Review: Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose, by Leigh Cowart

In academic circles, we have a half-joking-but-not-really saying: “All Research Is Me-Search,” and Leigh Cowart’s new book has taken that dictum to titanic new heights and visceral, evocative depths.

Cowart is a former ballet dancer, a biologist who researched Pteronotus bats in the sweltering jungles of Costa Rica, and a self-described “high-sensation-seeking masochist.” They wrote this book to explore why they were like this, and whether their reasons matched up with those of so many other people who engage is painful activities of their own volition, whether for the pain itself, or the reward afterward. Full disclosure: Leigh is also my friend, but even if they weren’t, this book would have fascinated and engrossed me.

Hurts So Good is science journalism from a scientist-who-is-also-a-journalist, which means that the text is very careful in who and what it sources, citing its references, and indexing terms to be easily found and cross-referenced, while also bringing that data into clear, accessible focus. In that way, it has something for specialists and non-specialists, alike. But this book is also a memoir, and an interior exploration of one person’s relationship to pain, pleasure, and— not to sound too lofty about it— the whole human race.

The extraordinarily personal grounding of Hurts So Good is what allows this text to be more than merely exploitative voyeurism— though as the text describes, exploitative voyeurism might not necessarily be a deal-breaker for many of its subjects; just so long as they had control over when and how it proceeds and ends. And that is something Cowart makes sure to return to, again and again and again, turning it around to examine its nuances and infinitely fuzzy fractaled edges: The difference between pain that we instigate, pain that we can control, pain we know will end, pain that will have a reward, pain we can stop when and how we want… And pain that is enforced on us.

Cowart writes again and again that if BDSM is not consensual then it is abuse, that the forms of training done in ballet have a direct effect on disordered eating and body image issues, and that the kinds of pain which are not in our control can contribute to lasting trauma. And they also discuss how healing it can be to take back the control of pain in consensual BDSM, or the story of a ballet dancer who found themselves drawn to mixed martial arts as a way to process what was done to them in the ballet studio, and how using therapy to recognize and grapple with what has been done to us can sometimes allow us to differently understand what we want for ourselves.

There are no firm answers, in Cowart’s book. There are multiple perspectives, from neuroscientists, to the aforementioned ballerinas-turned-MMA-fighters, to ultra-marathoners, to people who compete to eat the hottest chilies in the world, to people who pierce the skin of their backs to hang suspended from hooks and bars, in public, to polar bear plungers, and more. There are overlapping feelings and descriptions in all of these people who seek to experience pain on purpose, but there is also a stunning multiplicity of backgrounds, of beliefs, of reasons to seek these avenues out, each one helping the reader to understand something more about both individual psychology and whole cultures’ relationships to pain.

Hurts So Good

[Cover image for Hurts So Good, featuring various hot peppers, handcuffs, a  sword, a whip, a snake, a hook on the end of a rope, and pointe shoes, all arranged around the words “Leigh Cowart— Hurts So Good— The Science & Culture of Pain on Purpose]

As someone who studies, among other things, the intersections of religious belief, ritual, and social life, I was absolutely fascinated by Cowart’s discussion of the role of ritual in how we experience pain and pleasure, both in the context of the preparations for dance or other sport or how competitors psych themselves up before a chili eating match or the constant call-and-response and check-in and aftercare process of a BDSM scene, but also in terms of literal religious ceremonies. Cowart discusses the flagellants of the Black Plague era, and mystics who fasted and meditated to achieve oneness with the Divine (a practice that also had clear gender-political valences, which Cowart also gets into). So one thing I’d’ve loved more of from Cowart is what other religious groups they found also use pain in a spiritual context. I know of a few, myself, including schools of Zen Buddhism, and would have loved to have them alongside Cowart’s examples, as well.

Similarly, I greatly appreciated Cowarat’s exploration of the link between the psychological, emotional, and the physical, in categorizing and inscribing pain in the bodymind. I know firsthand that graduate school and academic research is often about enduring the emotional and psychological kinds of pain, for the sake of something more coming out of it, as well as for what we believe we can achieve in that moment, and so I would have loved even a bit more in psychological and emotional veins, too.

But, of course, when writing a book, we have the time we have, and the time that Leigh Cowart took to research and write their book was well worth it.

Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose is an illuminating, joyous, deeply emotional examination of what makes pain what it is, what makes pain mean what means, and why. And what could be more fitting for one of the most intimate, personal, and universal experiences of the human species.

Hurts So Good is out now from Public Affairs and Hachette, and if you want more from Leigh, you can check out their appearance on NPr’s The 1a.

