The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

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

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