Sunteți pe pagina 1din 6

Woods 1

Jeff Woods
Ruth Goldstein
Anthropology 162
The Experiment
As I grip the hypodermic athame between my right thumb and forefingers, and hold it to
my left palm, I note the trembling in my fingertips, the twitches in my wrist. As I tunnel my
vision onto the gentle intersection of needle-point and life-line, I am reminded of similar
motions, the same tensions and unsteadiness that obstructed my hands through so many early
dissections. Just over two years ago, I anesthetized my first batch of fruit flies, and tore into their
sleeping abdomens to divine a cellular fate out from their entrails. My hands shook then, but not
from fear, or worry, or guilt. Quite simply, I had not yet trained my muscles to steady the
anesthetizing needle and the forceps.
The twitches then were mechanical, not emotional. I would liken that feeling to the first
time I held a pencil as a child, or a fencing blade as an adolescent. I remember how long it took
to build those muscle memories. Mental images resurface of letters mis-scrawled between lines
and wall targets missed by an errant, unconscious flick of the wrist. Embarrassment over these
motor control mistakes, and excitement over their eventual mastery came after the fact, and they
flood me now in this irrelevant time and place.
Now, as I prepare to stab through a veil of experience, to become an honorary member of
the House of the Fly, my hands move uncertainly with the fully-appreciated weight of my
actions. To live, however briefly, at the other end of the forceps will be a thoroughly
overwhelming experience, my hands now shake as I shrink from the enormity of the shift. I am
given over to a customary fear of change, an automatic fear of pain, and an irrational fear of
retribution. These are anxious emotions for sure; they are conceived in an inaudible monologue,
then they flow through my chest and arm until they find a home in the hesitations of my

Woods 2
palmistry. The irony is grim and sours my stomach, but I breathe deeply and shift my focus onto
the pure sensations.
The stainless steel point on the surface of the center of my hand is cold for only a
moment: it warms quickly to the touch. As I stroke it down the longest groove on my hand, I
note how different of a sensation the scratch of a tiny metal point is from a finger or a fingernail
dragged along the same axis. I inhale one more easy breathe and plunge the needle into the vein.
The tickling gives way to pain, the briefest kind. Then comes the aching kind. Even after Ive
looked away, the stabbing is instantly recognizable as distinct from a touch, a poke, or even the
strongest of jabs that doesnt break skin. In a body borrowed from my insect cousin, would I
register this difference? I know this feeling as pain but I also know this feeling as suffering, for it
is not just displeasurable, it is bad. It reminds me of miserable experiences, and alerts me to be
wary of danger, as it does in some way for all nociceptive creatures. But my dimension of
sentience affords a heavier mix of foreboding and reflection to amplify its effects, or so Ive been
taught. And then the anesthesia kicks in, and it is nothing at all.
As my eyelids droop, I give a last glance at the chamber holding my tiny next-of-kin in
place, hoping it will not be too shocking of an enclosure for me/him to wake up in. The carefully
assembled contraption is a beaker containing a pipe of gaseous anesthetic primed to stop its flow
as soon as the consciousness transfer is complete. His own athame is a needle tipped with liquid
anesthetic that will cause him some pain and take him under to complete the consciousness
circuit when he steps onto a resinated sensor, baited by a bit of rotten banana. It is a cruel trick,
but Im really hoping we wont mind the brief, intense discomfort it causes before I return to this
body with lessons learned about sensation, fearlessness, and invulnerability.
Before I am completely under, I say the magic words.

Woods 3
I wake and I smell Distress in all directions and I feel solid ground under six legs and I see
mosaic of glass and steel and plastic in all directions and I feel stillness of air on back bristles (I
smell much Distress in heavy still air) so I walk forward into moving air and I feel the air bring
rotten Fruit smell to antennae (Fruit is ahead of me I see it and I am excited) so I walk toward
Fruit and six legs are stiff and slow (I need to keep waking up to taste Fruit) so I fly to glass
away from the heavy part of the air and I wake more and I fly to Fruit and I cannot move legs
and I taste Fruit and I see steel object move very fast into side and I feel Pain and I feel Pain and
I feel Pain and I feel Pain (Pain is like Spider Bite Pain and not like Hunger Pain and not
like Heat Pain and just before now it was more than all and now it is less than all) and I feel Pain
and I feel nothing and I feel nothing and I sleep.
Of course, when I wake up again in my human self, I remember nothing from my jaunt;
his experiences are incompatible with my own. I have only the neurological data stream and a
lingering sense of change to suggest that the consciousness-transfer ritual itself was a success.
So, its back to the drawing board, to the entomology journals, grimoires, and astral projection
YouTube videos, to my whiteboard and pentagrams. I will always be ready to try another
---I wrote this short story a few hours before reading Viveiros, and I now find my
assumptions about how my own animal transformation would play out run directly counter to his
Amerindian model, in which reflexive selfhood, not material objectivity, is the potential
common ground of being (467). I structured my monologue of Drosophila melanogaster