Affect and Artificial Intelligence and The Fetish Revisited

Elizabeth A Wilson’s Affect and Artificial Intelligence traces the history and development of the field of artificial intelligence (AI) in the West, from the 1950’s to the 1990’s and early 2000’s to argue that the key thing missing from all attempts to develop machine minds is a recognition of the role that affect plays in social and individual development. She directly engages many of the creators of the field of AI within their own lived historical context and uses Bruno Latour, Freudian Psychoanalysis, Alan Turning’s AI and computational theory, gender studies,cybernetics, Silvan Tomkins’ affect theory, and tools from STS to make her point. Using historical examples of embodied robots and programs, as well as some key instances in which social interactions caused rifts in the field,Wilson argues that crucial among all missing affects is shame, which functions from the social to the individual, and vice versa.

[Cover to Elizabeth A Wilson’s Affect and Artificial Intelligence]

J.Lorand Matory’s The Fetish Revisited looks at a particular section of the history of European-Atlantic and Afro-Atlantic conceptual engagement, namely the place where Afro-Atlantic religious and spiritual practices were taken up and repackaged by white German men. Matory demonstrates that Marx and Freud took the notion of the Fetish and repurposed its meaning and intent, further arguing that this is a product of the both of the positionality of both of these men in their historical and social contexts. Both Marx and Freud, Matory says, Jewish men of potentially-indeterminate ethnicity who could have been read as “mulatto,” and whose work was designed to place them in the good graces of the white supremacist, or at least dominantly hierarchical power structure in which they lived.

Matory combines historiography,anthropology, ethnography, oral history, critical engagement Marxist and Freudian theory and, religious studies, and personal memoir to show that the Fetish is mutually a constituting category, one rendered out of the intersection of individuals, groups, places, needs, and objects. Further, he argues, by trying to use the fetish to mark out a category of “primitive savagery,” both Freud and Marx actually succeeded in making fetishes of their own theoretical frameworks, both in the original sense, and their own pejorative senses.
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Criptiques and A Dying Colonialism

Caitlin Wood’s 2014 edited volume Criptiques consists of 25 articles, essays, poems, songs, or stories, primarily in the first person, all of which are written from disabled people’s perspectives. Both the titles and the content are meant to be provocative and challenging to the reader, and especially if that reader is not, themselves, disabled. As editor Caitlin Wood puts it in the introduction, Criptiques is “a daring space,” designed to allow disabled people to create and inhabit their own feelings and expressions of their lived experiences. As such, there’s no single methodology or style, here, and many of the perspectives contrast or even conflict with each other in their intentions and recommendations.

The 1965 translation of Frantz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism, on the other hand, is a single coherent text exploring the clinical psychological and sociological implications of the Algerian Revolution. Fanon uses soldiers’ first person accounts, as well as his own psychological and medical training, to explore the impact of the war and its tactics on the individual psychologies, the familial relationships, and the social dynamics of the Algerian people, arguing that the damage and horrors of war and colonialism have placed the Algerians and the French in a new relational mode.

[Image: A copy of the 1961 paperback edition of Frantz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism, featuring a sea of dark-skinned people with upraised hands, coloured in diagonal bands of orange, red, and magenta.]

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Selfhood, Coloniality, African-Atlantic Religion, and Interrelational Cutlure

In Ras Michael Brown’s African-Atlantic Cultures and the South Carolina Lowcountry Brown wants to talk about the history of the cultural and spiritual practices of African descendants in the American south. To do this, he traces discusses the transport of central, western, and west-central African captives to South Carolina in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,finally, lightly touching on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Brown explores how these African peoples brought, maintained, and transmitted their understandings of spiritual relationships between the physical land of the living and the spiritual land of the dead, and from there how the notions of the African simbi spirits translated through a particular region of South Carolina.

In Kelly Oliver’s The Colonization of Psychic Space­, she constructs and argues for a new theory of subjectivity and individuation—one predicated on a radical forgiveness born of interrelationality and reconciliation between self and culture. Oliver argues that we have neglected to fully explore exactly how sublimation functions in the creation of the self,saying that oppression leads to a unique form of alienation which never fully allows the oppressed to learn to sublimate—to translate their bodily impulses into articulated modes of communication—and so they cannot become a full individual, only ever struggling against their place in society, never fully reconciling with it.

