The Elderly as Social Relics

Beth Cloughton

In fraught political times, we often recite the past in order to improve the future. Bodies are one way of navigating such struggles, as well as being sites of physical, political and social manipulation. Age is one way of coming to understand life as a linear trajectory, as something that consists, in part, of moments of the past. This concept can often project certain bodies as irrelevant to the present, and in turn, denies the historical build-up of culture and systems of knowledge. The elderly, for example, are subjectivities of particular periods, acting as relics of former pasts who inhabit affects and memories, and serve to haunt the current present. Avery Gordon, Professor of Sociology at the University of California, asks whether hauntings, both as a concept and as something physically felt, can lead to a clearer view of historically embedded institutions, particularly when examined through the category of ‘the elderly’. The elderly – in this piece, consisting of western peoples – are able to haunt, not as spectres or ghosts, but as social relics who can come to articulate experiences. They ultimately form relationships between institutions and individuals, subjects and histories, and challenges us to think past the elderly as an outdated group. 

The fragile and transparent-like hauntings of the elderly symbolise lingering and apparent troubles in society. The elderly as identity-category emphasises conscious self-reflection in order to recognize how they inform our present, and also shape our future. Elderly relics are haunting because they contain within their physicality the inherent quality of existing both immediately, and having been incorporated into a time that is removed from immediacy. Of course, the consequences of the past are still felt and unwinding, but the hauntings of the elderly, taking the form of oral narratives, physical markers and political landscapes, allow the previous layer of cultural creation, upon which we now exist, to be more instantly felt and engaged with; it is how we interact with the world. The relic haunting is a reminder about an epoch familiar yet removed from the present. The physicality of time displayed by the bodies of the elderly makes them relics with social power over narratives of the past, and therefore with the power to ‘haunt’ the present through their influence.

The nature of the self is enmeshed with memory, an emotional and experiential narrative that is engaged with and navigated to make the self part of an intelligible history. The history is not exactly linear, however. The elderly have borne witness to events throughout time, but their accounts are not distinctly historical. Memory, which informs the self, is partly distinct from history, and the elderly should be conceptualised not exclusively as an historical relic of the past, but also of the present. For instance, the elderly as a relic can be cast as a site of agency and as a reminder of movement and passage. The human relics of contemporary society have lived through some of the most radical social and political changes of the last two centuries, and are arguably still able to control the futures of others through their living of the past. Take Brexit: the majority of elderly people voted out whilst living through the ‘golden age’ of the EU, reaping the benefits of open travel, funding, and high employment. The relics of the past haunt the present to manipulate the future, and this serves to highlight the structures of political institutions and social ideologies. 

The memories of the human relics are screens rather than accounts, and are impressed by fantastical ideas and beliefs. Relics are manifestations of these fantastical memories which become a negotiated practice instead of a verbatim recollection. Memory, and thus the selves of the elderly, become objects as well as subjects of appropriation and politicisation. Relics then, make up the political institutions and ideologies of ephemeral borders like the nation-state, and become what Gordon (1997) would describe as a spectral presence in contemporary society and its construction. The elderly act as the ultimate point of recent history, in how they come to create and support certain values, the huge chasm between pension funds and welfare funds, and in what they want the future to be dictated as.

For Gordon (1997), haunting mediates between individuals, institutions, and belief systems. It is a process that links histories, the trajectories of recalling the past, to the relics of the everyday. The elderly of the western world inhabit a position of authority in narratives of the past, which serve to inform futures in neither absolute terms of goodness or evil. Relics then, are not abstract, nor do they exist in a vacuum. Rather, regardless of form or physicality, relics are still active in shaping memories, narratives, histories, and structures of the present.

Beth Cloughton is a Social Anthropology Graduate from Trinity College. She was the founder of the college's first Feminist Society, and is currently a research assistant at Gender and Mine Action Programme in Geneva.


Gordon, A., 1997, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. University of Minnesota Press, 2nd Edition.