Thursday, March 10, 2011

Young Forever?

The new goal of existence is immortality. Whether it’s fear of the unknown or an inability to conceptualize what aging is like, we’re socialized to want to maintain our youth at all costs. Even pop songs are reflecting this general desire, specifically Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and Jay-Z’s “Young Forever”: 

Let's go all the way tonight
No regrets, just love

We can dance until we die

You and I

We'll be young forever

Let us die young or let us live forever
We don’t have the power, but we never say never
Sitting in a sandpit, life is a short trip
The music’s for the sad man

Forever young, I wanna be forever young
Do you really want to live forever, forever and ever?
Forever young, I wanna be forever young
Do you really want to live forever, forever, forever?

Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” exemplifies just how death-obsessed our culture truly is. Not only the line “We can dance until we die,” but also her reference to cardiac arrest (“My heart stops/When you look at me”) are representative of how often we think and talk about death in everyday life. Additionally, the line “We’ll be young forever” indirectly reinforces the stigma attached to old-age by placing value on the status of youth.

Though at first glance Jay-Z’s “Young Forever” seems to be presenting a simplistic, ageist approach to this heavy topic (and for the most part he is), Jay-Z also questions this new-age desire to live forever in posing the question “Do you really want to live forever, forever and ever?” Unfortunately, the medical profession, unlike Jay-Z, does not seem to be asking this question at all. Biomedicine is quickly forging ahead with new technology and assumptions without considering the ethical or social implications of their practices.

These ageist portrayals of desirability and age contribute to post-mortality and the devaluation of the elderly, as discussed in Lafontaine’s article “The Postmortal Condition: From the Biomedical Deconstruction of Death to the Extension of Longevity”. “If old age is a state against which one must fight, people who are ‘suffering’ from it are not only excluded from society, they become an element of biopower via an increasingly far-reaching medicalization” (308). Thus, ageing, in a sense, is becoming pathology as the line between disease and ageing is increasingly blurred by medicine.

Furthermore, “feeding the fantasy of infinite longevity, the biomedical deconstruction of death and anti-age medicine threaten to shake even more fundamentally the anthropological reference points on which human existence and experience is based” (309). Therefore, in a sense, the lack of questioning of scientific evaluations of ageing or songs such as “Young Forever” and “Teenage Dream” may have greater implications for society. If we do indeed view life “as linear and extensible,” we will continue to encourage the technological advancements that are fueling this problematic thinking to begin with. Without death, our lives would cease to form the vital cycle of our ancestors. The attempt to escape death or defer it comes with a cost: not only devaluation of old age, but also meaninglessness of life itself.

In short, “the devaluing of old age, the desocialization of death, its loss of meaning and the feeling of absurdity that accompanies it are the negative sides of the postmortal condition,” and of pop songs that over-value youth (309).

In the article “Resuscitations: Stem Cells and the Crisis of Old Age,” Cooper explores stem cell research and the meaning of old age in our society. Specifically, she discusses age in terms of biological limits, and “as a moveable threshold between surplus and waste, obsolescence and renewal” (3). This market-driven approach to ageing proves to be extremely problematic, especially when considering how “the life sciences and their cutting-edge biotechnologies are becoming ever more integrated into the circuits of capital accumulation” (16). She goes on to state that “…it is clear that no appeal to the lost sanctity of human life will protect us from the incursions of the market” (16). Therefore, almost all attempts to change the future path of biomedicine and biotechnology will be impossible. “Increasingly we are being confronted with the problem of thinking about and resisting forms of property that claim to own life in its futurity, before it has emerged into morphological form” (16).

In order to solve these societal problems that will only worsen with technological advancements in the area of biomedicine, we must first seek to reverse the devaluation of old age. Ageist social commentaries, such as pop songs that glorify youth, must be seriously considered. We, like Jay-Z, must continue to ask ourselves, our friends, and the institution of medicine “Do you really want to live forever, forever and ever?” And, if we do want to live forever, what would that mean? What are implications of reinforcing these ideals? How can we address these issues realistically, from a social or technological/biomedical perspective?

Though just merely asking questions does not seem to amount to much, we must begin to raise these concerns in order to commence a reconsideration of bio-power and current assumptions regarding social status and value.


Cooper, Melinda. 2006. “Resuscitations: Stem Cells and the Crisis of Old Age.” Body and Society 12(1): 1-23.

Lafontaine, Celine. 2009. The Postmortal Condition: From the Biomedical Deconstruction of Death to the Extension of Longevity. Science as Culture 18(3): 297-312.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Not Dead… Yet

Kaufman blurs the distinction between life and death in her article “Dementia-Near-Dear and ‘Life Itself,’” claiming dementia to be “a condition both of death-in-life and of life-in-death” (Kaufman, 23). Conditions like dementia serve to dismantle society’s perception of two discrete entities: life and death. But are these two phenomena actually so distinct?

