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Americans enjoy longer lives and better health, yet we are becoming increasingly obsessed with trying to stay young. What drives the fear of turning 30, the boom in anti-aging products, the wars between generations? What men and women of all ages have in common is that we are being insidiously aged by the culture in which we live.
In this illuminating book, Margaret Morganroth Gullette reveals that aging doesn't start in our chromosomes, but in midlife downsizing, the erosion of workplace seniority, threats to Social Security, or media portrayals of "aging Xers" and "greedy" Baby Boomers. To combat the forces aging us prematurely, Gullette invites us to change our attitudes, our life storytelling, and our society. Part intimate autobiography, part startling cultural expose, this book does for age what gender and race studies have done for their categories. Aged by Culture is an impassioned manifesto against the pernicious ideologies that steal hope from every stage of our lives.
At the Boston Museum of Science, one exhibit in particular attracted long lines of children: "Face Aging." Access to the open booth was forbidden to people over fifteen, so I watched from just outside. After standing for long periods with remarkable patience, the youngsters sat down inside under bright illumination, faced forward trustingly-"frontality also implies in the most vivid way the subject's cooperation"-and had their portrait taken by an automatic camera. After another wait, their digitized bust appeared on a TV monitor. Then, tapping a button like a VCR remote, each child could rapidly call up simulations of what she or he would look like at one-year intervals up to age sixty-nine. Flipped as fast as a Victorian zoetrope, the stills became a "movie." In seconds the computer added grotesque pouches, reddish skin, and blotches to their familiar features; the faces became elongated and then wider and then saggy; lines became more heavily rutted. Boys lost hair. Hair turned gray. The heads of both boys and girls grew and then shrank.
The children were almost uniformly shaken. One eight-year-old girl in the hearing of a Boston Globe reporter moaned, "I don't wantto get old!" While viewing the show, gerontologist Richard Griffin heard a boy "looking as if he had tasted something bad" say about another child's facial changes, "He's disgusting at forty-two." The teenagers, most of them white, were solitary or in small groups made up of age peers; they were on their own. But having a mother nearby didn't always cushion the shock. One woman with daughters told a son, "The girls say you're getting ugly." To another son who used the button to ride the years backward she said, "That's when you look the best-as a little boy."
Nobody stayed in the booth long. Anyone could have stopped punching the button altogether at any age or lingered longer at a particular age (or gone backward): two girls I saw stopped at fifty-five and sixty-two. But most swept through the changes of their putative face-course to the bitter end. They came out preoccupied, distracted; some giggling recklessly, most edging away fast, not wanting to talk about the experience, not knowing what had happened to them in there. Afterward they fled.
This was the booth in the "Secrets of Aging" show that enticed the kids during the spring, summer, and fall of 2000. Everything promised them scientific "truth"-their location in a "Museum of Science" and the prestigious array of complex and nonhuman technologies involved: the robot eye with no human behind it, the computer-driven graphics, the "interactive" button that produced the same aging effect forward or backward, invariably. And children are deeply curious about their life course, that mystery where your particularity scrunches up against unknown laws. As Virginia Woolf says, "If you are young, the future lies upon the present, like a piece of glass, making it tremble and quiver." Invariability was implied in the title of the exhibit too: "This is the way all faces age." When I interviewed the children exiting, I asked, "What did you learn?" The answer, in short, was, "I don't want to get old." They had nothing to add.
"Do you think that's really the way you will look?" I continued. The question seemed to astonish them. Hadn't that mirror just shown them how they would really look? Its thick glass gave them what they believed was information. As children, they had no sense of how to discount visual "evidence." Unlike them, I was old enough to associate the paraphernalia of booths with bureaucracy, know that "passport photo" is a byword for ugliness, and possess a Department of Motor Vehicles' distortion of my physiognomy. Only one boy, already fairly tall and with some width of chest (he might have snuck in) said, smirking, "I got bigger." Of all those interviewed, only he seemed satisfied. Disgust was otherwise unisex. But gender played out as perceptive resistance. "Well, it made all of us really red," one skeptical white girl of maybe twelve observed to me. Only she expressed the tiniest suspicion about the crystal ball's veracity.
I am neither a journalist nor a gerontologist but a writer and cultural critic who studies age issues-call me an age critic. Reading about the exhibit had made me naively curious about my own "truth": I had really wanted to go in and see myself age. I was disappointed at being excluded. Then it slyly occurred to me that if I sent the programmers a photo of me at eight or ten, they could use their procedures to depict a "me" at my age, which was fifty-nine. I could compare their semblance with photos of the real me, taken recently, in available light, in different moods, by different people. Although I say "the real me," I scarcely look the same in any two. (As the theorist and photographer Jo Spence points out, "Two cameras standing side by side could take totally different pictures of the same moment.") Would the "I" of their simulation be recognizably the same as the person portrayed in any of my other photos? That was my motive for the first call I made, to Core Digital Pictures in Toronto.