These works are very different, so obviously, to achieve their goals, Brown and Oliver lean on distinct tools,methodologies, and sources. Brown focuses on the techniques of religious studies as he examines a religious history: historiography, anthropology, sociology, and linguistic and narrative analysis. He explores the written records and first person accounts of enslaved peoples and their captors, as well as the contextualizing historical documents of Black liberation theorists who were contemporary to the time frame he discusses. Oliver’s project is one of social psychology, and she explores it through the lenses of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis,social construction theory, Hegelian dialectic, and the works of Franz Fanon. She is looking to build psycho-social analysis that takes both the social and the individual into account, fundamentally asking the question “How do we belong to the social as singular?”
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Cyborg Theology and An Anthropology of Robots and AI

Scott Midson’s Cyborg Theology and Kathleen Richardson’s An Anthropology of Robots and AI both trace histories of technology and human-machine interactions, and both make use of fictional narratives as well as other theoretical techniques. The goal of Midson’s book is to put forward a new understanding of what it means to be human, an understanding to supplant the myth of a perfect “Edenic” state and the various disciplines’ dichotomous oppositions of “human” and “other.” This new understanding, Midson says, exists at the intersection of technological, theological, and ecological contexts,and he argues that an understanding of the conceptual category of the cyborg can allow us to understand this assemblage in a new way.

That is, all of the categories of “human,” “animal,” “technological,” “natural,” and more are far more porous than people tend to admit and their boundaries should be challenged; this understanding of the cyborg gives us the tools to do so. Richardson, on the other hand, seeks to argue that what it means to be human has been devalued by the drive to render human capacities and likenesses into machines, and that this drive arises from the male-dominated and otherwise socialized spaces in which these systems are created. The more we elide the distinction between the human and the machine, the more we will harm human beings and human relationships.

Midson’s training is in theology and religious studies, and so it’s no real surprise that he primarily uses theological exegesis (and specifically an exegesis of Genesis creation stories), but he also deploys the tools of cyborg anthropology (specifically Donna Haraway’s 1991 work on cyborgs), sociology, anthropology, and comparative religious studies. He engages in interdisciplinary narrative analysis and comparison,exploring the themes from several pieces of speculative fiction media and the writings of multiple theorists from several disciplines.

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Bodyminds, Self-Transformations, and Situated Selfhood

Back in the spring, I read and did a critical comparative analysis on both Cressida J. Heyes’ Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies, and Dr. Sami Schalk’s BODYMINDS REIMAGINED: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction. Each of these texts aims to explore conceptions of modes of embodied being, and the ways the exterior pressure of societal norms impacts what are seen as “normal” or “acceptable” bodies.

For Heyes, that exploration takes the form of three case studies: The hermeneutics of transgender individuals, especially trans women; the “Askeses” (self-discipline practices) of organized weight loss dieting programs; and “Attempts to represent the subjectivity of cosmetic surgery patients.” Schalk’s site of interrogation is Black women speculative fiction authors and the ways in which their writing illuminates new understandings of race, gender, and what Schalk terms “(dis)ability.

Both Heyes and Schalk focus on popular culture and they both center gender as a valence of investigation because the embodied experience of women in western society is the crux point for multiple intersecting pressures.

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Colonialism and the Technologized Other

One of the things I’m did this past spring was an independent study—a vehicle by which to move through my dissertation’s tentative bibliography, at a pace of around two books at time, every two weeks, and to write short comparative analyses of the texts. These books covered intersections of philosophy, psychology, theology, machine consciousness, and Afro-Atlantic magico-religious traditions, I thought my reviews might be of interest, here.

My first two books in this process were Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and David J. Gunkel’s The Machine Question, and while I didn’t initially have plans for the texts to thematically link, the first foray made it pretty clear that patterns would emerge whether I consciously intended or not.

[Image of a careworn copy of Frantz Fanon’s BLACK SKIN, WHITE MASKS, showing a full-on image of a Black man’s face wearing a white anonymizing eye-mask.]

In choosing both Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and Gunkel’s The Machine Question, I was initially worried that they would have very little to say to each other; however, on reading the texts, I instead found myself struck by how firmly the notions of otherness and alterity were entrenched throughout both. Each author, for very different reasons and from within very different contexts, explores the preconditions, the ethical implications, and a course of necessary actions to rectify the coming to be of otherness.

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Review of Nick Harkaway’s GNOMON

Last year, I was given and read Nick Harkaway’s GNOMON, and I’ve wanted to take a little time to describe to you why you should read it, if you haven’t already.

GNOMON starts with an investigator in London looking into the death of someone in the course of what should have been a routine investigation. A woman was strapped into a chair and her mind was probed with drugs and machines to learn the truth of who she was and whether she posed a threat to the city. Mielikki Neith works for The Witness—an automated algorithmic learning and surveillance system tied into a systema dn series of networked devices across London’s populace, creating and enabling the ultimate democracy. Citizens are engaged and connected to the laws, status, and operations of their country, in real time, and it is through this system that Neith is assigned to the task of investigating Diana Hunter’s death.