Though there is indeed some sort of difference between life and death, particularly between youth and old age, the distinction between these two categories can be murky. Does one cross over at 40, with a black cake and an “Over the Hill” banner? Or at the first strand of gray hair?  Where can we begin to draw the line? Some would argue that the cross over from younger to older via mid-life can be defined by a chronology of medical events, such as menopause in women. In the article “The Politics of Mid-Life and Menopause,” Margaret Lock critiques the medical construction of the female body and aging processes such as menopause as largely informed by a hegemonic social and medical discourse. This becomes even more apparent when she compares perceptions of menopause and aging in the United States with those in Japan. However, in both discourses “the subjective experience of aging is ignored; it is assumed to be irrelevant and inaccurate knowledge in political arenas where reality is above all quantitatively constructed” (357).  Thus, what could be the natural progression of life is ultimately dictated and defined by medicine, which continues through the process of dying and death.

If we distinguish dying from death, perhaps we can differentiate between dying as a process and death as a discrete point in time. However, even this distinction proves to be increasingly difficult due to increased technology and varying definitions of death, including the category of “brain death.” Highly contingent on the location of “personhood,” brain death proves to be a controversial concept that varies between cultures. Margaret Lock explores the gray area between life and death in the United States and Japan, claiming “Brain-dead patients remain betwixt and between, both alive and dead, breathing with technological assistance but irreversibly unconscious” (136). She concludes that while brain-dead patients are largely dead to American society, brain-dead patients in Japan live on through their relationships and family ties. “In North America a brain-dead body is biologically alive in the minds of those who work closely with it, but it is no longer a person, whereas in Japan, for the majority, including a good number of physicians, such an entity is both living and remains a person, at least for several days after brain death has been diagnosed” (150).

Not only the status of “brain-dead” as lingering between life and death, but also the determination of the condition seems to be in turmoil. The USA Today article When is someone brain dead? Experts revise guidelines by Jenifer Goodwin presents the conflict over definitions of “brain-dead” and their real life consequences in hospitals. The U.S. Uniform Determination of Death Act defines brain death as occurring “when a person permanently stops breathing, the heart stops beating and "all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem" cease.” Though there is little debate over this definition, the American Academy of Neurology has issued new guidelines for determining brain death due to large discrepancies over determinations of brain death in America’s top hospitals. Now there is a step-by-step checklist of approximately 25 tests and criteria to rightly and consistently identify brain death.

The equation of brain-death with death itself can largely be attributed to the Cartesian idea that personhood is to be located within the mind. Eric Krakauer explores the realm of Cartesian thinking in regards to medicine and end-of-life issues. Central to the Cartesian approach is the thinking subject, which is thought to be able to “’master’ the chaos of the world” (385). Thus, it logically follows that personhood ends when the thinking, subjective self ceases to master the world with his brain power. This reasoning fits perfectly with concepts of medical mastery, especially the mastery of death. But has medicine actually mastered death? Is this medical definition of death as lack of brain functioning universally accepted in our society?  

The answer is no. Varying definitions of death (and where personhood is located) result in controversy around when it is acceptable to officially end a life. One example of a group that rejects the simplistic medical definition of death as “brain death” is a radical disability rights advocacy group called Not Dead Yet. Though the line between life and death is often unclear, the legalized medical killing of people in the gray area (between these categories) is often met with protest from the disability community. The following is a description of the group and their work:

Since 1983, many people with disabilities have opposed the assisted suicide and euthanasia movement. Though often described as compassionate, legalized medical killing is really about a deadly double standard for people with severe disabilities, including both conditions that are labeled terminal and those that are not.

This resistance problematizes the simplistic Cartesian distinction being thinking and non-thinking subjects and resulting existence (or lack thereof) of personhood. Many people living with severe disabilities, or who are in a “vegetative” state, are often deprived of personhood and human rights. These instances raise questions about what constitutes a full person and who should have authority in making decisions about people’s lives that cannot exercise their own autonomy. Also, when doctors deem someone as “brain-dead” are they really dead? Or are they just “disabled” in some capacity? And if they are just “disabled,” shouldn’t they enjoy the right to life like the rest of us?


Goodwin, Jenifer. 2010. “When is someone brain dead? Experts revise guidelines.” USA Today online.

Kaufman, Sharon R. 2006. “Dementia-Near-Death and ‘Life Itself.’” In Thinking about Dementia: Culture, Loss, and the Anthropology of Senility. Annette Leibing and Lawrence Cohen, eds. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. Pp. 23-42.

Krakauer, Eric. 2007. “‘To Be Freed from the Informity of (the) Age’: Subjectivity, Life-Sustaining Treatment, and Palliative Medicine.” In Sebjectivity: Ethnographic Investigations. Joao Biehl, Byron Good, and Arthur Kleinman, eds. Berkeley: University of California Press. Pp. 381-397.

Lock, Margaret. 2004. “Living Cadavers and the Calculation of Death.” Body and Society 10(2-3): 135-152.

Lock, Margaret. 1993. “The Politics of Mid-Life and Menopause: Ideologies for the Second Sex in North America and Japan.” In Knowledge, Power, and Practice: The Anthropology of Medicine in Everyday Life. Shirley Lindenbaum and Margaret Lock, eds. Pp. 330-363. Berkeley: University of California Press.,r:0,s:0,r:3,s:0