Aging, Technology and Identity: Reflections with Jean Améry

Aging, Technology and Identity: Reflections with Jean Améry June 10, 2020

by Dr. Michael Mawson, Senior Lecturer in Systematic Theology & Ethics and Research Fellow in the Public and Contextual Theology Research Centre at Charles Sturt University, Australia.

What is the significance of human aging—especially of our bodily and cognitive decline—for who and what we are as human beings? In what ways should we draw upon and make use of technology(s) for negotiating aging and its negative effects? How does this use of technology itself begin to shape how we understand and experience ourselves as aging beings?

In my ongoing work on these questions, I recently came across a short book by the Austrian-born philosopher and essayist Jean Améry: On Aging: Revolt and Resignation (1968). Améry’s book consists of five essays, each of which engages a different aspect of aging: ‘aging human beings in relation to time, to their own bodies, to society, to civilisation, ultimately to death.’ (xxii). Central to Améry’s work, as the English translator summarizes, ‘is his determination to look at the phenomenon of aging without blinking, to assess it without sentimentalizing, consoling, or mincing words about the horrible nature of what he sees’ (xviii).  In what follows I summarise a few of Améry’s key insights, and then suggest how these might complicate some of our standard ways of appealing to technology for responding to aging.

 

Jean Améry on Aging

First of all, what does Améry’s ‘unflinching’ look at aging reveal about how we experience time and space? When we are still relatively young, Améry proposes, we experience space or the world as open and available to us. Correlatively, when we are young we experience time as something distant and insubstantial: ‘To be young is to throw one’s body out into a time that is not time at all, but life, world and space’ (15). All of this begins to change, however, as we age and become old. As we become old, we increasingly experience space or the world as something that stands over against us. Here Amery takes an example of someone who had once enjoyed being in nature: ‘Mountains, valleys, forests he once loved, are now, to him, a club into which he has not been admitted’ (35). For the aging and old, the world is experienced as inaccessible and inhospitable. Furthermore, as we become old, time no longer simply lies before us; it has now accumulated and solidified within us: ‘The old have life behind them, but this life that is no longer actually lived is nothing but time gathered up, lived, passed away’ (14). Accumulated time and memories become ever more substantial, even as the actual world becomes ever more distant and elusive.

What is at stake with this loss of space and accumulation of time? For Améry, both this loss and accumulation involve increased social isolation. This is because space and our access to space is precisely what mediates our relationships with other people: ‘Space, even my space…. is always the space of others: an intersubjectively understandable phenomenon….’ (22). As we age and lose access to the world, however, we find ourselves cut off from others and excluded from society.

Furthermore, according to Améry, this loss of space and accumulation of time involves discovering the body. We discover the body ‘in the way it [aging] heaps burdens upon us more frequently every day. Since in suffering it no longer transcends itself to dissolve in world and space….’ (42). As we lose space and accumulate time within us, our bodies themselves become more substantial and present to us: ‘This body, which is no longer the mediator between the world and us, but cuts us off from the world and space with its heavy breathing, painful legs, and the arthritically plagued articulation of our bones, has become our prison, but also our last shelter’ (34). The aging body isolates us, even while also becoming our point of refuge from an inhospitable and elusive world.

This phenomenon indicates a certain ambivalence in how we experience our bodies as aging. As Améry narrates it, ‘one feels one’s aging body to be ‘something external and imposed and yet at the same time as that which is most his own, to which he is more and more reduced and to which he devotes increasing attention.’[1] In aging, we are confronted by the body from outside, yet simultaneously as that which we properly are. Thus, as Améry summarises this point, ‘I am myself through my body and against it’ (40).

This dialectic also extends to identity more basically. Even as we discover the body in a new way in aging and pain, so too are we pressed back into ourselves and forced to confront who we are. Indeed, as Améry rather poetically puts it, ‘pain and sickness are the festivals of decay the body organises for itself and me. Their purpose is to ensure that I am absorbed in the body and consequently…though certainly reduced in my ability to function…I gain in ego’ (43). By separating us from the world and sociality, pressing us into our bodies, aging and decline gives us a new sense of self or identity.

In the final essay of his short book, Améry frames this dialectic using the language of ‘death in the midst of life’. In aging and old age, ‘death is already in us, making room for equivocation and contradiction. We become I and not-I. We possess an ego enclosed in our skin and may at the same time find out that the limits always were fluid and stayed that way. We become more alienated from ourselves and more familiar with ourselves…Day and night cancel each other out in twilight.’[2] The presence and anticipation of death in the very midst of our aging and decline simultaneously forms and fragments us at the deepest level.

 

Aging and Technology

What is at stake with Améry’s complex account of aging and its implications? How do some of Améry’s insights help us better negotiate the use and impact of technology for responding to aging and its effects? Here I will simply make three observations that draw upon the preceding discussion.

First, as we have seen, Améry draws attention to ways in which aging and old age is integral to how we experience both space and time. Among other things, he draws attention to how memory and accumulated time emerge only through the progressive loss of space and access to the world. This is how memories and past experiences become substantial and central for who we are. At the very least, Améry’s analysis implies that ongoing attempts to use technology to radically forestall and mitigate aging are on some level misguided. Could we still have experience and memory, at least of the kinds that are deeply formative and substantial, without the corresponding loss of space and accumulation of time which occurs through aging and bodily decline?

Second, appeals to technology in response to aging and its effect tend to promote and presuppose an understanding of the body as something significantly at our disposal, that is, as something over which we can and should exert a high level of control. For Améry, by contrast, the body emerges as my body in its very intransience, precisely in its failure to mediate the world and others. The body becomes fully mine only through pain and suffering, and perhaps especially in kinds of suffering that we resist or did not choose. Once again, this ambivalence challenges straightforward assumptions that the body is something available to us, that is, something that can be straightforwardly manipulated and managed through technical and technological means.

Finally, this ambivalence is captured by Améry’s language of ‘death in the midst of life’. Following Améry, aging and the realities of aging disclose death’s presence in life, in ways that both continually enframe and elude us. Indeed, the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer has elsewhere drawn attention to this same ambivalence and dialectic: ‘we cannot get beyond our death, our loneliness, and our desire with our utopias—they all belong inextricably to the cursed Earth. But in fact we are not supposed to get beyond them at all.’ For both Bonhoeffer and Améry, living and dying are intertwined in ways that we can never fully separate out. And this is perhaps especially the case in aging and the final stages of life. Insofar as appeals to technology fail to recognise this ambivalence—that is, by more straightforwardly pursuing and promoting living over against dying—they once again fail to recognise what human beings concretely are; such appeals fail to recognise the messiness and complexity of human beings and identity as disclosed through aging.

[1] (34-35, Quoted in Hamilton, p.308).

[2] Améry, 52.


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