From there, things get very strange, very fast. As the real-time recording of Hunter’s mind under interrogation unfolds in Neith’s consciousness—a tool used by Witness service to maximize transparency and understanding—Neith finds more than just Hunter’s mind: she also the life story of another. As the story unfolds, it actually doesn’t. It refolds, mountain folds, and valley folds through time and space and placeness, and that gets, ultimately, to what I want to say to you about what Nick Harkaway has done here.


[Cover of Nick Harkaway’s GNOMON]

Here are some things that are true about GNOMON:

This book is and is about magic, machine consciousness, and communities of resistance, in the weirdest ways possible.

It is exactly 666 pages long.

This book has four or five or six main threads, and it weaves all of them around and through all of them, each enveloping and enfolding each, wrapping around the outside only to then traverse it and find that you are inside of and beneath the next layer in the line.

The entire book resonates with Borges, Hofstadter, Danielewski, Butler, and LeGuin, without imitation.

Each one of these personages appears or seems to appear, but just when you think you’re sure how they’ll be seen, they are not there, like a shark fin in the ocean that becomes and always was the wave of the sea you’re swimming in and then, again, or maybe never, churns and is the shark: No less deeply and immediately important for the reminder of what is in there with you, and quietly unsettling for upending what you think you know…

GNOMON is the kind of thing that you know is behaving as intended when one of the metaphors/similes/analogies you’ve decided to use to describe it shows up in it the day after you think of it.

It is almost impossible to spoil this book without telling you literally all of the events of this book, but I also don’t want to colour your intake, too much, other than to say that this book is important. There is mystery in it, and there’s art. It is a masterful thing, and if all you see is the surface plot of it, then you’ve missed the central conceit of the thing.

If you have not already done so, definitely get it, when you get a chance.


Nick Harkaway’s GNOMON is available from Penguin Books.

Pieces on Machine Consciousness

Late last month, I was at Theorizing the Web, in NYC, to moderate Panel B3, “Bot Phenomenology,” in which I was very grateful to moderate a panel of people I was very lucky to be able to bring together. Johnathan Flowers, Emma Stamm, and Robin Zebrowski were my interlocutors in a discussion about the potential nature of nonbiological phenomenology. Machine consciousness. What robots might feel.

I led them through with questions like “What do you take phenomenology to mean?” and “what do you think of the possibility of a machine having a phenomenology of its own?” We discussed different definitions of “language” and “communication” and “body,” and unfortunately didn’t have a conversation about how certain definitions of those terms mean that what would be considered language between cats would be a cat communicating via signalling to humans.

It was a really great conversation and the Live Stream video for this is here, and linked below (for now, but it may go away at some point, to be replaced by a static youtube link; when I know that that’s happened, I will update links and embeds, here).


Read the rest of Nonhuman and Nonbiological Phenomenology at A Future Worth Thinking About


Additionally,  I have another quote about the philosophical and sociopolitical implications of machine intelligence in this extremely well-written piece by K.G. Orphanides at WIRED UK. From the Article:

Williams, a specialist in the ethics and philosophy of nonhuman consciousness, argues that such systems need to be built differently to avoid a a corporate race for the best threat analysis and response algorithms which [will be] likely to [see the world as] a “zero-sum game” where only one side wins. “This is not a perspective suited to devise, for instance, a thriving flourishing life for everything on this planet, or a minimisation of violence and warfare,” he adds.

Much more about this, from many others, at the link.

Until Next Time.

Cultivating Technomoral Interrelations: A Review of Shannon Vallor’s TECHNOLOGY AND THE VIRTUES

[“Cultivating Technomoral Interrelations: A Review of Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues” was originally published in Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 64-69.
The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3US]

[Image of an eye in a light-skinned face; the iris and pupil have been replaced with a green neutral-faced emoji; by Stu Jones via CJ Sorg on Flickr / Creative Commons]

Shannon Vallor’s most recent book, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting takes a look at what she calls the “Acute Technosocial Opacity” of the 21st century, a state in which technological, societal, political, and human-definitional changes occur at such a rapid-yet-shallow pace that they block our ability to conceptualize and understand them.[1]

Vallor is one of the most publicly engaged technological ethicists of the past several years, and much of her work’s weight comes from its direct engagement with philosophy—both philosophy of technology and various virtue ethical traditions—and the community of technological development and innovation that is Silicon Valley. It’s from this immersive perspective that Vallor begins her work in Virtues.

Vallor contends that we need a new way of understanding the projects of human flourishing and seeking the good life, and understanding which can help us reexamine how we make and participate through and with the technoscientific innovations of our time. The project of this book, then, is to provide the tools to create this new understanding, tools which Vallor believes can be found in an examination and synthesis of the world’s three leading Virtue Ethical Traditions: Aristotelian ethics, Confucian Ethics, and Buddhism.

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