Category Archives: Book Reviews

For Your Consideration: Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow

61Hx4oueqcLThis summer I read Thomas Pynchon’s legendary, post-modern novel Gravity’s Rainbow. Published in 1973, the novel takes place during the latter part of WWII, beginning in London and eventually traversing the European (and occasionally other) landscapes. Pynchon’s work is of such a non-traditional nature that describing a plot is a preposterous attempt; but the novel’s linchpin is the Germans’ rumoured Rocket 00000, and the hitherto unknown power and destruction it may contain. Gravity’s Rainbow is replete with characters and circumstances pertinent to those interested in the history of science, particularly psychology. Though the author attends to and obsesses over the esoteric verbiage and theories of physics, engineering, and espionage, Pynchon devotes a considerable amount of his novel (and the characters therein) to matters related to Psychology. Indeed the main character, Tyrone Slothrop, is at the forefront of this novel due to his intimate physiological and psychological connection with Rocket 00000 (and the Schwarzgerät [AKA ‘black device’] within it). This conditioned connection was wrought when Tyrone was a neonate—the experimental situations of such reflexive conditioning emphasizing Pavolvian theory, while echoing the setting of Watson and Rayner’s Little Albert experiments. An entire club of scientists in this book revere Pavlov as a demigod, and rotate their lone copy of his Lectures on Conditioned Reflexes, simply referring to it as ‘The Book’.

infanttyronePynchon also includes scenes of the supposedly supernatural, where the faithful and the skeptical alike attend séances. These scenes mirror Psychology’s early history of actively debunking supernatural occurrences, unmasking the deceptive charlatans; concurrently there are other organizations, such as the Psi Section(s), that are professionally interested in the parapsychological for potential military and espionage tactics. Other characters and scenes concentrate on statistics and probability, and their predictive utility in the unpredictable chaos of war (with a particular focus on the Poisson Distribution). Many of these scenes recall the involvements of psychologists in military and government matters, and shines a light on their bizarre and variegated positions within the national and transnational bureaucratic machines of WWII.

Pynchon-simpsonsThese are a smattering of how the history of Psychology makes it way into Gravity’s Rainbow, and Pynchon develops the complex ramifications of these new theories and technologies for his seemingly endless assemblage of characters. These examples related to the history of psychology are ensconced within a fictional world that reflects the consequences of our scientific and technological progress: the fragmentation and disorganization of our selves and our societies that result from our systems of unification and organization. Tyrone Slothtrop’s continually evolving and confused selves, his nomadic lifestyle leading to places that are in constant destruction and reconstruction, and Pynchon’s own ceaseless change in narrative genre, tone, and syntax, illustrate the dizzying fragmentation-reorganization cycle that revolves more quickly the further we progress in our sciences and technologies. This book is Pynchon’s attempt at capturing the impossibly convoluted state of our post-WWII and post-modern lives.

Though Gravity’s Rainbow encompasses much more than only issues related to disciplinary Psychology, I would still like to recommend it as an excellent source of interest, inspiration, bewilderment, and discussion for anyone interested in the history of Psychology.

Buy it here.

Page-by-page annotations here.

Page-by-page artwork by Zak Smith here.

Learn more about Pynchon here, here, and here.

 

Share on Facebook

More HOP Graphic Novels: It’s Harry Harlow’s Turn

Cover of Wire Mothers

AHP has previously posted on the relationship between graphic novels and the history of psychology – in terms of psychology’s interactions with the reading of comics, the lie detector-Wonder Woman link, and the ways its history has periodically found its way into the stories themselves (see Freud’s appearance as a superhero and the Kitty Genovese connection to the Watchmen character Rorschach). Thanks to the newly downloaded comiXology app on my iPad, I have another recommendation for AHP readers: “Wire Mothers: Harry Harlow and the Science of Love“.

Created in 2007 by Jim Ottaviani and Dylan Meconis for G.T. Labs, the novel – as the title makes clear – focuses on the work of psychologist Harry Harlow. It was released as a part of G.T. Labs’ “science of the unscientific” series (bear with me for a bit here) as a companion to “Levitation: Physics and Psychology in the Service of Deception” (which I’ve only just started to read so perhaps more in a future post?).

