Jason Rasmussen, Soap, Video Animation, 2016.

Jason Rasmussen, Stove, Video Animation, 2016.

In the first video above, CG Soap explodes out of a virgin dispenser. Forever untouched, it exists as an icon of unattainable perfection. The dispenser, as we understand it, eventually becomes covered in the filth of unwashed hands and the soap splatters across the surface below. It is an object that requires touch to operate while it provides the absence of touch—and contagion—in the form of cleanliness.

In the second video a hand touches the knobs of an infinite stove, making absolutely sure they are off. As soon as we feel safe with one, we are presented with more and more knobs harboring a sinister uncertainty. The stove is an object that prohibits direct touch, yet requires it to operate.

Each of these objects, as well as many others, house certain inherent rituals: rituals formed around an element of fear. Soap provides purity from the invisible microbes that haunt us, while a stove harbors the potential to burn down a house.

Often times, the concepts behind objects and how we interact with them can overcome practicality. In many cases of obsessive-compulsive behavior, the concept of purity becomes separated from the function of soap; the aim of the gesture and contact with the soap is instead to create a pureness of mind, not of body. Its overuse is an irrational extension of the fear of being unclean, driven by some other underlying trauma. In one case, a boy named Zach felt he had to wash his hands at least 35 times a day, as he “always felt dirty.”[1] Fear of touch, or Haphephobia—one symptom of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)—often stems from the same overactive fear of un-cleanliness. This subversion of concept and object can be seen in a variety of behaviors.

“Most people have experienced mild forms of these concerns or behaviors, from not being able to step on the cracks in the sidewalk or humming a commercial jingle over and over, to having doubts that lead them to check twice whether the stove is off or the door is locked.”[2] Many people not diagnosed with OCD are confronted by similar anxieties. We all have our own set of fears which, culturally prescribed or not, are often dealt with through this same kind of ritual practice, that manifests in different ways. “An examination of some of the most detailed and comprehensive ethnographies reveals that cultural rituals are composed of actions and thoughts that are morphologically similar to the symptoms of OCD patients. As they are transmitted across the generations, cultural rituals probably tend to retain the ideas and actions that have the greatest psychological impact.”[3] Rituals permeate society in many ways, arising out of routines we repeat every day. Other times, they can be seen in ancient tradition maintained over generations. By adding spiritual value to the mundane, and order to chaos, ritual can operate as a natural psychological antibody to anxiety. In Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, it can be seen as a kind of psychological autoimmune disease where the ritual overshadows the anxiety it seeks to overcome. In medicine, however, ritual provides support for the placebo effect, reducing symptoms by providing a structure for belief.

Fear of disease has been the source of many rituals delivered in the hope that their powers will cure. In 1065 CE England, a woman who fell ill with Scrofula found herself covered in bluish ulcers breaking out all over her neck. One night she dreamt that she was cured by the touch of King Edward the Confessor. Later she visited his palace and was taken in. According to the legend, the king rubbed her ulcerous neck with wet hands and a few days later, worms crawled out of the ulcers and the illness was gone.[4] In early 11th century England this disease was often called the King’s Evil, today we know it as Tuberculous Cervical Lymphadenitis. This alleged cure caused by royal touch became exceedingly popular with the infected masses who began attending ceremonies of healing touch from their prevailing monarchs of the time.[5] Charles II may have touched more than 90,000 afflicted people between 1660 and 1682. As the curing touch was considered to be inherited, the successful ritual solidified the monarch’s validity as a God-given ruler.[6] This was especially fortuitous for ascending monarchs as this form of tuberculosis often heals on its own. The practice was later extended to touch coins which were said to have been touched by a monarch and therefore offered the cure if the afflicted touched the coin. It was believed that those who did not heal after the royal touch lacked sufficient faith.

Though the practice did not provide a medical antidote, many actively believed in the power of the gesture. This belief may have in fact had an impact on their health but not necessarily in the way they had hoped. This ritual can be seen as a kind of placebo that operates solely on the belief that it yields results. Studies have shown that a placebo pill has positive results, and a syringe saline injection produces even better results than a pill. Moreover, if a placebo is delivered by a doctor wearing a white coat the effect appears stronger than if he or she wears a t-shirt.[7] The more complicated a procedure is, the more successful the placebo. Some studies show that the placebo effect not only alters our attitudes about what ails us, but can even cause physical changes within the body. Simply put, the more we believe in the cure, the more it may do us good.

Ritual healing is commonly used in medicine and can be seen in practices such as acupuncture. Acupuncture involves insertion of small needles into the skin at key locations called meridians, where it is believed a kind of life-energy called Qi flows through the body. As reported by science writers Singh and Ernst, these points have not been detected as being connected to the nervous system or any system that has been seen through modern instruments.[8] As such, it has been a heavily debated form of therapy within the United States and Europe, although its practice spans centuries, dating as far back as 100 BCE. In observance of a variety of systematic reviews from sources including the Cochrane collaboration,[9] it has been seen that traditional acupuncture’s effect on the symptoms of a variety of ailments is roughly equivalent in potency to placebo acupuncture, providing only short term relief in some cases. In placebo acupuncture control trials, various alterations from traditional acupuncture were enacted on patients as a placebo. These include inserting the needles at points that are unrelated to the meridians, as well as stimulating points on the body with special needles which appear to puncture the skin, but never actually do. In many trials, it was found that patients reported positive results equally when administered both the placebo and traditional treatment. However, patients reported placebo acupuncture to produce considerably more results than a placebo pill.

