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Fly in the Ointment - Using a fly to simulate human touch

by Christine Petrides

Humanities Piece: Fly in the Ointment

In this short film, Peter Collins, a prisoner in a Canadian correctional facility for over 30 years, reflects on his experience in solitary confinement and the relationship he developed with a fly and ultimately many flies.

As he describes his experience in solitary confinement, Collins, yearning for the touch of his wife, to be held, to feel loved, is highlighted. As I listened to him describing these events and experiences I noticed how so much of our touch sensations are filtered and mixed with other senses. Interestingly, Aristotle believed that all of our senses were being touched in a way (or have some kind of tactility): light through the optic nerve, sound through the tympanum, smell through the nerves in the nose, taste through receptors on the tongue.

You can see this mixing with sentences like:

“smashing echoes of sound”,

“deliciously pleasurable dreams”, and

“cool dark sleep”

Collins says for him simulated human touch is better than none. The touch sensation gave him an escape. A way to wander into another reality and live there for awhile instead of where he really was. He talks about it all so coolly and it felt so unsettling to me. I can’t imagine being so cut off, so isolated, so withdrawn from the world around me. The image he gives of the porous razor wired roof in the “yard” was like an analogy for the skin, the “porous skin” as described in the first paper (Kearny 2020). It made me think of the prison as a sort of second skin, a barrier/medium tempering what he could and could not sense - keeping him disconnected from the world. What is so interesting about this is his way of (albeit temporarily) overcoming this barrier. It gives me wonder and awe as well as confusion about what it is we really experience when we are sensing. On the one hand I see him using his perception, imagination, and cognitive abilities to bring him to this other place, and on the other hand I wonder how it is that we can claim we ever truly sense things without these other things. There will always be perception, our prejudice, our memories, our thoughts. So is there a true sensation, a true/pure materiality of the world around us to be felt or understood?

These are some bigger questions that we can ponder over as we read the first paper of the month. It’s so interesting to learn about the ideas of philosophers from so long ago and how we are still grappling with some of the same concepts. How things swing in one direction for awhile and then they swing back. I hope you will join us for the discussion at the end of the month where we can “flesh” out (pun intended) some of these ideas together!

From the Theme Pain & Touch (October 2022)

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