Butterfly Touch: rehabilitation, nature and the haptic arts in the First World War

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This paper investigates the impact of modern war on haptic sensations and rehabilitation culture aimed at healing physical and psychological wounds. It examines the haptic senses in occupational therapy and in the vocational retraining of the blind as masseurs and physiotherapists. Military patients’ creative responses to rehabilitation form a key part of the discussion, responding to the pressure to overcome painful wounds and disabilities. While much recent scholarship has focused on the re-masculinizing purpose and industrial discourse underpinning rehabilitation (either in returning to the frontline or to usefulness and economic production), this paper examines the haptic dimension of men’s handicrafts and other sensory elements within rehabilitation. It highlights the role of nature in rehabilitation and in personal responses to a war injury, through the pervasive symbol of the butterfly, found in diverse cultural arenas from therapeutic handicrafts to war memorials. It explores how nature enabled wounded soldiers to escape from the horror of industrial scale, mechanized wounding and considers whether the butterfly emblem resonated among men for its fragile beauty, which acted as a form of soft resistance to the disciplinary aspects of rehabilitation and the brutality of the war more generally. I argue that this was linked to the wider cultural effort to explain the impact of modern war on the human sensory experience through the enigmatic butterfly.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)176-203
JournalCritical Military Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 10 Jun 2019


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