Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

The Mirror Gets Even: The Role of the Mirror in Discourses of Ageing

Alison Neilson.

Western discourses of age, from popular culture to critical age studies texts, repeatedly evoke the mirror as metaphor of recognition. Reportedly serving as a self-regulatory tool for the ageing individual, the solipsistic mirror image drives home the discordance between the internal notions of a youthful self and the external appearance of senescence; the image in the mirror fragments rather than unifies the self within old age. The recursive structure of much of this age discourse results in a theoretical impasse. The mirror has become more than a means through which we can mark the physical messages of ageing, it has now taken on a role separate from that of merely register of the body’s degeneration; the looking glass is presented as holding an oracle-like position in relation to ageing; it has become an envoy of truth – and not just in relation to physical changes but also to what those transformations suggest about the self.
However, lacking any historical contingency, the mirror as metaphor of recognition is left as a timeless construct. Through placing the mirror within a temporal structure, this paper suggests that the literary, and in particular poetry, captures the mirror’s multiplicity of meaning, and the ageing subjectivities experienced, through its ability to mediate between the subjective, social, political and ideological. It offers a choice of gazes, thereby challenging and diffusing the threat of the mirror within old age.


Alison Neilson  (United Kingdom)
Phd Student
Centre for Women's Studies
University of York

Ali Neilson is studying for her PhD at the Centre for Women's Studies, University of York. Although still wrinkle-free at twenty-five, her research focuses upon discourses of ageing within contemporary culture, fiction and theory.

  • Ageing
  • Discourse
  • Mirrors
  • Metaphors of recognition

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)