Under the auspices of the Philadelphia Institute for Advanced Study, I began the Philosophical Research Group in 2007, as a phalanx focused on the analysis of everyday phenomena, objects, and actions. It begins with a given mundane topic, such as laundromats or parking tickets, and examines thoroughly its many meanings and possibilities, always with the hope of ultimately reorganizing its elements into a new Sublime.
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Part I. The Initial Post, from the PRG blog.I can think of no Western tradition that truthfully and faithfully transmits the Wisdom of Aging from the dying, elderly, and recently deceased to the young and newly born; nothing that prepares you, in any way, for the actual Passage of Time. Not the general Passage of Time— in evenly-parsed seconds, days, and years— but the perspectival passage from Birth to Childhood to Adolescence to Adulthood to Middle Age to Old Age to Death, with its own anxious brand of Time-reckoning, and its endless compare-and-contrast games with other age brackets. What is this even called, this vista and particular wisdom of Aging?
"When you are a child, Adulthood will seem like an unimaginably wide sea, buffering Death. But the moment you wade into the waters, you clearly see the other shore approaching."
Or "you will hear older people say that Time passes faster as you grow older, and you will think that they're just speaking loosely, figuratively. They're not. The Passage of Time will accelerate to such a degree that it induces a panic. What you see, in the desperation of the Aging, is people responding to this panic rather than just the Passage of Time itself."
Or, "your peers will always appear to be the Neutral Reasonably Median Age. Younger people will always look like Children, even when those younger people are in their forties. Older people will always seem fully matured, even in Fifth Grade. This illusion never subsides. It's something metabolic."
The Passage of Time ceases long enough for him to master the moment: our ultimate fantasy, the pointless fantasy of re-living life from birth with all your current, accumulated wisdom. Or just having a few years, outside of Time, just to catch up.
But I think, experientially, most problems related with Aging are dispositional— anxious reactions to the Passage of Time rather than anything hard and necessary. In reality, the consequences of Aging— death, disease, and degeneration— are not until the near-end. Still, not counting the age-angst of the young— "I'm not old enough to stay up and watch Saturday Night Live"— our age-angst, begins thirty and forty years before degeneration, on the doorstep of adulthood, or even with the End of Childhood. I wrote about this before, about the meanings of Childhood, and how its perspectives are suppressed— or dismissed— because, one, adult wisdoms follow childhood wisdoms, and thus are seen as superior rather than just horizontally different in a Gadamerian way.
And two, because Children are a disempowered, marginalized voice— one of the only groups whose disempowerment is publicly acceptable and lauded— and therefore add less to the common perspectival Horizon. They're clumped in with the mad, the retarded, animals, and everything else "lacking in reason." But I think the Childhood perspective is vastly under-appreciated— belittled, made quaint— because it contradicts Adulthood prejudices. This is the same dismissal that, flowing from the Paternal Sovereign, was and is directed toward the Maternal Figure. And this dismissal badly distorts the human personality which, s Freud said, is mostly formed in childhood. What is critical for the personality is a rich synthesis of these life-epochs, in again the Gadamerian sense.
What intrigues me, as well, is this idea as age groups as cultures— comparable to ethnic, religious, or regional cultures. The passage of Time forces your emigration from cultures; an emigration across Time rather than Space. Age-anxieties are, then, a form of culture shock; and nostalgia, a form of homesickness, a Ulyssean longing.
Part II. Reflections and Regurgitations from after the Philosophical Research Group.
From the very start of all this agespeak, what I wanted to articulate is how much our mode-of-living is bent and conditioned by the demographics of our years, and also how much the extent of this conditioning is chalked up to a bogus naturalness of age. Age seems biological enough— because the physiological maturity of the body is biological. Age however— the concept that sieves the boy from the man, that grid and way in which we partition social groups, the guide to what we like and how we comport ourselves— is decidedly cultural. Something that shifts and switches and loosens throughout different circles, times, and civilizations.
Age is membership in a specific culture, as I said, and as with all memberships, cultures, and we-intentions, there are certain stated and unstated mores, rules, and sociological structures. These forces create the possibility of transgression and shame. And our man-child exemplar will cheerfully commit plenty of these transgressions, but the shame, for whatever reason, just won't stick for very long. He will glide between sensibilities with ease and incorrigibility. He will be able to absorb the positive charge and bright-sky vision of children on Monday, screw around downtown with his peers on Wednesday, and have deathbed conversations with his elders on Friday.
