The Alchemy of Turning Meaning into a Physical Substance
written by Jori Sackin
(Note: This article deals with the belief of emotional residue and is written as a means to better understand it. I am not writing with the intention to hurt anyone's feeling or to disparage ideas that people closely identify with. It is merely a thought experiment which has helped me think through some of these important ideas in which we try and understand the world. I've worked hard to present these ideas as clear as possible. Please don't confuse the clarity I've tried to cultivate, with certainty.)
John owns a small hotel on the outskirts of town that he runs entirely by himself. Unfortunately there is nothing John loves more than killing people and mutilating their bodies. He hates watching people in pain though, so he devises a system where there is an air tight room in the hotel where he painlessly kills the person in their sleep by filling it with gas. The victims are not aware of their death and do not suffer in any way. Later he removes their bodies from the bedroom, takes the knives from the kitchen, goes down into the basement and mutilates the bodies in every way imaginable. After John is done, he buries them in the back yard and cleans everything up. After 10 years and countless murders, John dies in his sleep. The police come, find nothing of interest and remove John's body. The hotel is repossessed by the bank and is later sold to a couple who turns it into a swanky bed and breakfast. They remodel all the rooms in the hotel, buy new sheets and paint the walls. They decide to keep the kitchen knives though as they are immaculately taken care of and extremely expensive.
I present this scenario because I think it posses interesting questions about the mechanics of what some people call emotional residue, the belief that people's emotions leave traces in the physical environment which can later influence or be sensed by others. This is quite different than meaningful residue which would be the emotional reaction you would have knowing the story I just told you and then walking around in the hotel. Emotional residue is contingent upon you being able to sense something without any meaningful story attached.
The idea of emotional residue most likely stems from early beliefs in the contagious nature of magic which were summed up nicely by Sir James George Frazier in the Golden Bough (1889):
"If we analyze the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion."
So if a murder takes place in a room, there is a residue that is left behind, almost like an invisible ectoplasm, that acts as the contagious agent transferring the emotions that lie within it. Questions that immediately arise are: Is the emotional residue that is created in spaces equivalent to emotional residue that is embedded in objects? For instance, if there is emotional residue in the basement where people were mutilated, would there also be emotional residue in the knives themselves? If this is true, then does the chef take on some of that emotional residue by using the knives everyday? Is the food that is prepared with the knives infected, and likewise, does that infection transfer to the person that is ingesting the food? The overarching question here is, "To what degree is emotional residue contagious?"
How you answer these questions may depend upon the metaphor you decide to use in trying to understand these unseen forces. Often I hear people talk about these ideas as "vibes" or "energy". Saying that an event has "residue" is different than saying that an event has caused "bad vibrations". Residue can conceivably hang around forever. An example would be buying a new book and peeling off the price tag only to leave a patch of sticky residue behind. That residue is not coming off until you really work at cleaning it.
Vibrations, by their very nature, are temporary. Vibrations are put into motion and then run out of energy and return to equilibrium, such as when you strike a bell. The sound reverberates out, but then dissipates and returns to its previous state. Emotional energetic vibrations then should have similar attributes. They should eventually dissipate regardless of any action being taken towards it.
I don't think you actual have to choose between these conceptions because they are actually parts of a coherent metaphorical structure: Negative Events are Explosions. An explosion is dangerous, intense, has the ability to cause collateral damage, vibrates out from the initial release of energy and leaves a residue behind. An explosion of violence is also dangerous, intense, might result in other people being hurt, causes emotional vibrations to ripple out from the act itself and leaves a meaningful residue behind, such that you will never think about the violent person the same again.
If we use this explosion metaphor as an understanding for the creation of emotional residue, then the question that perplexes me is, "What is the relationship between the residue and the initial event?" It is common practice to investigate the aftermath of a bomb to try and glean information pertaining to the event that preceded it, and so there should be a similar process to try and understand the relationship of the residual emotional aftermath and the event itself. In essence, what is the correlation between these two things?
At first it might seem like the residue should be reflective of the sum total of the emotions outputted. So in a grisly murder, the pain and suffering that is experienced is embedded in the residue. But given the scenario I presented in the beginning, this kind of explanation is unsatisfying. The only emotions that were outputted where the joy of the killer doing something that he loves. If residue is relational to the sum total of the emotional output then the residue that should be left after 10 years of murder and mutilation, is joy.
