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Reading time: clever clogs edition

In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modification – by Victoria L. Pitts

Man, I’d forgotten how much I dig sociology. I haven’t read much since my Masters and that shit is rockin. In the Flesh is Professor Pitt’s exploration of some of the motivations and socio-cultural meanings behind body modifications. With a bit of historical background and several case studies, she looks at some of the different groups of body modders and discusses the origins of their modificiations. There’s woman body modifiers who approach the art as a ritual of reclaiming a body they feel has been appropriated by abuse and diagnosis; there’s queer body modifiers who see it as a way of distancing, of establishing a boundary through the skin that embodies their sexual distinction; there’s the modern primitive modifiers, who see adopting traditional practices as a way of reconnecting with tribal impulses; and there’s the cyberpunk/medical modifiers, who embrace electronic implants and surgical alterations as a way of moving beyond the human. This is fascinating stuff: I loved exploring the different groups’ motivations and psychological interpretations of the art. The concluding chapter talks about different ways people write and rewrite their identity on their body, and the ways meaning is constantly being renegotiated and reinterpreted. Looking at the different motivations that bring people to modifications was really eye-opening to me, and I loved examining modification through the different lenses.

If you’re looking for a book of titillating piercey pictures or a book that plants its feet down and insists “everybody mods for this reason”, you’re barking up the wrong tree (and also, what the hell? barking isn’t reading. yeesh): Pitts’ book stays away from blanket assertions, acknowledging the ever-changing dynamics of the physical form as communication. A brain-feeding, eye-opening, fantastic read that encourages you to think about the way people choose to alter the communications given by their bodies.

Learned Optimism – Martin Seligman

Martin Seligman, I like the way you think. Learned Optimism takes the theory of learned helplessness and uses it to help correct negative thinking patterns that can contribute to depression. Learned helplessness is behaviour that can be taught in animals and humans: it means the individual has learned nothing they do changes outcomes, so why bother trying. (One of the best things about this book is that Seligman addresses the ethical dilemmas presented by experimenting on animals in this way. You will be pleased to hear that all animals (dogs) taught helplessness were then un-taught helplessness and rehomed following the short study.) The reason this can contribute to long-term depression is that it suppresses hope and efforts to change, lowering resistance to challenges and increasing the likelihood of surrender. Seligman does not diminish or dismiss depression: he recognises it as a serious condition that needs addressing. He proposes learned optimism as a tool for cognitive therapy to help prevent and overcome depression.

The book explains the research that Seligman and his many coworkers undertook to explore learned helplessness (and its inverse, learned optimism), and then explains how his theory of optimism and pessimism emerged from this research. For Seligman, optimism and pessimism are intrinsically linked to an individual’s narrative style. How a person explains events to themselves, even at a trivial or day-to-day level, both reflects and shapes their outlook. Seligman perceives optimism/pessimism along a trio of spectrums: how permanent an event is seen; how pervasive an event is seen; how personal an event is seen. For example, if a person misses a goal in soccer and tells themselves “I missed that goal because I suck” (or even just “I suck”), that is the trifecta of pessimism: it’s permanent (the person’s suckness is a state of being and therefore never changes), it’s pervasive (the person isn’t just bad at scoring a goal, they’re inherently bad and universally useless) and it’s personal (that person’s suckage is the sole driving factor behind not making that goal). That’s the pessimistic approach: negative events are permanent, personal, and pervasive. The optimistic approach is that a negative event is short-lived, not personal, and isolated to one area of the person’s life. The optimistic approach to missing a goal is more along the lines of “I missed that goal because the sun was in my eyes just now.” or “I missed that goal because I’m having an off afternoon” or “I missed that goal because the other team is playing really well today”. After this explanation, Seligman describes several application studies: optimism vs pessimism in health, sports, religion, politics, work, etc., explaining how the optimistic/pessimistic narrative approach effects those areas. It’s a really interesting and persuasive book.

The book wraps up with a section describing a self-directed cognitive therapy approach (which is fancy words for “self-help”) to encourage the reader to explore, question, and potentially change their own narrative style. It’s straightforward and encouraging. Another excellent part of the book is Seligman’s discussion about appropriate applications of pessimism and optimism: he reminds the reader that sometimes pessimism is healthy and sensible, and there are situations where an optimistic approach can be downright dangerous (or at least daft).

I liked this book a lot because I’m already fairly enthusiastic about cognitive therapy: it’s shown a lot of promise in the fields of mental health, trauma, and even day-to-day (i.e. non-traumatic) stress management. I’m also inclined to take stuff personally and worry a bit (like, oh, every other human being who has ever lived) and I don’t mind taking on some new skills to keep things in perspective and kick out worrying. Seligman’s book is straightforward, interesting and encouraging. If you’re not quite in the mood for self-help stuff, you can skip the last section, but the research and application studies that make up the first two-thirds of the book are well worth your time.

The Psychology of Peace: An Introduction – Rachael MacNair

MacNair’s exploration of the psychology of peace is a damn interesting read. It gives a great introduction to peace studies by exploring the causes and effects of violence and nonviolence, and then the ways in which nonviolence can be employed in conflict resolution, public policy and individual lives. There’s a lot in here I’d never thought closely about, so the whole book was pretty eye-opening. The discussion of institutionalised causes of violence are a serious and valuable reminder of how close to the surface violence is in our culture. The most valuable thing in this book for me was the chapter “Gentle Lives and Culture”. After a discussion of implementing nonviolent approaches in conflict resolution, social movements and public policy, the chapter on Gentle Lives discusses ways of bringing a peaceful/nonviolent approach to small things in your life. This resonates with me: I’ve often thought the first way you can change your world is by commitment to your ethics and being aware of the impact of your choices. The second way you can change your world is by example to others.

I hadn’t heard of the discipline of peace studies previously: it’s a relatively new field, and MacNair includes a chapter on the history of peace psychology to give you some background. An excellent chapter that touches on the different fields and historical events that contributed to the development of the studies as a discipline.

This is a book with a lot of food for the brain, a lot of useful ideas to develop and introduce to your daily thinking and approaches. I liked it a lot, yessir I did.

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