Although “Wire Mothers” highlights several aspects of Harlow’s career and alludes to the work of Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner, the bulk of the story focuses on Harlow’s best known work with infant rhesus monkeys beginning in the late 1950s. These studies included questions related to the fear responses of these animals (see some original footage), the effects of contact comfort (see The Nature of Love), and the effects of social isolation (see Total Isolation in Monkeys). The authors also seem to capture a fair characterization of Harlow himself.

Overall, the project is well done – ex. the wire and cloth “mothers” will be easily recognizable to Historians of Psychology – and even concludes with a two page list of recommended primary and secondary source readings. This could be a great way to introduce our students to the topic – or perhaps just a fun read this summer when you want to goof off but still feel productive.

 

Share on Facebook

Interview: Lamont on Extraordinary Beliefs

As recently announced on AHP, a new book by historian of psychology, and magician, Peter Lamont has just been released. AHP had the pleasure of interviewing Lamont about his new book: Extraordinary Beliefs: A Historical Approach to a Psychological ProblemThe full interview follows below.

AHP: How did you become interested in the history of extraordinary beliefs and the role of psychologists in supporting and challenging the existence of extraordinary phenomena?

PL: Well, I used to be a magician (but I’m alright now). As a history student, I funded my studies by working as a close-up magician. Later, I joined the Koestler Parapsychology Unit, based within the Psychology department, to work on the psychology of magic. Since then, I’ve combined my interests in history, magic and the paranormal, and since I now work as a historian in a Psychology department, it seemed only polite to discuss the role of psychologists in all this.

AHP: It seems as though psychologists have been investigating extraordinary phenomena – including mesmeric, spiritualist, psychic, and paranormal phenomena – since the very beginning of scientific psychology. Why did the discipline take such an early interest in the extraordinary?

PL: One reason, as others have long pointed out, is boundary-work. Psychical Research was an ideal Other by which scientific psychologists could construct their own scientific credentials and worth. But the same arguments were going on well before the birth of the academic discipline, and I think it makes more sense to see this as something with wider relevance, as an opportunity for people (including psychologists, because psychologists are people too) to construct their own expertise and worth. Continue reading

Share on Facebook

Review: The Science of Deception

Michael Pettit’s The Science of Deception: Psychology and Commerce in America is the story of how a particular kind of psychological self emerged in the twentieth century. Focusing on what he terms the deceivable and deceitful selves, Pettit traces how a self understanding rooted in the capacity to deceive and be deceived came to play an important role in both the practice of psychology and in the world of commerce. In doing so, two questions drive the narrative: “How did psychology take root in a culture fascinated by robber barons and confidence men, national brands and their counterfeit, yellow journalism and muckraking exposés?” and “How did the growing presence of psychology on the American cultural landscape transform these concerns about deception?” (p. 7). This is the story of how the mutually reinforcing worlds of the market place and psychology came to craft our current understanding of individuals as both deceivable and deceitful. In the process, Pettit argues, deception has been both normalized and problematized. Everyone deceives, whether themselves or others, and consequently those in the commercial, psychological, and broader social worlds take steps to guard against such deceptions.

Pettit locates the roots of the deceivable and deceitful selves in the growth of the market economy. In a world increasingly populated by swindlers, crooks, and conmen deception was all too common. With the involvement of the courts in cases involving deception, came a move from seeing victims as innocent to an understanding of victims as complicit. To be deceived one had to be in possession of a deceitful self. From here Pettit goes onto describe how deception featured in various realms of commercial and psychological life from the late-nineteenth century into the twentieth century. A psychological understandings of the self as deceivable and deceitful influenced regulatory bodies and court decisions. Although not always the psychological understanding of the self advocated by psychologists themselves, this understanding of the self as in possession of a distinct, deceptive psychology was none the less influential. Increasingly, deception came to be seen as an integral part of selfhood.