Intrigued by these studies, I decided to try acupuncture myself and arranged a session with a highly recommended alternative healer and acupuncturist based out of Seattle. Though I did not have any acute symptoms, I went into it with the desire to improve my quality of sleep and reduce my daily stress. Although I had doubts, I hoped that the acupuncturist’s skill in performing the ritual might garner a functional placebo, and thus deliver magical results. The appointment started with her asking me a few questions and taking my pulse, though instead of the Western method of two fingers on one wrist, she placed three fingers on each of my wrist arteries. She explained that she was not only checking my overall heart rate, but the differences in rate at each point and their correlation to various organs and their corresponding Yin and Yang connections. Acupuncturists claim to detect and write diagnoses from 29 pulses in total.[10] From this and the information, she determined the correct positioning of the needles on my body. As I lay face up on a table, she inserted needles on the inside of my feet, my wrists and one in the center of my forehead. She then flicked and moved a few particular needles and I was surprised by the sensation of dull pain that followed, which felt as if it was coming from within myself. It was similar to the sensation of pressing on a bruise.

My skepticism for acupuncture’s ‘cure all’ capacity remains; however, I experienced the treatment as a very successful form of meditation. Though certain elements of acupuncture such as the meridians and needle insertion may not be directly involved in the healing process as they are intended, I find other elements in the practice deserve merit. After my session I pressed my acupuncturist with some of the questions that I had about the practice, and we began to talk about touch itself as a healing process. According to the acupuncturist, “Touch will always stimulates the yin qi and if somebody is being anxious, sometimes all it takes is…” She touched my wrist. “But if somebody has had physical abuse that’s going to cause anxiety, so you have to get through that.”

This raised the question, how do you treat a patient who has a negative reaction to touch, or is not fully cooperating with the procedure? She explained, “Occasionally, I’ll get a patient who is so defensive they will actually come in and pay for an appointment but they will still spend a lot of energy pushing me away … What happens is that I act official, I get them on the table, and I touch a couple points on their face; there are real meridians there, but it’s not about that. It’s about the touch, and they will soften. They actually will start crying most of the time, because no one has touched them there.”

Healing practices such as acupuncture are highly debated by empirically-inclined physicians and scientists, often placed in the same context as ancient ritual and royal magic. However, the success of these alternative treatments may in part be that they provide a release from fear in the form of ritual. These touch-based rituals strengthen belief in the treatment and improve the quality of people’s lives, regardless of the placebo effect. We may very well be hardwired to form rituals and beliefs, spinning value out of mundane objects because it soothes us. So a soap dispenser may therefore be a cure-all medical device if we believe strongly enough in it, and if we can guarantee the stove is off we may be able to ward off bad luck. Perhaps there can be a healthy suspension of disbelief as we make cures out of the materials we have at hand and therapies out of performance.

  1. Dulaney, Siri, and Alan Page Fiske. “Cultural Rituals and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Is There a Common Psychological Mechanism?” Ethos 22, no. 3 (1994): 243–83. doi:10.1525/eth.1994.22.3.02a00010.  ↩

  2. Ibid.  ↩

  3. Ibid.  ↩

  4. William, J. A. Giles, and John Sharpe. Chronicle of the kings of England; from the earliest period to the reign of King Stephen. London: J.G. Bohn, 1847.  ↩

  5. “Science Museum. Brought to Life: Exploring the History of Medicine.” King’s evil and the royal touch. Accessed January 10, 2017. http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/techniques/kingsevil.  ↩

  6. Werrett, Simon. “Healing the Nation’s Wounds: Royal Ritual and Experimental Philosophy in Restoration England.” History of Science 38, no. 4 (2000): 377–99. Accessed January 20, 2017. doi:10.1177/007327530003800402.  ↩

  7. Singh, Simon, and E. Ernst. Trick or treatment: the undeniable facts about alternative medicine. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008.  ↩

  8. Ibid.  ↩

  9. Green, Sally, Rachelle Buchbinder, and Sarah E. Hetrick. “Acupuncture for shoulder pain.” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, April 20, 2005. Accessed January 20, 2017. doi:10.1002/14651858.cd005319.  ↩

  10. “The 29 Pulses in Chinese Medicine (TCM) Pulse Diagnosis.” Sacred Lotus. Accessed February 07, 2017. https://www.sacredlotus.com/go/diagnosis-chinese-medicine/get/4-pillars-pulse-images-tcm-diagnosis.  ↩

Jason Rasmussen is a San Francisco-based artist whose recent work explores socio-ideological perspectives on interactive objects and the resulting actions adopted into daily life. He works with a broad range of media including sculpture, installation, robotics, web, video, and performance.