Research Group Literature and Science

Ageing Project 2016–2021

What can literature tell us about the subjective and symbolic aspects of late life in different historical contexts? What are the cultural assumptions underlying present paradigms of ageing?

Klimt, The Three Ages of Woman
Courtesy of www.Gustav-Klimt.com

Main content

Ageing populations is a world wide challenge and calls for many different kinds of scholarly investigation to inform the public debate and current revisions of state policies.

Today is a transitional moment in the history of old age, a moment characterized by conflicting discourses regarding the defining limits of old age as well as the roles, rights and responsibilities of the aged. Youthfulness is privileged in our culture, but as life expectancy increases in rich societies, the idea that ageing can be medically "cured" or technologically "repaired" contributes to nourish totally new visions of late life.

A deeper, wider and more critical understanding of old age in past and present societies is necessary to counteract simplifying collective attitudes, as those oscillating today between extreme optimism and shame, between commercialized ideals of "successful" ageing, and pessimistic hints of late life's unspeakable horrors.

This interdisciplinary project seeks to understand subjective and symbolic dimensions of late life in Western societies, especially as they are represented in various forms of literary texts from early to late modernity. Our aim is to uncover cultural and scientific assumptions underlying past and present ideas of what it means to grow old.

On the basis of mostly literary, but also medical, psychological and legal discourses, the project will provide detailed examples of the psychologies, philosophies and rhetorics of old age, especially in regard to shifting concepts of selfhood and identity. Accordingly, it will examine changing criteria for defining the various phases within late life in terms of the psychological, medical, social and legal status of the older person. Contributing in this way to a cultural history of the ageing self, the project will heighten awareness of the divergent conceptions of old age that exist side by side in today's multicultural society, their continuities and transformations under the pressures of globalization.

Project subtopics

  • New theoretical paradigms of ageing
  • Cultural histories of old age
  • Histories and metaphors of life stages
  • Figures of old age in folklore, mythology, art, literature, cinema
  • The literary genres, poetics and rhetorics of ageing
  • Ageing body and mind
  • The psychiatry of ageing
  • The neurology of senescence
  • Ageing and memory
  • Ageing and the philosophies of time
  • Longevity and immortality
  • Ageing and religion
  • Ethics of ageing
  • Multicultural ageing
  • Ageing and gender
  • Posthuman ageing