If residue is not relational to the emotional output then what is relational to it? I have yet to come up with a satisfying answer, since the options seem to be choosing between subjective interpretations (I think this is bad and so it should have negative residue) to absolute energetic principles that do not take into consideration human interpretations, such as the laws of physics.
Discrimination between types of residue seems to be another issue worth examining. For example in the given scenario, where does the most negative emotional residue occur: the bedroom where the people were painlessly killed, the basement where their dead bodies were mutilated or the backyard where the bodies are buried? Is there a difference between these residues that is discernible or are they all equally negative?
Killing the victims seems to be a far worse crime, and yet it had the least amount of emotions involved, since the victim was not conscious and the killer was not present for the death. There is something particularly disturbing about mutilation that might bother us and cause us to think there is greater negativity attached, especially when it happens in a dark underground basement. We also might be inclined to believe there is something more sinister in the backyard, since the bodies are decomposing in secret; bodies that are the evidence of moral wrongdoing.
I am skeptical of the idea of emotional residue, but the mechanics of it fascinate me, and so I am genuinely interested in how people understand it. It is an important topic to consider because while most Americans say they don't believe it, they behave as if they do (Savani K. 2011). For instance a study by James Larsen and Joseph Coleman showed that, "houses where murder or suicide have occurred can take 50% longer to sell, and at an average of 2.4 percent less than comparable homes." In California a death on the property has to be disclosed, but only if it happened in the last 3 years, and in certain states houses with "stigmas" which include hauntings, murder/suicides, drug dealing, prostitution and debt, legally must be disclosed to the buyer. There is even a map of stigmatized properties that lists the tragedy that happened within them.
In some cases, disclosing these stigmas might be perfectly reasonable. There might be consequences for buying a former drug house since old clientele or angry competitors might show up on your doorstep. In other cases you might not want to live with the knowledge that a woman committed suicide in your bathroom. But for some people, this meaning is embedded in the physical structure of the house itself and needs to be dealt with in a physical way. They do not want to be infected by the negativity and so they either avoid it or have to take positive action against it, such as burning sage or other cleansing rituals.
A powerful factor in the belief of emotional residue is a fear of contamination. They do not want the negative energy to infect them and cause them harm. This idea makes sense when linked with our behavior toward physical illness. Essentially this metaphor takes the destructive explosiveness of a bomb and transfers it to a sneeze. People cover their mouth because they know there are invisible germs that project out of them that leave a contagious residue wherever they go. When we come in contact with someone who is ill, we avoid them, but even after they have gone, there are contagions left behind that are invisible to the naked eye, that need to be cleaned.
Emotions have similar qualities to viruses, in that, sometimes when we see someone cry, we feel sad. When we see someone happy, it can make us happy. Emotions can spread invisibly, such as weeping after thinking about a loved one's death. It is not such a leap to conclude that if emotions are contagious like viruses, they can assume other qualities of viruses as well, such as the ability to leave a contagious invisible residue that also needs to be cleaned in order to be safe. In both cases, with emotional meaning as well as germs, it presents two parallel responsive behaviors, avoidance and pro-active cleaning.
This idea of an invisible infectious world is reinforced in any number of ways. A striking study published in Nature shows that chemicals in women's tears unconsciously affect men's testosterone levels as well as sexual arousal. Human sweat also unconscioulsy relays information about individual identity, genetic relatedness, emotional states and health status. So when we walk in a room and we feel something shift within us, it may be connected to the fact that our body is processing a lot more information from the outside environment than we are unaware of. Some people might be more sensitive to these chemical signals and so they might be better at perceiving the physiological changes in their body, which they infer is due to positive/negative energies.
Another reinforcing factor is that we may be uncomfortable with the ephemeral nature of meaning, that the stories we create for ourselves and our loved ones, are simply imagined, somehow not real because they lack a physical manifestation. To ease this anxiety, meaning takes on a physical form with physical properties that operate in the world. The meaning of a murder can stay behind long after the murder has occurred, not just in the minds of people who remember, but in the actual physical substance of existence. It is a comforting thought, in that, it eases the anxiety we have over our own death, of our complete absence from the world, since a residual history of events, much like a comet tail, survives and lives on in the concrete structures of the world.
