‘Juvenescence: A Cultural History of our Age’ reviewed by Aprajita Sarcar

‘Juvenescence: A Cultural History of our Age’ by Pogue Harrison (The University of Chicago Press, 2014). 

9780226381961Juvenescence is the consciousness of being young; which can be ascribed to an individual or a civilization. Robert Pogue Harrison delves into how people, places, and moments in history, are young. The book asks how are ‘we’ as a collective growing younger as we keep growing older? He provides a semiotic reading of the contradicting postures of an ageing population. As a civilization, he argues, ‘we’ are constantly aspiring to be young. Given Harrison’s universal tone, the explorations of the four essays are surprisingly local. He impresses with his play of scale and depth. His main approaches are philosophy, poetry, history and biology, a combination, which is unique.

Harrison’s appropriation of the term, ‘neoteny,’ from the realm of evolutionary biology is ambitious. I call it appropriation because he is aware of its definition as an adult human’s resemblance to a primate foetus. He traces the broader ramifications of the idea through an Aldous Huxley story (p. 17). There are several other instances of popular culture flirting with the idea, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. A broader discussion of this would have supplemented Harrison’s discussion of neoteny – a condition that sets the human state apart in the evolutionary process, as it retains some of the crucial aspects of the foetus. In a fascinating line, Harrison summarizes his point:

Human youth, in its neotenic relay, makes possible a capacity for spiritual maturation that has no equivalent in the animal kingdom, insofar as it opens human kind up to a wide range of psychic, and not merely organic, modes of being’ (pp. 39-40).

It is with neoteny that the Anthropos is born: the man who is willing and able to transform everything around. The heightened celebration of this transformation, for the author, provides proof of man’s uneasiness to accept anything that is not transformable. Knowledge, for him (and Nietzsche) comes from this will to bring more into the realm of the familiar. Reminiscent of All that is Solid… ( see Berman 1988), Harrison shows how this human will could work towards its own destruction. This is where genius of creation has to meet the wisdom of the ages: a civilization risks becoming a relic without this dialogue. It is through the young rebel that the civilization survives. This is the key to the way juvenescence informs the world.

The strength of the book lies in the third chapter, about how three historical moments in different epochs enabled neoteny. Identifying moments that ‘possess the characteristics of a child’ in history can be a task fraught with risks of broad strokes. Harrison’s account however, cutting across boundaries of literary and historical methods, is precise, and illustrates what neoteny is. I had an issue with the sectioning of the chapters. Perhaps, due to the stylistic decision to stick to essays, some of the divisions seemed forced or contrite. Nevertheless, the book is a valuable addition to those interested in a philosophical take on our ‘age.’ It is a readable, accessible set of essays. Those interested in philosophy, poetics, literature and script-writing will find it engaging. In the sphere of medical humanities, the book is bridging the gap between biology, philosophy and cultural studies. Historians of medicine, science and demography will certainly find this rendition of neoteny, of interest. Harrison’s take on age helps elaborate on the philosophical ramifications of ageing, and its psychic imprint on culture: ‘… if our genius derives from our reluctance to grow up, our wisdom derives in turn from our heightened awareness of death’ (p. 22).

In terms of loopholes, more engagement with the non-western instances would have substantiated Harrison’s arguments for juvenescence in the western hemisphere. The author clarifies at the beginning of the essays, that it is set thoroughly within the Greco-Roman civilizations and their offspring. His story begins and ends in the western hemisphere, even as he sweeps across ‘ages.’ However, I believe this sensitivity to the limits of his explorations is what makes them ubiquitous. The moments he chooses to elaborate on are epistemic to the world. Abraham Lincoln’s interpretation of the American Constitution, considered neotenic, has huge import for race relations across the globe. In the last chapter, Harrison describes the need for pedagogy in the young and the old. Here, the case of Malala Yousafzai complements his insights on the transformative powers of juvenescence. As a teenager in Pakistan, she survived being shot by the Taliban for propagating girls’ education. Her global appeal lies in the way she disturbed the order around her to propagate education, and continues to fight that battle through her very existence.

The last theme in the book – love – is universal. Love is tied to a reflective meditation. This love is what rejuvenates the civilisation. Space for this rumination is becoming scarce. Life seems to move along and the juvenile in us, desolate and unheard, dies. Conversely, the young are not given modes to think, beyond the tools of immediate rationality. Philosophy, thereby, is integral for civilization to survive, as it offers spaces for self-reflection: childlike curiosity and debating facets of life are the ‘psychic modes of being young’ (pp. 39-40) without which even the young lose their juvenescence. These concerns guide him all along, especially in the epilogue about Americanization, wherein the public craves being young, and fetishizes it. The book is a poetic history of being young, and produces a philosophical history of age.

Harrison, thus, presents a provocative thesis on what it means to be young in a very old civilization, and conversely, holds the humane to be constantly juvenescent.

Reviewed by Aprajita Sarcar, a doctoral candidate at the department of History at Queen’s University, Canada. She is working on the small family and the city in postcolonial India.

Correspondence to Aprajita Sarcar

Works cited:

Berman, Marshall. 1988. All that is solid melts into air: The experience of modernity. New York: Penguin Books.

Harrison, Robert Pogue. 2014. Juvenescence: A cultural history of our age. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press.



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