In the realm of research, those in the nascent discipline of psychology sought to police the fraudulent activities of psychics and conmen, while themselves using deceptive tools such as visual illusions. Into the twentieth century, ideas of deception continued to make themselves felt within the discipline and larger society. Here Pettit discusses the creation and dissemination of the lie detector, as well as efforts to identity honest personality traits through tools like the Honesty Index. In the latter effort, the discipline began to adopt deception as a key, and seemingly necessary, component of its methodology. To manage a world rife with deception, psychology itself adopted deceptive practices, as it began to be understood that only through deceit could the truth of the human condition be uncovered. Such practices continue in the field to this day.

For anyone interested in the growth of early American psychology, the intertwined histories of psychology and commerce, and the historical development of psychological methods The Science of Deception is an invaluable resource. Inasmuch as this book tells a history of deception, it also sheds new light on both psychology’s current disciplinary formation and the development of one of the central features of selfhood today.

Read AHP’s interview with Pettit on The Science of Deception here and a further post on the subject here.

Share on Facebook

Historicity in Psychology

History of Psychology, a periodical of division 26 of the APA, may be of interest to some AHP readers. In “Mind’s Historicity: Its hidden history,” Noemi Pizarroso discusses how a tradition in French psychology that has rarely been used outside of the French context could be of use in light of the current pleas for a historicity. The author hopes to introduce this approach to the English speaking reader through the work of Ignace Meyerson, the architect of the approach. The full abstract follows:

“Mind’s Historicity: Its hidden history”

Whereas psychological research can hardly accept the idea of a changing psychological architecture, mind’s historicity seems to be commonplace among historians of psychology, at least in recent decades. Attempts to promote a convergence between psychology and history have always existed, though mainly in the margins of both disciplines. Among these attempts, there is a tradition in French psychology that remains quite marginal even to the history of the discipline and is practically unknown out of the French context. Our goal is to introduce this approach, through the work of its main architect, Ignace Meyerson, to an English speaking reader, in the light of current pleas for historicity. Developed within the core of the discipline of psychology, though in dialogue with many others disciplines, Meyerson’s historical psychology appears to be more ambitious than other attempts, as it aims at studying psychological activity itself, beyond the history of its conceptualizations. It is concerned not with the analysis of fragmented, isolated, and mechanistic behaviors or cognitive process, but with the study of mind in its functioning through the multiple and changing fields of experience where human beings are involved.

Share on Facebook

Antievolutionism & American Social Scientists

AHP readers may be interested in an article in the most recent issue of Isis, the official journal of the History of Science Society. In “Abandoning Evolution: The Forgotten History of Antievolution Activism and the Transformation of American Social Science,” Michael Lienesch (left) describes the interaction of antievolution activists and social scientists in the first half of the twentieth century. The abstract follows below.

From its inception, antievolution activism has been aimed not only at the natural sciences but also, and almost as often, at the social sciences. Although almost entirely overlooked by scholars, this activism played a significant part in the development of American social science in the early twentieth century. Analyzing public writings and private papers of antievolution activists, academic social scientists, and university officials from the 1920s, this essay recalls this forgotten history, showing how antievolution activism contributed to the abandonment of evolutionary theory and the adoption of a set of secular, scientific, and professional characteristics that have come to define much of modern social science.

Also reviewed in this issue of Isis are the English translation of Fernando Vidal’s The Sciences of the Soul: The Early Modern Origins of Psychology (reviewed by John H. Zammito), the Psychology of Space Exploration: Contemporary Research in Historical Perspective edited by Douglas A. Vakoch (reviewed by Jordan Bimm), and Laura Stark’s Behind Closed Doors: IRBs and the Making of Ethical Research (reviewed by Susan M. Reverby).

Share on Facebook

Review of Noll’s (2011) American Madness

PsychCentral, one of the larger psych-blogging hubs, has posted a review by Margarita Tartakovsky of Richard Noll‘s (2011) American Madness: The Rise and Fall of Dementia Praecox.

In her reading of it, the book can be situated at the boundary between the history of psychiatry, the history of psychology, and the public understanding of science:

The public was introduced to dementia praecox by a 1907 piece in the New York Times that recounted the testimony in the murder trial of architect Stanford White. The superintendent of an asylum in Binghamton, N.Y. testified that the murderer, Harry Kendall Thaw, might’ve been suffering with dementia praecox.