In the end, he will synthesize the wisdom of each, as much as his perspective will allow, and shed the unnecessary fretting for a more productive strategy. This strategy is simply put: age should never be parameter of action. Health may be. The law may be. Biology may be. But Age is a spook, a false anxiety— a regrettably insular cluster of sensibilities. People are blind to the sociological forces of age because of its bogus naturalness. It nevertheless exerts enormous pressure on our courses of life.
My exemplar is close to the man-child Baudelaire describes in "The Painter of Modern Life," as someone in whom "genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will, childhood equipped now with man's physical means to express itself, and with the analytical mind that enables it to bring order into the sum of experience, involuntarily amassed." We all know what we mean by this, the "drinking in shape and colour" in childhood without, as Gavin Riley put it, the fixations of adulthood. The adulthood fixations that consume all our energies while accomplishing nothing. What we struggled with, in the Philosophical Research Group, was whether these all-consuming fixations inherently came with the mantle of responsibility. This is a question more serious than it first seems: can we do the trick Baudelaire describes? Can we fully enact the genius of childhood or does commitment nag it to death? The question seems a little old, but I think there are newer, more satisfactory answers.
But, to continue on, the playground that best suits this man-child exemplar was something I was rather ambiguously calling "Culture," something that contained everything that was not directly implicated by Necessity. This meant the high-cultural fare such as philosophy and literature, middlebrow play like movies and street fashion, and even professional wrestling and rawer ghettoisms— all of this fell under the category of Culture, for me... Make-believe translated. But to push the idea of Culture as being "what is not implicated by Necessity," the idea of Culture as freeplay, I think that there's also the figure of homo ludens as this man-child. Man the Player. And the figure who plays more directly with Necessity itself— including playing around with age and all its sociological structure.
Many in my pantheon were undoubtably manchildren, but I have trouble discerning who triumphed over the distinction and who simply suffered the brunt, forever unsure how to successfully synthesize their childhood, adolescent, adult, and elderly impulses. Henry Darger, Hunter Thompson, and Andy Kaufman all failed and flailed in the comprehension of Age, especially in regard to Death and its preparations. Darger— poor Darger— tried to interpret the ugly world through the mythos of childhood, despite their irreconcilability, and never did understand the collision of innocence and experience, or of abuse and marvel. Thompson had outgrown his eternal youth, and could make no sense of old age. He had made no room in the self for such a thing. And provided that we believe that Kaufman is truly dead, we can surmise from biography that he was caught completely unprepared for Death, and regressed into an infantile, screaming, crying, unsheathed expression of the Id. He hadn't crossed over the threshold of adulthood yet, what sense could he possibly make of Death?
But the comprehension of Age is not equivalent to the confrontation of Death. Aging is not the same process as the Heideggerean Being-unto-Death, as it's sometimes conceived. Except for those of us lucky enough to outlive our own dignity and usefulness, Death is still the interruption of a process. It can come at anytime— one false move and you're dead. It may be heartwarming to think of Death as the culmination of Life, but I'm not sure I agree. However, old age is more easily seen as the culmination of a Life, a recap, a chance to lend the world your magnum opus or final opinions. The endpoint on a long timeline of growth-for-growth's-sake. Or, as Baudelaire said, a chance to bring "order to the sum of experience."
Part III. Unfollowed tangents and possibilities.K-Fai Steele brought up an interesting rivulet, stemming from a recent fascination of hers. She mentioned the historical impact of the Fifties invention of the birth control pill, with the help of Sanger and Pincus, among others. The idea of, as they called it, "Voluntary Parenthood." On the heels of voluntary parenthood is, I think,the idea of voluntary adulthood. Besides the rings of actual biological aging, a sort of intergenerational pressure coerces and files us according to what we are not, in a very Saussurian way. When we have kids, it's much more difficult to remain kids ourselves— we are defined in contrast to our children. With birth control, this threshold, this greatest rite-of-passage, can be deferred until Doomsday, and along with it, adulthood.
This dynamic may help explain why adolescence has become so elastic in recent times, or why age is less divisive among gays and lesbians. The blurring and slurring of Generation.