It also may be psychologically helpful to think of ephemeral emotions as physical substances, since it may help people process them in ways they otherwise couldn't. If someone was dealing with the lose of a loved one, the ritual of "cleansing" a space of energy/residue might give them a physical process which could help them deal with the situation in a way they might not have access to by simply thinking or talking about it. It is similar to the feeling of solidification that we get when a thought is finally said out loud. It takes ephemeral meaning and puts it into sound that reverberates in the world. Similarly, emotional residue takes the meaning and imbues it into objects/spaces that surround us, making it even more physical, more relatable, more real in a sense.
A third reinforcement is the fact that we hold our lives in high value and if we perceive there is danger, we are better off being cautious. Even if it seems unlikely that spaces and objects hold on to residue that may be harmful, it probably doesn't hurt us much to operate as if this were true, just in case we are wrong. That we cannot be absolutely certain whether emotional residue exists, may make people hedge their bets, especially when there is little cost in doing so. Even if you don't logically believe in emotional residue, you might hesitate at buying a house where someone committed suicide, or picking up a knife that was used to murder people, just in case.
These reinforcing factors, coupled with the close associations we have between disease and emotions are the alchemical ingredients that may cause us to turn emotional meaning into physical substance.
The law of contagion, that "things that once have been in contact with each other continue to work on one another", may or may not be true in the physical sense, but in the world of meaning, it is a keen insight into its very nature. Meaning is contagious. It is ephemeral. It seeks to be made physical so as to become real.
The Theory of Social Contagion makes similar claims about the contagious nature of meaning. A good deal of empirical research in the social sciences shows that "affect, attitudes, beliefs and behaviour can indeed spread through populations as if they were somehow infectious." (Marsden, 1988) This is essentially admitting to a loss of control over who we are, in that, through mere exposure, we are to some degree contaminated. This calls upon similar behavioral approaches that we take toward illness, avoidance and pro-active cleaning of unwanted beliefs and emotions. That this cleansing process is made physical suggests that these rituals we engage in, whether meaningful, spiritual or physical, are important processes that may help us deal with the loss of our own agency in relation to the larger social dynamics that surround us.
Two paths emerge in talking about this subject. The first, which I explored in the beginning is "In what sense is this belief true?" This leads us to examine the mechanics of such a belief and how it could physically operate. A second would be "To what extent does such a belief help us deal with the fact that in many ways, we are not in control of our own experience?" This is quite different, in that, it would examine how the belief operates in relationship to what it seeks to resolve, our inability to control our emotional meaningful selves as we navigate our place in the world.
In one sense you could see how it could be helpful, such as the reasons that I stated above. In another you could see the psychological damage that could be caused by viewing the world as filled with contagious diseases that either need to be avoided or cleansed.
It is at this point that most people interested in metaphor might offer a way to reframe the issue, such as offering another conceptual system that presents us with a different outlook. This is actually already happening on its own, as we can see with the growing populating of The Law of Attraction. This idea takes everything I've written in relationship to contagion and transfers it to the power of magnetism.
This metaphoric reframing does not focus so much on avoidance and cleanliness, but rather on attitude. A positive attitude attracts positivity. A negative attitude attracts negativity. This stance may relieve the problems of looking at negativity as disease, but it manifests problems that may be even worse, such as it logically follows that if negative things are happening in your life, it is not because of bad luck or other factors, it is because you caused them to happen since you are a negative person. The amount of control it claims that people have over their experience then places a great deal of responsibility for the outcomes of their lives squarely on their shoulders. Essentially bad things don't happen to good people. They only happen to negative people who have manifested them in their lives.
It is because of issues such as this that I am not going to offer a metaphorical reframing, rather I would conclude that the best way to approach such a problem is to research and understand it more, so that, these metaphors lose some of their power. The more you extrapolate the metaphors, the more you will realize that, while they do coherently describe a part of what is going on, they fail in their ability to describe everything and cannot be the way things actually work. In gaining greater knowledge of these topics, in thinking through some of the more complex issues, in seeking clarity over the ambiguity that some of these ideas present, we can temporarily free ourselves from the power that these concepts play in our lives.