Forever Young

Rejuvenation in Transnational and Transcolonial Perspective, 1900-2000


May 11-13, 2017
Conference at the GHI
Conveners: Kristine Alexander (University of Lethbridge), Mischa Honeck (GHI), Isabel Richter (University of Bremen)

The purpose of this conference is to advance scholarship on various historical strands of rejuvenation that are often examined separately. As the pursuit of youth acquired an unprecedented urgency in the first decades of the twentieth century, the imperative to conquer old age began to penetrate nearly every facet of the modern condition, bridging the spheres of medicine, commerce, the arts, popular culture, alternative lifestyles, and politics. Scientists and health reformers witnessing a rise in life expectancy in industrial societies held out the promise of longevity by promoting physical education as well as by peddling anti-aging therapeutics, macrobiotic diets, and cosmetic surgical procedures that were gaining in popularity. The entertainment and advertisement industries emphasized youthful figures, appealing to consumers’ desires to stop or even revert the aging process. Art movements such as Dadaism, Futurism, and Surrealism celebrated youthful innovation and castigated the staleness and degeneracy of traditional bourgeois culture. Burgeoning youth organizations offered spaces of intergenerational bonding for adults wanting to return to the freedom and innocence associated with childhood. As early as the 1910s but even more vehemently after World War I, the allure of rejuvenation extended into the political arena, where the language and appearance of youthfulness became wedded to ideologically disparate projects of revolution, national rebirth, anticolonial liberation, and postwar reconstruction. The youth craze continued to thrive in the second half of the twentieth century as the popularization of the “midlife crisis” and other age-related concepts gave rise to new technologies of (self)-regeneration that glorified the fit and unaging body.

The conference pursues three broad aims. First, it seeks to tease out unrecognized connections within a growing body of literature that explores how conceptions of youth and old age are socially constructed and shaped by cultural perceptions of what it means to be “young”, “mature”, and “old” – to name a few age-specific attributes – that are in constant flux and vary across time and space. Second, it seeks to insert age as a category of social, cultural, and historical analysis into fields of research (e.g. economics, politics, international relations) where questions of youth, aging, and rejuvenation are rarely studied systematically. Age, as it intersected with other variables such as class, gender, sexuality, region, race, and religion, needs to be taken seriously as a mechanism of social and political demarcation that grafted distinctions between old and young onto complex struggles for power, privilege, and belonging. Third, contrary to most scholars who focus on social constructions of age in advanced industrial societies, this conference wants to critically engage the tacit assumption that the “war on aging” was primarily a Western phenomenon. A combined transnational and transcolonial approach, thus, appears particularly suited to appreciate rejuvenation as a historically contested and politicized dialectic.

The conference will consist of six panels structured around the following topics: Theoretical Approaches; Rejuvenation in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences; Rejuvenating Bodies; The Commodification of Youth; Remaking Old Age; and The Politics of Rejuvenation. Each panel includes two presentations followed by an expert commentary. Individual papers will explore scientific and artistic concepts rejuvenation; anti-aging therapeutics and cosmetic surgery; the business of marketing, selling, and consuming youth; youth organizations and the rejuvenation of individual, national, and international bodies; rejuvenation in fascist, communist, and anticolonial political thought and practice; and age discrimination and the invention of “ageism”. A keynote lecture will make the themes of the conference available to a wider public.