In the late 1920s to the 1930s, dementia praecox started making its exit, replaced by Eugen Bleuler’s “schizophrenia.” At first, Noll says, these terms were used interchangeably in both clinical practice and research (which, naturally, made things very confusing). But these disorders had distinct differences.

Although he didn’t use the word, Noll—in a recent interview posted at the blog run by Harvard University Press—explained the overlap as being a consequence of schizophrenia’s “indigenization” into the American context. This then wrought changes in meaning:

By 1927 schizophrenia became the preferred term for inexplicable madness, but the Americans reframed Bleuler’s disease concept as a primarily functional or psychogenic condition that was caused by mothers or maladjustments to social reality. When Bleuler visited the United States in 1929 he was horrified to see what the Americans were calling schizophrenia. He insisted it was a physical disease with a chronic course characterized by exacerbations and remissions of hallucinations, delusions and bizarre behaviors.

This duality, of madness caught between mental condition and physical disease, also provides a connection from the mind back to medicine. Continue reading

Share on Facebook

New Issue: History of the Human Sciences

The February 2011 issue of History of the Human Sciences has been released online. Included in this issue are six all new articles, a review symposium, and a book review of Roderick Buchanan’s new book, Playing with Fire: The Controversial Career of Hans J. Eysenck. Among the topics addressed in these articles are the placebo effect in psychotherapy, the use of ‘deprivation’ in American psychiatric discourse, and the role of case studies in psychoanalysis. Full titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.

“From medicine to psychotherapy: The placebo effect,” by Stewart Justman. The abstract reads,

If placebos have been squeezed out of medicine to the point where their official place is in clinical trials designed to identify their own confounding effect, the placebo effect nevertheless thrives in psychotherapy. Not only does psychotherapy dispose of placebo effects that are less available to medicine as it becomes increasingly technological and preoccupied with body parts, but factors of the sort inhibiting the use of placebos in medicine have no equivalent in psychology. Medicine today is disturbed by the placebo effect in a way psychotherapy is not. Psychotherapy does not have to grapple with such a disconcerting paradox as successful sham surgery, and unlike those physicians who once pretended to treat the patient’s body while actually attempting to treat the mind, the psychotherapist can treat the mind in all frankness. Perhaps it is because psychotherapy is less burdened by doubts about the placebo effect that it was able to come to its aid when it was orphaned by medicine. It is vain to expect something with so long a history as the placebo effect to disappear from the practices of healing. Continue reading

Share on Facebook

Raccoons & Scientific Biography

The September 2010 issues of The British Journal for the History of Science and Isis each contain an article on the history of psychology. The former journal features an article by Michael Pettit on the history of the raccoon as a psychological research subject and why the animal failed to attain prominence in the discipline in the way of rats and pigeons. In Isis historian of science Michael Sokal uses the case of early American psychologist James McKeen Cattell to argue that scientific biography can be enhanced if one puts to use the insights derived from modern psychology. Also in this issue of Isis is a review of Alexandra Rutherford‘s book Beyond the Box: B.F. Skinner’s Technology of Behaviour from Laboratory to Life, 1950s-1970s by Jill Morawski. AHP has previously discussed Beyond the Box here, here, and here. Titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.

“The problem of raccoon intelligence in behaviourist America” by Michael Pettit. Continue reading

Share on Facebook

History of Psychology Summer Reading

The most recent issue of Isis, the journal of the History of Science Society, contains reviews of half a dozen history of psychology related books perfect for your summer reading. These include:

Roger Smith. Being Human: Historical Knowledge and the Creation of Human Nature. Reviewed by John H. Zammito.

Andrea Tone. The Age of Anxiety: A History of America’s Turbulent Affair with Tranquilizers. Reviewed by Judy Z. Segal.

David Herzberg. Happy Pills in America: From Miltown to Prozac. Reviewed by Erika Dyck.

Francesca Bordogna. William James at the Boundaries: Philosophy, Science, and the Geography of Knowledge. Reviewed by Alan Richardson.

David Paul Haney. The Americanization of Social Science: Intellectuals and Public Responsibility in the Postwar United States. Reviewed by Mark Solovey.

William H. Tucker. The Cattell Controversy: Race, Science, and Ideology. Reviewed by Christopher Green.

Share on Facebook