I was also skeptical about the predictive power of thesoftware they had used in the exhibit. Because I know beautiful people in their sixties, I had been surprised that no one on the monitor looked good, aging, to my willing eyes. No one looked better as they reached midlife, although youngsters can improve considerably with age, acquiring more harmoniously related features. The bogus faces had none of the qualities one might expect: drama, humor, intelligence, character. (These observations should have been a dead giveaway of what my sleuthing was about to discover.)
Ron Estey is the project manager at Core Digital responsible for the program. Estey's answer to my request was that they could not use my childhood photograph as their starting point. A subject has to be well lit, without expression, posed frontally against a black background, and young. The software has to recognize the chin, brow, ears, and so on, in order to operate. The increasing facial redness as the children aged was just an accident: it had to do with the original colorization of the Kodak film they used. The blotches were also unintentional: they developed from marks the kids already had on their faces: freckles, moles, pimples. Core Digital had added the wrinkles, swags, and grayness.
When I asked Estey how Core Digital had conceptualized "aging," he wouldn't say exactly. The software was proprietary. They had started with a photo of an eight-year-old girl; the algorithm was intended to create a "believable" image of her at sixty-something. When they constructed the oldest image, they asked their staff if it was credible. The responses made them add more "age effects." These required arbitrary decisions: at what age did they start sagging the line under the chin? By what age do ears droop? As someone who worked on designing the booth observed, "The age is an estimate. Their sixty-five looks like seventy-five or eighty to me." Only one component was scientific: they had worked with a cranial surgeon to identify the actual age-related growth in bones that produces longer noses and head shapes. For other potential clients-the FBI and forensic experts seeking people who have disappeared-they were adding some scientific components so that eventually they might be able to work from snapshots or group photos. But at present, Estey said, they could make no claim to be scientific or "rigorous." There were too many other circumstances the program did not account for, he added: gaining weight, having children, smoking, getting a disease. "It was only an entertainment," he explained. Core Digital does TV animation. This technology is typically deployed for cartoons and wizard ghoulishness in films, doctoring fashion photos so models look yet more emaciated, and falsifying historical documents. "We streamed together six or seven different ideas. We're a special effects studio."
The cyber-fi booth has been carted around the country, carried along in the "Secrets of Aging" show from one pedagogical site to another, like the smallpox germs secreted in blankets that colonists gave to Native Americans. After Boston, the exhibit went to L.A., and the cutoff age dropped to ten. But what exactly is going wrong in there, aside from the fact that Core Digital's secret is "morphing" and not "aging," or that the gizmo automatically uglifies and passes off its squint as truth? The software engineers hadn't asked, "What's the algorithm for making people look more beautiful, expressive, or individual as they grow up?" because they worked from our culture's preexisting notions of decline-skin, hair, outline. Caricature ruled. Decline overrode even the quirkinesses that never change: the shape of your eyebrows, the bow of your mouth.
Do an experiment with two of your own photos, taken as far apart in time as possible: Try to look for likeness. Not just the genetic but the life-historical kinds: that uplifted look of adoring inquiry you acquired at four, the bravado adopted at fourteen, the resolute jaw of thirty. Our faces and bodies-as I argue in chapter 9-are historical repositories. If your mind balks at detecting resemblances thirty-five years apart, start with a modest ten-year spread. This is a cultural test. If you have difficulties passing it, you have been successfully trained-taught to notice only the bad differences between yourself younger and now, not the similarities, or the improvements. If we mean by ideology a system that socializes us into certain beliefs and ways of speaking about what it means to be "human," while suppressing alternatives, it is useful to call this training "age ideology."
At the time I didn't know precisely what worries I felt for those children in the museum. It was also hard at first to specify what their experience had to do with the vast shadowy context of American age culture. Was the problem "ageism"? The term has many meanings. In the narrow sense of stimulating blind prejudice against old people (Dr. Robert Butler's original definition) among the impressionable, the effect was probably not that. The title of the exhibit invited kids to "face aging" not "face the elderly." The experience might in fact lead them to think, in contrast to what they'd just seen, "Grandpa doesn't look nearly that purplish" and "Aunt Flo is as handsome as everyone says." Nor, thankfully, did this exhibit reinforce the medieval memento mori, "Remember you must die," deployed to clients by the fitness and pharmaceuticals industries in every allusion to longevity. (While they were utilizing digital animation, Core Digital could have shown the kids what they'd allegedly look like at 140, the span telomerists promise us, and really have produced a frisson.)
But there's another ageism, that "old age is a problem": this has become so intransigent a formulation even among alleged anti-ageists that children exposed to dominant cultures in the West probably overhear quite a lot of it. Depending upon their age, their exposure to the media, their family's subculture, and their parents' relation to their own parents, many children no doubt came into the museum holding some preexisting negative views about old age. These the exhibit reinforced.
