve just reused this metaphor of a stream in a paper coming out in the Journal of Bisexuality this month, this time to think about normativity. I argued that there is a general direction or flow as to what gets treated as normative kinds of life course features, but that particular contexts can be parts of the stream where the flows run contrary to the mainstream. In this case, that’s BiCon and I argued that the contrary flow of the stream of normativity at BiCon helps to account for the wackiness (technical term) of the accounts that participants in my research produced.

There must be journals that accept YouTube clips as part of an article, but I don’t know of any in my field. So, in lieu, I will post it here and hope that some people find the elaboration helpful.


12th April 2011

Fiction and the cultural mediation of ageing: Final part (I promise)

Later, I gave a paper in a panel on narrativity and non-normativity and only seem to have made notes on one of the other papers:

The successful failure of narrative in Lisa Genova’s Still Alice

Sarah Falcus

Novel about psycho-linguistics prof who gets early onset dementia [want to read this one too]

(cc) quimby

‘Everything she was was about words’, one of first words she can’t remember is ‘lexicon’. Metafictional concerns in the novel. 3rd person narra but privileges PWD’s point of view. This conflicts somewhat with coherence and chronology demanded by novel form. (not experimental text, fairly trad)

Reader too experience something of Alice’s experience but not to get lost in it, as Alice is lost. Her missing words are also absent from the text, at the beginningn of novel. People’s names too ‘that man’ as she can’t remember her hus. Repeated sentences and paras. Don’t know some things because she doesn’t.

Alice is only 49 at onset – resists association of dementia with ageing. Activities of Daily Living questionnaire – is incontinence because of dementia or because of ageing? But pre diagnosis, attributes her anxiety, confusion, memory loss to menopause = natural v. monster of dementia

Nearly all fiction about ageing contains a ‘mirror-moment’ (Kathleen Woodward)

[Notes definitely getting more sparce as I got more tired]

Naomi Richards from the Look at Me project

Putting older women in the picture

Phototherapy. Working with Rosie Martin, who worked with Jo Spence in 1980s to create phototherapy! As before, using photography to heal, beyond the family album, dressing up.

Aged 47-60 women. 5 full days over 4 week period. Photo diaries to familiarize with camera, over one week. And to help them think visually. Not as a prompt to talk, they were as interested in the product as the process, unlike traditional creative methodolgies in social science which tend to focus on the process [and particularly the talk about the process] [very interesting. Think some more about the implications of this]. Re-enactment session on theme ‘transformation’ transformative visual narrative using props.

One participant’s theme was Gaga to Lady Gaga.

Photos within her grasp rather than the spectre over her shoulder [kind of literal/metaphorical thinking I’m not good at but really like. Seeing something that is literally true as well as metaphorically].

Marta Miquel-Baldellou, Univ of Lleida

From pathology to invisibility: the discourse of ageing in vampire ficture

Vampires don’t show their age and don’t age. Vampires first in fiction looked old. No longer. Repulsive, now generally attractive. Bram Stoker, foreign, aristocratic and old. Anne Rice Interview with the Vampire started trend of young vampires, and introduced vampire children. Also first to be sympathetic

Aged vampires in Vict fiction as sign of difference.As became younger, became more sympathetic, true hero of the novel. Appears in mirrors in modern novels [not in the novels I’ve read]

Fiction and the cultural mediation of ageing: Part 2

Barbara Czarniawska, Univ of Gothenburg

Narrative medicine: or why doctors do not like to listen to the stories of older patients.

Narr medicine, not just about patient narratives of illness/experience, also about patients writing as part of their therapy, medics stories about patients and about themselves.

Arthur Frank ‘illness is an occasion for autobiog’ – more time, more need. [Is illness particularly an occasion for autobiography? Depends on the sort of illness. Flu is not an occasion for autobiography. Was Frank referring to chronic illness? I ought to read Frank again]

Robertson Davies 1994, The Cunning Man, another recommended book.

RD Summarizing the WHO definition of ‘health’ as ‘health is when nothing hurts very much’ [This is not the WHO definition but I quite like it as an aphorism – it’s quite realistic, workable and everyday, rather than the unachievableness of the WHO definition. And it makes it clear that disability is not ill-health. Although what about disabilities which involve chronic pain? Would someone describe themselves as healthy but in pain? Seems possible that they might. And it also falls down a bit because you may not be in pain with a blood clot that will kill you, but you’re not healthy (are you?)]

Audience comment after: this definition is also good in relation to ageing – more realistic that positive ageing agenda – ‘if your body is as much like a young person’s as possible’ [that’s my phrase/critique]

(cc) nursing pins

Was the cunning man:

–       a doctor from the past, before evidence-based medicine and standardization?

–       or from the future with the growth of holistic and alternative medicine?

–       just a patient’s dream, never existed?

