On May 21st, I will defend my PhD dissertation in the nice old auditorium at Medical Museion. The title of the dissertation is “Unsettling successful ageing: A history and queering of the concept of successful ageing in ageing research”, and the event lasts from 1 PM (sharp!) to 4 PM, followed by a small reception. The defence is public, so everyone is welcome to participate!

To (hopefully) tempt you even more, here is a short summary of what the dissertation is about:

In the last few decades, concerns about ageing and the ageing populations have gained increasing public and scientific attention. Since ageing is associated with mental and physical functional decline, disability, dependence and frailty, the increased proportion of elder citizens in most Western countries is considered a challenge to health care services, pension funds, work force quality, and the elderly’s own quality of life.

This, in turn, has given rise to a number of conceptual frameworks within ageing research that seeks to better understand and manage the unruly ageing corporealities. This dissertation takes its point of departure in an investigation of the conceptual framework of ‘successful ageing’, formulated in the United States in the 1980s and since wide spread across national and disciplinary boarders. The dissertation aims to, on the one hand, map out the central themes and issues emerging in the recent historical discussions and practices related to ‘successful ageing’, and, on the other hand, to critically engage with the norms and understandings of ‘ageing’ and what might be called ‘good ageing’ that this conceptual frame relates to.

While the first point is addressed in the dissertation’s first article, the second point is explored in a an analysis of how ‘successful ageing’ relates to ideas about ‘human enhancement’ (found in the dissertation’s second and third article); and in a critical engagement with norms of ageing embodiment, analysed through the queer notion of ‘the monstrous’ from a feminist bioethics and critical disability studies perspective (found in the dissertation’s fourth article).

Similar to other related concepts like ‘active ageing’ or ‘productive ageing’, ‘successful ageing’ has been a wide spread conceptual frame for ageing research since the 1980s. In this period it has been influential in framing discourses, policies and practices related to ageing, while at the same time being the topic of intense discussion and contestation within and across the many different age-related disciplines. As part of a continuous academic dialogue, successful ageing debates thereby shed light on both the controversies and assumptions existing in this increasingly important and diverse field, and at the same time situates ageing research in its context of historically and culturally specific ‘matters of concern’.

These concerns have, in their contemporary form and context, given rise to specific focus on prevention and optimisation of human corporealities in ageing research. The dissertation’s comparative examples from academic enhancement debates further illustrate current Western concerns and dominant norms of embodiment related to ageing, as enhancement advocates take notions about bodily plasticity and prevention practices that ‘successful ageing’ research promote to their logical, if utopian, extreme.

A key issue that stands out in the dissertation’s articles and analyses is the complexity of a situated, malleable, and ageing human body. The complex and indetermined trajectory of bodily change makes it and its future difficult to manage, and thus becomes a key reason for concern. At the same time, bodily plasticity is also the premise for prevention and optimisation practices that seeks to achieve a maintenance or improvement of mental or physical functioning – and the avoidance of vulnerability and frailty – as a measure of success.

In the final article of the dissertation this is related specifically to a Western hegemonic ideal of the embodied subject; the subject as autonomous, independent, rational, able-bodied, un-forgetful, and optimally functioning. Introducing the queer notion of ‘the monstrous’ to ageing and ageing research, this part of the dissertation takes up a specific ethical discussion about frailty and vulnerability. The basic argument is that we are always already monstrous, as ideals of well ordered, independent and rational embodied subjects are impossible to achieve.

From this starting point the emphasis on normalising or optimising ageing bodies, and attempts to avoid frailty and vulnerability, can be problematized as a starting point for engaging with (our own and other’s) ageing. If we instead recognise that we are always already frail and vulnerable and take this as our starting point, rather than something to avoid, this may allow new perspectives and ethical considerations to emerge, creating a space for other ways of being recognized as an embodied subject, and for dealing with vulnerability and frailty.

A printed copy of the dissertation will soon be available at the Royal Library and at the Library of Health and Medical Sciences, Panum. Or you can download a pdf version of the main part of it here (unfortunately I cannot include the articles in the online version as they are currently in the process of publication in journals).

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