But the real trouble with the booth is not that it reinforces society's negative associations with old people. It is important to underscore that the grotesque big red face on the monitor is allegedly me myself. Forget others; in the United States aging is about me and me alone. "The future" is privatized. The first photo each child saw established the monitor as a mirror-and belief in cultural mirrors has devastating consequences in our hypervisual culture. Susan Sontag once observed, "The camera has ended by effecting a tremendous promotion of the value of appearances." Appearance and selfhood, increasingly, are stickily twined, so that your appearance (minus your expressions) is your self. The crude algorithm of the exhibit was modeled on a dominant cultural assumption: that the body declines as if with no cultural intervention. (Everyone forgot that Core Digital intervened.) This "fact" overwhelms the thousand other qualities or practices that are also you, even as young as fifteen-your SAT score, your concern for Afghani kids, your passion for Narnia or Jane Eyre-which together over time trace an individual life. Tapping a button, the kids pressed ahead through the counterfeits as fast as if they were playing Nintendo and the goal were to knock off the ages. Speed-up. (Sontag warned us in 1974 about "faster and faster seeing.") There was only one "special effect" to get, and they rushed to discover it. Aging equals decline, a devastating formula.
One person, the man who built the booth, had been concerned about making aging artificially fearful for his audience. Gary Renaud, the manager of Exhibitors, Inc., had been cautioned by the maker of another face-focused technique about potential harm to young viewers. As a result, he said, he installed a monitor outside, where the children lined up. It showed photos of other kids as they were undergoing the special-effects distortions. His idea was that if a child found the preview too scary, she or he would drop out of the queue.
Unlikely. Face-aging wasn't about them until they got inside, and then suddenly it was. Moreover, children as consumers of movies are taught to toughen themselves. Where the box office is concerned, they learn early on that avoidance of unpleasantness looks "wimpy" or "girlish." The entire R-17 system teaches that as you get older, you should be able to bear increasingly dreadful visual horrors. The outside monitor thus served less as a warning than a taunt. The very pun in "Face Aging!" dares you to go in the booth.
There the computer screen tells you an authoritative story. In a few seconds postmodern techno-fragmentation click-clicks you through your years. If you paid a quarter for this in an arcade, the whole thing might be less troubling. But this is no game; it's "a copying machine" certified by the Science Museum Exhibit Collaborative. The spectacle offers a prophecy about your own appearance that makes human aging entirely bodily, predictable, and inescapably awful. For its concepts of decline, Core Digital drew on the "before" photos of cosmetic-surgery candidates familiar to all of us, as well as on other North American caricatures of the midlife. The children have no reason not to believe what they were shown. The exhibit performed an experiment on them, cognitively and emotionally. They were led to personalize-"internalize" is the term used by psychology and cultural studies-the wordless message "Aging is terrible." This will become for them one of those "group-defining stories that go underground as cognition where they serve as mental equipment for the interpretation of events." It is a powerful psy-fi operation. Most of us have undergone it, but few so young.
When I described the Museum of Science exhibit to photographer Vaughn Sills, she said she had seen something like it in the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Hans-Peter Feldmann's show, also in 2000, started with the photograph of an eight-week-old named Felina; next to it was a picture of a one-year-old, with its name and age, and then an image of a baby of two, and so on. The photos continued around the gallery; there were a full one hundred. The walk around "A Century" ("Un Siecle" was the name of the show) was slowed down because the photographs represented a hundred different faces, men as well as women, of various ethnicities, mostly but not all white, in distinctive settings. Individuals, they were differentially attractive or vibrant or strong or personable at various ages. As Sills came toward her own current age, she was aware of becoming more involved. She was able to pick and choose people who more closely matched her imagined future: "This is what I might be like." By the end of that meditative walk, Sills said, she had gained an impressive sense of change (and obviously the people represented at the end appeared older than the sixty-nine, or eighty, of "Face Aging"). Un Siecle wasn't depressing; it wasn't upsetting. Sills was utterly engrossed and imaginatively stimulated.
Aging through a particular century, the twentieth. The figures inhabited backgrounds filled with furniture, photos, or other personal items, some of which carried period and historic associations, of events witnessed or memories accumulated over time. Such densely textured impressions might be complicated by other ideas-longevity, certainly; perhaps the striking and oddly reassuring impression that so much of life is now spent being what the cult of youth calls "old." To Sills the series was not even predictably chronological. From the artists' array, a woman at, say, eighty-three might look younger than another person at sixty-six. Indeed, Sills said, this happened quite often, at many of the ages shown. At any given age, "What next?" was not a foregone conclusion.
Excerpted from Aged by Culture by Margaret Morganroth Gullette Copyright © 2004 by Margaret Morganroth Gullette. Excerpted by permission.
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Part One: Cultural Urgencies
1. Trapped in the New Time Machines
2. True Secrets of Being Aged by Culture
3. "The Xers" versus "the Boomers": A Contrived War
4. Perilous Parenting: The Deaths of Children and the Fear of Aging-into-the-Midlife
5. The High Costs of Middle-Ageism
Part Two: Theorizing Age Resistantly
6. What Is Age Studies?
7. Age Identity Revisited
8. From Life Storytelling to Age Autobiography
9. Acting Age on Stage: Age-Appropriate Casting, the Default Body, and Valuing the Property of Having an Age
10. Age Studies as Cultural Studies: Beyond Slice-of-Life