Annemarie Mol (2008) The logic of care. Philosopher contrasting logic of choice (customer/citizen) v logic of care (patient, albeit active).

Audience comment: both are available to medics in care settings, they chose which one they draw on according to discursive purposes [does it make a diff if you call it a logic, rather than a discourse? I think it does. Discourse emphasizes variability, logic suggests discrete system. Interpretative repertoire, of course, is supposed to indicate even higher degree of variability]

Not everybody wants to tell stories about their experience. Shouldn’t become a new imperative (no danger of that in medicine. Might be in management)

Nurses’ handover abolished in some hosps – loss of a storytelling opportunity for nurses.

Then I chaired a panel on Fictional stategies and metaphors

Joan Walker, Loughborough

Love and relationships over 65, do comtemporary  british novels reflect the new reality?

Non-fiction since 1972 de Beauvoir Coming of Age, has known that older women have sex and relationships. Gerontology textbooks routinely acknowledge this now. But contemporary novels don’t seem to know this.

Alison Lurie ‘Foreign Affairs’ 1984 novel

Covers of novels about 65+ women’s relationships don’t show the women, have abstract design, objects, cartoons, younger woman shown.

Elena Bendien, Utrecht

A metaphor for ageing: shrinking

Dutch writer, not trans eng Inez van Dullemen ‘past is dead’ Vroeger is dood’, older woman (born 1920s?) still writing.

Metaphor of ‘shrinking’ is a key one in writing about ageing, also in policy – shrinking resources/social contact/shrinking workforce.

Is a spatial metaphor – reduction, contraction, drying out, loss of moisture and volume. Etmology [in Dutch? Or also in English?] shrinking like a snail going back into its shell – snail isn’t reduced by shrinking, just going home!

(cc) daveograve

OP’s bodies often described as shriveled, shrunken. Contracting is not about loss, it’s about making more dense. Signif for thinking about ageing.

Zoe Brennan, UWE

Fictional strategies for representing the older woman as fully human: reclaiming the everyday.

(in novels)

Make the older woman the central character


1)    inspirational, extraordinary female characters. Smash preconceptions about what older women are like e.g. Happy Ever After Jennie Diskie, has rela with much younger man, but then leaves him to go off and travel round the world. Rhode Island Blues, Fay Weldon, much quoted this conf. Challenge the idea that character is set by the time you are old. Show people developing and changing. Complex

2)    Re-evalutes the day-to-day: May Sarton Spinster, Barbara Pym – not remarkable charcters. Don’t do remarkable things, live everyday lives as you might expect for older people – visit family, cook, have hobbies. Activities not dismissed as time-filling – absorbing. (hobby as dismissive term)

3)    Angry texts, texts that rage. Bodies that don’t work. Texts about embodiment. May Sarton As we are now Frustration, society makes it worse. Ist person narrator is a powerful way of doing this, as Carrie in As we are now – can see her decline through her own journal writing. [read this! Has been on my (metaphorical) ‘novels to read’ longlist for years – move it to shortlist!]

11th April 2011

Fiction and the cultural mediation of ageing: Part 1

Filed under: Uncategorized — rememberingmyhat @ 13:00

The usual idiosyncratic, non-representative notes from a conference. [Reactions and comments from me in square brackets]

This was a conference organized by one of the projects within the New Dynamics of Ageing programme, called FCMAP. It was a nice mixture of traditional academic conference, feedback to research participants (on the Friday) and public event (a conversation between Fay Weldon and Will Self on ageing). I wanted to attend it because it seemed to be aimed both at social scientists and at literature/Arts kinds of people and I thought that would bring me into contact with different sets of ideas and literatures than the usual plain social science kind of conferences I attend. Also, since I was going to present some of the findings from my research about bisexual people imagining the future, I wanted to play with the idea of those imaginings being fictions, to see if that led me into any interesting new direction.

The FCMAP project had two strands, one using a Mass Observation directive, and the other asking members of U3A in London to form reading groups to read a prescribed set of novels about ageing and then to keep a reading diary. They generated about 1 and a half million words of reading diaries. The report is available here. The novels they read, which form a nice reading list of fiction about ageing, are here.

First Plenary

Pat Thane, King’s College, London

Cultures of Ageing in Britain since 1945

Not just that people live to old age now, but that people grow up expecting to live to old age. Changed the way that people can imagine their life courses.

Reason women’s pension age was set lower than men’s was because of campaigns in the 30s, showing that women pushed out of work as got older, partly because of misogyny/ageism combo, but also women’s worse health pre-NHS etc. So women needed to be eligible for pensions younger.

Interest in older people in 1950s because of apocalyptic demography about falling birthrates. Quite a lot of social research then.