Woods 4
experience to reflect the creatures lack of reflexive selfhood (e.g. with references only to I
never me, with a linear run-on sentence to suggest lack of episodic memory), that I assume it
to have, based on my current understanding of insect consciousness in the evolutionist
scientific mythology (Viveiros, 2004, 465; Swinderen, 2005). My shamanic narrative does
seek to reveal a maximum of intentionality or abduct a maximum of agency on behalf of the
fruit fly, but it does so as much as it can outside the realm of Viveiros universal
anthropocentrism/anthropomorphism dichotomy (Viveiros, 469).
My theoretical grounds for textually conceptualizing fruit fly life instead lie in the model
of Uexklls Tick, the de-anthropomorphizing narrative of a living being that consists entirely in
its relationship with the environment (Agamben, 2004, 47). With this kind of story, I can hint at
the radically different view of material objectivity that our insect friends interpret daily. At least
in a Western social context, I believe that Uexklls biosemiotic stories, in which an animals
very different experience of the world is objectively validated, can induce more empathy than
folklore can. We already carry enough prejudices against fellow humans that I think viewing the
humanity inherent in animals would do less to counteract our disregard for their suffering, than
would portraying their alien consciousnesses with a greater degree of respect and complexity.
It was never my intention to find the human in the fly, but to note our primordial
commonalities and differences, particularly in our responses to pain. I invented a sort of mad
science occult ritual for the setting of my shamanic journey, with the modern medical implement
of an intravenously anesthetizing needle taking the place of an athame (ritual knife) to catalyze
the shift between human and non-human worlds (see Ellis, 2015 for inspiration of this occult
terminology). The focus on a pain-causing / pain-reducing tool, manipulated consciously by my
shaman self, and unconsciously by my insect self, lets me investigate the classic proposal of

Woods 5
animal agency: Jeremy Benthams remarks that the rights of sentience should be formulated not
with the question of Can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer? (Bentham,
1838, 143). As our scientific understanding of insect intelligence and invertebrate nociception
(pain response) grows, the Benthamian notion of suffering-based sentience falls more squarely
into obsolescence with each new study (Im, 2012). As a fly, I imagine an experience of pain with
an ambiguous amount of suffering, for I speculate that the insect can consciously connect current
pain with past pain (see italicized parenthetical text for a representation of the flys higher
cognition), but unlike a suffering mammal, this connection provokes no survival-oriented
emotional response. If this model is correct, as some insect behaviorists contend, then is a fly
only partly sentient (Eiseman, 1980)? Heres where the language of categorizing animal
consciousness breaks down into the anthropocentric conjecture that it truly is.
I am far too wary of the limits of my human, Western positivist scientific spyglass to
suggest that any perspectival turnaround can aid an ontological shift in our view of non-human
animals. Rather, as in my Taxonomy project, Im more interested in pointing out the arbitrary
metrics with which we define aspects of animality, and celebrating the courageous folly of trying
to improve their accuracy. Investigations into the life of a creature that is both more and less
robotic than we regularly credit it, the fruit fly, which can been seen to avoid painful stimulus
instinctively, if not self-reflexively (which is to say without suffering as a motivator), can disrupt
the dichotomy of senseless objects / sensate animals, without resorting to personifying objects or
animals (Tracey, 2003). But, these investigations are forever limited by our inability to breach
the trans-species communication barrier (indicated in the story by a memory block from my
shamanic trip), no matter what flavor of (post-)humanism we throw at the almost-scientific
question of How does an invertebrate experience pain? All approaches being equally (in)valid,

Woods 6
I favor the one that relies on rational measurement and skeptical speculation, but acknowledges
the social construction of the skeptics methods. My soft positivist approach to posthuman
ontology is indicated by the tongue-in-cheek syncretism between science and magic in this story.

Agamben, Giorgio. The Open: Man and Animal. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2004.
Bentham, Jeremy. The Works Of Jeremy Bentham: Now First Collected; Under The
Superintendance Of His Executor John Bowring. Ed. John Bowring. Dublin: Cumming,

Eisemann, C. H., W. K. Jorgensen, D. J. Merritt, M. J. Rice, B. W. Cribb, P. D. Webb, and
M. P. Zalucki. "Do Insects Feel Pain? A Biological View." Experientia 40.2 (1984):

Ellis, Warren, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire. Injection. Vol. 1. Berkeley: Image

Comics, 2015.
Im, Seol Hee, and Michael J. Galko. "Pokes, Sunburn, and Hot Sauce: Drosophila as an
Emerging Model for the Biology of Nociception." Developmental Dynamics 241.1

(2012): 16-26.
Swinderen, Bruno Van. "The Remote Roots of Consciousness in Fruit-fly Selective

Attention?" Bioessays 27.3 (2005): 321-30.

Tracey, W.D., R.I. Wilson, G. Laurent, and S. Benzer. "Painless, a Drosophila Gene

Essential for Nociception." Cell 113.2 (2003): 261-73.

Viveiros de Castros, Eduardo. "Exchanging Perspectives: The Transformation of Objects
into Subjects in Amerindian Ontologies." Common Knowledge 10.3 (2004): 463-84.