Tagsubculture

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.

Let’s Stop Making Jokes About Furries While Discussing That Recent Terrorist Attack on Furries

Victoria McNally writes:

What should be an incredibly sobering and distressing bit of news for the entire geek community at large, is, due to its direct association with furries, now also becoming the butt of jokes. […] Listen, we’re all adults here—or at least, we’re supposed to be acting like adults. Forget about the fact that “furries” is such a hot Internet buzzword for just a second. Forget about how their relatively harmless kink might squick you the heck out. Can we at least agree that no one deserves to be gassed while at a convention, and that maybe now is not the time for jokes to the contrary? After all, even if you’d prefer to conveniently forget that furries are human beings who shouldn’t be subjected to physical harm for a weird thing they like, what happens the next time someone with access to a toxic agent of chemical warfare thinks a congregated group of people “deserve” it? Heck, what happens when it’s somebody who hates one of your hobbies?

Full Story: The Hairpin: Let’s Stop Making Jokes About Furries While Discussing That Recent Terrorist Attack on Furries

See also

XKCD on furries circa 2008 (which still can’t help but make a sex joke)

XKCD on furries

Juggalos, media scares, and the West Memphis Three

The Impossible Music of Black MIDI

Michael Connor writes:

… seemingly impossible music can be found today in a group of musicians who use MIDI files (which store musical notes and timings, not unlike player piano rolls) to create compositions that feature staggering numbers of notes. They’re calling this kind of music “black MIDI,” which basically means that when you look at the music in the form of standard notation, it looks like almost solid black:

Blackened notation

Blackers take these MIDI files and run them through software such as Synesthesia, which is kind of an educational version of Guitar Hero for the piano, and bills itself as “piano for everyone.” It’s kind of brilliant to imagine a novice piano player looking for some online tutorials and stumbling across, say, this video of the song Bad Apple, which reportedly includes 8.49 million separate notes.

Full Story: Rhizome: The Impossible Music of Black MIDI

More info: Impossible Music: Blacked musical notation

This reminds me, for some reason, of the old Amiga demo scene.

One Man Army: The Stormer Generation

OMAC Kirby

Ikipr outlines all the reasons he thinks Iain Spence’s prediction that the youth culture of the 00s would be dominated by so-called “Stormers” actually did come true.

It’s a good, long article defending Spence’s Sekhmet Hypothesis, which as we’ve seen here before Spence himself no longer subscribes.

Kook Science Resistance: Stormer Generation and the Aeon of Sekhmet

I recommend reading it, but I have a couple notes to make:

1) It wasn’t just the lack of Stormer culture that made Spence abandon the Sekhmet Hypothesis. It was the lack of correlating solar data.

2) I think what Ikipr is exhibiting here is… not apophenia – because the patterns more certainly are there. But there are other patterns as well. As Ikipr notes towards the end, Alex Grey’s work was tremendously popular during the 00s. There were whole psychedelic and magickal subcultures at play, from the psyhipsters seen in Arthur to the digital occultnik underground on sites like Disinfo, Irreality, Frequency 23 and Key 23/64 which eventually culminated in the meatspace EsoZone events.

Each of the movements Spence originally identified had aspects other than the ones that Spence highlighted (as Spence admitted in the comments here, and says he never said that movements like hippie and punk were mutually exclusive). The 60s counterculture wasn’t entirely peaceful. There were the Weathermen, the Black Panthers, the Hell’s Angels. The punk movement wasn’t just rage and destruction – there were animal rights and anti-war sentiments throughout. By night, ravers were about PLUR – but they experienced some nasty morning afters. And James St. James pointed out some of the darker corners of the party scene (and that’s to say nothing of the other subcultures of the 90s).

3) I’m surprised Ikipr didn’t mention Woodstock 99, though I guess the testosterone fueled violence there doesn’t quite fit with his Stormers, who are more cyber than physical.

I’m not sure what, if anything, my two notes above matter.

Documentary on Russian Criminal Tattoos Now Available Free Online

Mark of Cain, a documentary by Alix Lambert about the culture of Russian criminal tattoos, is now available for free online under a creative commons license. This documentary served as a reference for the David Cronenberg film Eastern Promises.

You can also buy it on DVD from Amazon.com. You might also be interested in Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia.

(via Brain Pickings)

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