Canadian Journal of Sociology Online January - February 2000

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Andrew Blaikie
Ageing and Popular Culture.
Cambridge University Press, 1999. 247pp. $US 24.95 paper (0521645476),$US 64.95 cloth (0521551501).

Andrew Blaikie’s multi-faceted study of popular images of ageing provides an excellent example of the sea-change that, in the last decade or so, has reinvigorated the sociology of ageing and demarginalised it as a specialty. Prominent in this development – in the work e.g. of Achenbaum, Featherstone, Hepworth, Gubrium, Haraven, Woodward, and Katz – has been the attention given to questions of representation, discourse and (social) identity. In part this reflects a critical engagement with ‘ageist’ bias (recent authors are often, and self-consciously, ageing baby-boomers); in part, it reflects sharpened body-appearance questions that longevity, technology and consumerisation have objectively brought into play. It also reflects a more general turn towards language and culture that has highlighted questions of representation in ageing studies, as elsewhere – though with the added complications that are inescapably introduced by time, memory, and mortality. At this rich intersection, be it added, the new focus on representation in ageing studies has permitted and included attention to self-representation. It breaks from the ‘old’ gerontology, therefore, in two ways: not only by highlighting the complex mediations of even physical ageing by cultural construction, but also by allowing the elderly to speak (also) for themselves.

Blaikie is strong on all these points – with the added merit that his semiology of ageing in Britain is securely anchored in both the structural and lived particularities of social history. While Blaikie’s study is not cross-cultural (a comparison with the cases of Japan and North America would be instructive) its examination of changes in the UK imagescape is sufficiently deep and far-ranging to provide a good background template for examining other regions of the advanced industrial world. In general, he locates the present constellation of ageing-related images (verbal and visual) within the wider shift from a Fordist to a post-Fordist techno-economy. Within that shift, Blaikie develops a more detailed genealogy, based on the complex interplay (especially in Scotland and England) between a) state and medical discourses of ageing, b) popularly circulating imagery (especially photographic), and c) in so far as it can be made available, lived experience. The result, for the sociology of ageing, is a study of great value, and not least because Blaikie’s richly textured account enables the new family of meta-discourses which make up the field to place themselves in the picture.

Blaikie’s study is in two parts. The first examines the objective and subjective factors that are shaping the current and prospective social position of the young-old and old-old. This establishes the coordinates for his examination, in the second part, of the shifting imageries and discourses that have accompanied the arrival of what he takes to be a new generational configuration.

Blaikie’s disentangling of the demographic, social policy, bio-medical, and socio-economic factors that have repositioned retirement, and (at least for a growing number of empty nesters and moderately affluent retirees) have established the basis for ‘positive ageing’, and an active but leisure-based ‘third age’ (Laslett), is lucid and cogent. Very helpful, too, is his reconstruction of the policy discussions which have accompanied the industrial era’s problematisation of old age, both in terms of its own continuities and discontinuities, and in relation to accompanying shifts in gerontological discourse and popular ageing stereotypes. This enables us to read current debates about inter-generational equity (who pays for the growing pensions and medical bills of an ‘ageing society’?) as a moment within a longer-run demographic politics that has accompanied the modern transition to low birth rates and increased longevity. Concern with the implications of this shift, Blaikie reminds us, goes back many decades. In its first stages, worries about the increase in aged dependents stimulated, inter alia, the development of a medical and warehousing-oriented gerontology of the kind precisely now under challenge. The analysis is provocative, too, in the qualifying implications Blaikie draws from the emancipatory aspects of growing (middle-class) third age affluence for the gloomy modernisation thesis about ageing that he takes as his heuristic base line. Off-setting the modernist (and industrial) worship of youth and devaluation of experience as obsolete knowledge, Blaikie notes postmodern trends which blur the age and retirement lines, and promise, via a consumerism which increasingly caters for older lifestyle shoppers, both new possibilities for self-development, and some enhancement of cultural and political influence by the age-group as a whole.

The second half of Blaikie’s study, taken up with particular studies of visual imagery, is at first sight more disparate. Frankly presented as ‘forays into a new terrain’, chapters 5-8 explore various aspects and sites of representation (from sea-side retirement icons and art photography to family snaps) which each, in their way, in the negotiated middle ground between the imposed discourses of commerce, medicine, and state and the immediate swirl of the everyday, qualifies the story of dominant attitudes and stereotypes related in the hinge chapter 4 (‘altered images’). Running through all this is a complex reflection on the relation between biography, the visual record, and collective memory, and (as a research correlate) about the testimonial value of the materials, especially photographic, that Blaikie utilises. With regard to the latter, Blaikie opts for a qualified realism. Popularly circulating images are inescapably coded and rhetorical; but they can still be read as authentic traces, if not of ‘real life’, then at least of the discursive field in which they are produced – whether by the authorities, by advertisers, or by those themselves they represent.

Blaikie’s multi-sided ‘forays’ inevitably leave loose ends, but the underlying argument is made clear at the end. Against cultural pessimists like Lasch who worry about rootless egoism, and postmodernity’s disruption of temporal continuity, Blaikie argues (with Featherstone and Giddens) that technology and consumerism have created – at least for the middle-class young-old – not only the material conditions for an improved old age, but also new options for self creation, identity, and development. To be sure these are possibilities, not certainties. And what unfolds, on this ambiguously promising field, is again the old ‘struggle of memory against forgetting’. But Blaikie holds out an open future in which this struggle is not foreclosed, biographical continuity can be sustained, and self-endowed meanings might still be freely negotiated by the ageing self. It is, indeed, precisely the prospects for agency in self-definition that Blaikie’s forays into visual imagery are designed to explore. This is not to say his optimism is unalloyed. Behind the third age, of renewed self-creation, lurks a fourth age which threatens a terrible exit, in dependency, pain, and often in segregation. Deep old age and decrepitude, Blaikie suggests, have become a new taboo, even replacing (a meaningless) death in that negative symbolic function. We are left, nonetheless, on an up note, with the prospect ahead of further increases in longevity, more practice in reflexive life-course steering, and further inter-generational strains.

As a piece of real thinking about an unavoidable social topic the book has many virtues, though the price of its admirable insistence on multiplicity is a certain eclecticism. (The perspective is more or less Weberian, with Foucauldian touches, and a persistent strain of Giddens-type ‘structure and agency’. This is counterpointed by a phenomenological interest in the life-world and a documentary concern for singularity and biographic detail.) In post-positivist spirit, the totality (dismissed as meta-narrative, but which Blaikie’s large-scale canvas itself descriptively evokes) is also put epistemologically out of court. One might suspect here a blind spot, tied perhaps to Blaikie’s forthright renunciation of a productivist paradigm and his corresponding endorsation (too unqualified for me) of the life-enhancing possibilities of consumer culture. Lasch’s concern about the fragmentation of time sense had been thematised in relation to a loss of power for shaping the world. From that angle, consumerism is an ideology alienated from its own alienation., the shattering of tradition alienates the collective power to shape the world all the more thoroughly, and the liberation of third agers from work and public responsibility leaves them free in every way but the one that matters. Would it not be uncritical, then, to affirm the affirmativity of an old people’s culture that flowered in that context? Is there not something ghoulish, indeed, about corralling the elderly in ‘life-style enclaves’?

This though is already to engage, outside the text, with the implications of Blaikie’s study, and in no way diminishes its scholarly value. A wide audience, from specialists and students to a larger public concerned about the social and cultural dimensions of post-Fordist ageing, including their own, will find this book highly stimulating and informative.

Andrew Wernick
Professor of Cultural Studies and Sociology
Trent University
January 2000
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