[-empyre-] Old Ageism

C. Saper csaper at umbc.edu
Sat May 5 09:33:51 AEST 2018

Dear Alan,

Thank you. I have already sent this on to a few now retired colleagues. They won’t know who Kathy Acker is — but they will empathize with the rest of your essay. Thanks again.

After attending a lecture on misguided ageism, I proposed (with the keynote presenter) a new Wisdom Institute at my university. The idea was simple — instead of simply sharing the next new thing and “encouraging” innovations to disciplinary knowledge, we would cultivate something analogous to the wisdom tradition drawing on emerita/us and retired faculty. Not for their cutting-edge justification of new knowledge, but for their wisdom … 

We got a very small start-up grant — did much a few years ago, and, figuring it should be led completely by retired colleagues, we agreed that they should “give" the “institute” to a retiring administrator (not the keynote speaker, who also was now emerita) —a few years after we started it, they had a in the “kick-off” event -- it was sort of a PEP rally and a fund raiser without actually saying that  — not too surprisingly, the retired-administrator in the “kick-off” event very recently spoke of how she came up with the idea in a conversation with the President of the university. Now that’s wisdom!!!

In any case, there is something profound in re-thinking age … both the weird construction of “underage” — the 16 and 17 year olds who don’t get to vote — and the … wait … why don’t we call them “over-age” … like a bill coming due? or a short-circuit?

You are correct that art and artists and -empyre should take this up cause — start an institution of people who do no (official) work — 


On May 4, 2018 at 6:45:45 PM, Alan Sondheim (sondheim at panix.com) wrote:

----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------  

(in line with the open call this month. this essay might be of  
interest. thanks, Alan)  

Old Ageism  


Old Men  
by Ogden Nash  

People expect old men to die,  
They do not really mourn old men.  
Old men are different. People look  
At them with eyes that wonder when...  
People watch with unshocked eyes;  
But the old men know when an old man dies.  

I've been trying to figure out how to approach ageism, which has  
come to me in spades, and will come to you as well; there's no  
escape, no retribution, no complaint that resonates. It shows in  
subtle ways like racism or sexism; like racism and sexism,  
however, it also shows in ways that tell the truth but tell it  
slant. And unlike racism and sexism, it remains by and large  
unacknowledged, or given lip service at best. One just has to  
examine the treatment of older men and women on The Simpsons to  
see how acceptable this is. We're expected to be feeble,  
forgetful, weak, out of touch, confounded by computers and  
cellphones, adjudicating at best in relationship to the world of  
fifty or a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago. We're not  
expected to be able to teach, to think clearly, to speak without  
repetition and reminiscence. We're expected to wallow in  
nostalgia for the good old days. The poem by Nash says it all;  
we're expected to die, to fade away, to disappear, to be a  
nuisance at best. We're expected to go into hospices or nursing  
homes or die in our sleep or in traffic accidents whose fault is  
only our own. We're expected to dote on grandchildren and  
populate the National Parks, the network news hours, and  
television (never online), until we conveniently disappear.  

For some of us, of course, this isn't a caricature, but a sad or  
happy truth. But the characterization is applied across the  
board and affects hires, and the ability to function as a valued  
and active member of a community; in other words, we're forced  

This is true in the cultural domain where, for all its identity  
politics, the old are ignored or seen as 'subjects' for others'  
works. Which leads to the issue of 'begging letters' (a phrase a  
friend of mine has used), and here I have to speak of my own  
experience. I'm an artist/theorist/whatever who is as active as  
I ever was, and my thinking/work is as present/presenced as it  
ever was. (I'm not alone in this; I'm describing what so many  
people I know go through constantly.) If I apply for a job or a  
show or a residency or other cultural opportunity, most often  
(not all the time), one of two things happens; I don't hear back  
at all, or I'm put in a position where I have to constantly  
pester the organization or person in charge, to be heard, to be  
considered at all. I'm simply no longer on the cultural horizon  
- there are other, younger, more exciting, people on the scene,  
and it's a scene I'm excluded from. It's never put that way, but  
it's the case. We're expected, by the age, say, of fifty, to  
have completed our work, our 'product' if it's such, and to be  
content with that, to have moved on (perhaps to grandchildren?).  
Our rage is internalized, goes nowhere; as friends have said,  
literally, "It's no fun growing old" and a good part of this is  
the isolation that's forced on us, particularly in the realm of  
cultural production. (I speak to that because that's where I'm  
active, that's where I am.)  

Oddly, given the filter bubbling at work on social media, I'm  
largely speak/writing to the converted; this text won't go  
anywhere outside of those in agreement. And if it does, what  
would it matter?  

(Personal note - in 1974 Kathy Acker and I made the Blue Tape  
together in New York. Recently, because it's been twenty years  
since she died, there's been a minor resurrection of the piece;  
a number of venues in the United States and Europe have shown  
it. Every time I'm asked for permission, I'll agree and add that  
the tape itself is over forty years old, and I've continued  
working and would you be interested in seeing what else I've  
done? Only one place asked; when I sent copies of the work etc.  
in, it was ignored. I understand that KA is a cultural icon at  
this point, but the tape was the produced by both of us, and in  
every showing, I'm effaced; it's as if I didn't exist. I can  
give other examples.  

In all of this I feel I'm taken to be an "old man" or "elderly"  
what whatever, and that already pejorative characteristic  
becomes fundamental. It's also something I internalize, and hate  
myself for doing so. When I walk down the street I literally see  
myself through others' eyes, I see an old and useless man with  
nothing to say, with nothing of value in the world. It's an odd  
and miserable, hateful reflection, but I can't help it at this  
point. It what happens. It's concrete. It's an autonomic  
reaction. Part of this may be that I'm in a small town,  
Providence, which has underlying hatreds as a local flux (which  
is true of almost every small town I've lived in). But unlike  
racism, for example, it's not acknowledged; it's just there. My  
image comes back constantly to haunt me, and if I live and work,  
for example, for another twenty years, I'll live with this every  
day, without community engagement, with constant begging  
letters, with a fundamental isolation that, at least according  
to the papers I've read, also leads to early death.  

I apologize for going on like this and recognize that there are  
a lot of people in worse situations. The problem with ageism,  
however, is that it's invisible and unacknowledged, and that  
allows it be pervasive everywhere, to gnaw at the soul.  

There used to be groups like the Grey Panthers, that tried to  
counteract this; now there's the AARP with positive heart-  
warming stories about successful older people. But these are  
people who have had cultural capital in the first place, and one  
might speak of an AARP ideology that creates a pleasurable but  
utterly fake horizon. It's not the truth and it doesn't speak  
to the truth that we bare, that we bear.)  

What is to be done? I honestly don't know. I'd like to see  
ageism added to sensitivity trainings. I'd like to see people  
hired or shown on the basis of their work, their intellect,  
their commitment, and not on the basis of age (while it's  
illegal to take age into consideration for teaching positions,  
it's done all the time; at one job opening at an Ivy League  
university, the cut-off was 40). I know none of this will  
happen. I'd like to find a way to channel our rage (which we too  
often turn against ourselves); that won't happen. With the fast-  
forward evolution of cultural memes, productions, technologies,  
and politics, these concerns will appear even less important to  
society at large (if there is such a thing). And here, as I  
mention above, the filter bubble comes into play.  

For that reason, I'm asking, if you agree with the above, please  
share. Maybe outreach will make a difference to someone.  

Thanks, Alan  

empyre forum  
empyre at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au  
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