Working class men in 1950s finding retirement very tough – Peter Townsend research in East London. Because: they hadn’t expected retirement; low incomes (can’t buy round in pub anymore); been working since early teens; whole identity. Women not finding retirement tough as a) not necessarily doing paid work before b)not defined by paid work identity c) still doing unpaid domestic work and care of family members so still feeling useful.

Retirement experienced as less tough as the century progressed, as more expected. Less research too until 1980s, until birthrate drop noticed again. Another panic.

(cc) OwenBlacker

[How hard it is not to be complicit in apocalyptic demography when stressing the importance of studying ageing. I try not to do it in my own research, but I benefit from it because it means people see my work as more relevant.]

1980s saw an increase in early retirement – why? Generous retirement packages for middle-class workers. Also age discrimination, jobs in short supply, so leave them for younger people. (unlike now when solution is keep OP in work longer).

Retirement ages now going up a bit on average. Companies less willing to give generous pensions because pension funds shrunk. But also some decline in age discrimination in workplace. Current financial crisis has not increased rates of unemployment among OP, unlike previous recessions.

Birth rates now going up again. Will the current panic about an ageing population end soon? [Is that bad news for gerontologists like me?]

Third and Fourth Age Subjectivities Panel Plenary

Keith Richards (not that one)

3rd Age Trust – U3A

Peter Lazlett one of the founders of U3A (the others being Michael Young and Eric Midwinter), also coined the concept of the 3rd Age in his book A Fresh Map of Life.

Main response from one member of a reading group – novel characters would have been fine if only they’d only joined their local U3A group.

Dorothy Sheridan, Mass Observation

34 yrs own life working there for 75 yrs of Mass Obslife

No category ‘ageing’ ‘old age’ or similar in Phase One of Mass Obs (1937 – 1950s-ish) Air-raids, yes!

[Have another look at Little Kinsey sometime]

Bill Bytheway’s directive asking people about their birthdays was one of the most sensitive they ever did. Much more so that directives about sex, money, religion [I think this comment was partly rhetoric, but even so, interesting]

Nick Hubble

1992 and 2006 Mass Observation directives, similar words.How use categories ‘young, middle aged, elderly’. Lots of people 1992 rejected word ‘elderly’, so didn’t use in 2006

Wanting to define 4th age, not as decrepitude and death, as defined by Lazlett, but as time of reflection and coming-to-terms with life.

[Question from me: Isn’t that just gero-transendence again? (I think I asked a bit more politely than that!) Is the concept of the 4th Age redeemable at all? You needed it to create the concept of the 3rd age, but is it actually a useful concept now we have made the point about active/positive/younger ageing? It is useful to be able to make a broad categorical difference between older people who are independent and healthy and older people who are not. But it also creates an artificial boundary and does it creates more problems in otherising the old-old than it is worth?]

Audience comment: ‘Disability is the way the older age group discriminates among themselves’

Plenary on policy

Philip Tew

Wanting to influence the inflection of policy around ageing [nice way of thinking about how narrative/discursive kinds of research can have relevance to policy]

Louise Bazalgette


Overview of current policy landscape in relations to older people

(cc) Keith Sergeant

1) Working in later life:

Majority of people working beyond retirement age are part-time – 68% of women, 50%ish of men [I didn’t get the statistic, but around 50%]

Vince Cable just announced removing flexible working rights for people working in small organisations – bad news for older people [and women/people with caring responsibilities]

2) Financial security

Coalition govt doesn’t seem to have a clear policy on universal benefits. But if child benefit is going to become means tested, winter fuel payments next on list?

3) Health & social care services

2010 Equalities Act comes into force 2012. Outlaws age discrimination in health care. Huge change potentially, will it make any diff?

Panel: Ageing and Film

Josie Dolan, UWE

Older women in cinema [not her title, but what it was about]

Film recommendation: Whales of August (1987)

Film about 4 older people, starring Bette Davis and Lillian Gish when in their 70s and 90s.

A rare example. of beautiful but non-eroticised older bodies.

Margaret Gatling, James Cook Univ, Queensland, Austrlia

Warts and all: Depictions of older women in children’s film and TV

Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media

analysis of 1990 -2005 G rated films [general viewing, like U I think]

3000 characters

28% were female

Only 17% narrators female

[Very depressing.  I wonder if anyone has done any analysis of cBeebies. My impression is it is not quite that bad, but still boys/men/male characters vastly over-represented]

Nanny McPhee gets younger and more beautiful as her charges behave better. Christ figure – takes on naughtiness, makes her ugly and old.

Futurama – Matt Groening ‘Mom’ is more grandmother age, but called ‘Mom’. Thinness and overt sexuality as signaling evilness in an older woman

‘Ageing Debate’

Prof Fay Weldon, teaches creative writing at Brunel

Will Self

I’m not going to write this up because it would be too difficult to do briefly. Suffice to say, it was, at various points, entertaining, annoying, thought-provoking and frustrating. But never dull.

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