This interdisciplinary research project investigates subjective and symbolic dimensions of late life in Western societies as they are represented in literary texts from early to late modernity. On the basis of mostly literary, but also medical, psychological and legal discourses, the project provides detailed examples of the psychologies, philosophies and poetics of ageing, especially in regard to shifting concepts of selfhood and identity. It interrogates the criteria for defining the various phases of 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 aims to heighten awareness of the divergent conceptions of old age that exist side by side in today's society. It focuses on continuities and changes in the perception of age but also on transhistorical aspects of ageing as a human condition.
From project start, questions of interdisciplinarity have been foregrounded. In his first annual seminar, "Challenges of Interdisciplinarity for a Cultural History of Ageing", George Rousseau's theoretical and methodological lectures were especially tailored for the project's historical approach to the ageing self within the field of Literature and Science.
The seminar "Defining Old Age" (2017) brought together scholars of humanistic gerontology, cultural history, literature, psychology, law and philosophy of science. It highlighted, historicized and glossed different discursive criteria for distinguishing later life-stages, asking how ageing individuals are delimited culturally, therapeutically, legally.
Our group presented papers on self-writing at the 2017 Literature and Medicine seminar "Dimensions of Ageing" at the Norwegian University Centre in St Petersburg.
The 2018 symposium "Living a good life in older age: literary, philosophical, psychological and medical perspectives", co-organized with Warwick University, aimed to extend current models of 'successful ageing', and contribute to a more historically sensitive, critical and values-based model of ageing. The topics included loss, illness, and dementia, but also creative and emotional potentials of later life. Important philosophical contributions raised problems of social justice in contemporary society.
Rousseau's 2018 seminar "Sleep, Senescence, Subjectivity" combined literary, cultural historical, psychological and medical approaches to sleep.
Cross examining another aspect of ageing from the viewpoints of different disciplines, our group presented a panel on "aloneness" at the IAGG Congress 2019 in Gothenburg.
The 2019 Rousseau seminar "Ageing & Gender", hosted by the Centre of Woman and Gender Studies at UiB, brought together literary and gender scholars from New York, Oxford, Oslo and Bergen. The arts were featured in presentations of literature, a gendered approach to ageing composers, and the launching of a documentary.
The mentioned events demonstrated how age studies invite interdisciplinary and interartistic approaches to gender, participation, social justice and psychosomatic states characteristic of senescent selfhood. Until then, the project had embraced interdisciplinarity without prioritizing public impact. Our "Late Life Festival" was a collaboration between UiB, Bergen National Opera, KODE and Bergen Municipality, open to the public. It also included an interdisciplinary research seminar and constituted a unique opportunity to further our approaches, by extending beyond academia, through dissemination, art performances and into the community. The amalgamation of such different kinds of institutions - academic, artistic and communal - constitutes a new type of multidisciplinarity in itself.
The collection Literature and Ageing, edited by project partner Elizabeth Barry with Margery Vibe Skagen (Boydell & Brewer: 2020) is dedicated to Anglophone literature from mid-19th C. to the present. The second anthology, Cultural Histories of Ageing: Myths, Plots and Metaphors of the Senescent Self, edited by Margery Vibe Skagen, teases out culturally-specific conceptions of old age as well as subjective constructions of late-life identity and selfhood in Western literature since the 16th C. (Routledge: 2021). These books demonstrate the potential of interdisciplinary literature studies for historicizing the ageing self and its relevance for our society.
In 2021, Ph.d. fellow Gunn Inger Sture defended her thesis on metaphors of ageing in Proust.
Postdoctoral fellow Laura Cayrol-Bernardo started her MSCA-project on female ageing in 15th C. Florence.
12 members of our group are now preparing a special issue of the online journal Age, Culture, Humanities entitled Transitional, Relational Ageing, presenting a range of disciplinary perspectives (cultural history, literature, philosophy, psychology and music therapy) on late life transitions.
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The project introduced a new research area in Norway which will be developed further by Literature & Ageing Research group at UiB.
The research project led to the dissemination project "Siste Kapittel". This was a cross-disciplinary collaboration between the UiB, Bergen Municipality, Bergen National Opera, KODE and the NKS. In this connection, a non-profit organization was established to promote interdisciplinary and interartistic perspectives on ageing.
Our research and dissemination projects have created engagement and awareness about ageing and old age across disciplines, institutions and generations, connecting the humanities and the arts with the exact sciences, theory with practice, statistics with lived experience. We believe that humanistic and artistic approaches to ageing can inform gerontology, geriatrics and the general healthcare of the elderly, and thereby contribute to what Jan Baars calls 'a new art of ageing' and a more fulfilling social understanding of old age.
The demographic changes in present societies require a more critical and nuanced approach to the different stages of human life, not least to definitions and cultural comprehensions of old age. This project will produce new knowledge about subjective and symbolic aspects of late life in different contexts, and contribute to a broader understanding of the cultural and scientific assumptions underlying past and present paradigms of ageing from early to late modernity in Western societies. On the basis of mostly literary, but also medical, psychological and legal discourses, it will provide detailed exemplifications of the psychologies, philosophies and rhetorics of senescence, 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. Through critical analysis of traditional and post-traditional representations of late life, it will provide tools and models for a humanistically informed reconstruction of the third and fourth age. As distinct from humanistic sub-disciplines of gerontology, this project's interdisciplinary approach to ageing is rooted in the humanities, especially in literary studies and cultural history, but will also draw on gerontology, medicine, psychology and law. It will thus give a fresh and socially relevant focus to issues pertaining to the humanities, and contribute to the renewal of literary studies through cross-disciplinary approaches to human existence.