ASMR and the performing body

MariaGentleWhispering, whose videos I examine in this paper, is the unmitigated superstar of the ASMR world. A Russian immigrant living in the D.C. area, Maria has become the face of ASMR in the mainstream media due at least in part to the sheer popularity of her YouTube channel. The question of who ASMR videos are aimed at insistently reasserts itself in watching Maria’s videos: Is the pageantry of femininity evident in these video for the male gaze? Is the purpose of these videos erotic? Maria and most ASMR-tists roundly deny that there is any erotic intent behind ASMR, and yet the specter of the au pair, sexy nurse, and mail order bride insistently linger around ASMR performance. Though there are a burgeoning number of African-American and Asian female ASMR-tists like Tahteebayy, Sung Mook, Lovely ASMR Dreams, Maria’s own exoticized whiteness and her popularity has, to some degree, come to define popular and critical understandings of ASMR as the performance of sexualized care work by exoticized immigrant white women.

Throughout this essay, I attempt to acknowledge ASMR erotics while also moving beyond these questions. I believe that taking performers and consumers at their word that ASMR is not erotic in nature is an important part of understanding what is ultimately at stake in ASMR: mass mediated forms of social intimacy that play with femininity and gendered labor. My own analysis understands ASMR as erotic in so far as the videos’ intent is the simulation of embodied social intimacy between viewer and performer, but I read this eroticism as decidedly non-genital. Additionally, I contend that ASMR erotics are for the female gaze, first as a sexualized homosocial address to other (mostly female) ASMR performers and second, as the generalized eroticized narcissistic self-representation of the social media age.[24] [open endnotes in new window]

An increasing number of African-American women are performing ASMR. Here, SungMook, a performer who started uploading videos in 2015, does a role play where she gossips with and applies make up to her best friend. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26U5f

African-American performer TahteeBayy performs a gum-chewing role play. In addition to various typical personal attention role plays, food and gum chewing are a popular genre within the burgeoning black ASMR community. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ywti

ASMR videos, in all their variety, can be characterized by two key interlocking traits

  1. the performative establishment of intimacy between the ASMR-tist and the viewer through highly stylized vocal and gestural performance and
  2. the incitement of sensory meridian response through sound and video editing techniques that emphasize the tactile sound qualities of the performance.

ASMR performers’ bodily repertoire serves to repeatedly de-emphasize the communicative contents of speech in favor of the materiality of the speaking voice. As phenomenologist Don Ihde asserts, sound “presences” what is otherwise invisible.[25] ASMR-tist’s highly stylized vocal performances of breathy cadences and soft but deliberate audible breathing call attention to aspects of physical presence that are barely perceptible in face to face interaction. Further, the sonic aspect of embodied physical presence is often completely absent from dramatic audiovisual productions. Naturalistic film performance tends to foreground certain aspects of the actors’ embodied presence like the speaking voice, while effacing other aspects like the sound of actors’ breathing.

Maria’s YouTube page has one hundred million views and houses hundreds of her videos. Maria works as a massage therapist, a career in which she was recently certified, acquiring the requisite training in spite of significant economic hardship (as documented in her vlogs). In her videos, she plays various roles including retail worker, spa technician, Russian language teacher, and New Age body workers of various kinds, to name but a few of the care labor roles she enacts. My wager is that Maria’s videos are so successful not only because she most successfully performs the ambiguously eroticized form of care that ASMR performers trade in, but because of her ability to manipulate what Roland Barthes calls “the grain of the voice,” by which he means the body’s physicality embedded in the voice itself.[26] 

MariaGentleWhsipering plays various care-work jobs: a spa technician, a Russian-language teacher, and a chakra healer, respectively.



For Barthes, the grain is the part of vocal expressivity unburdened by linguistic signification. As Maria’s ASMR name suggests, a significant part of her vocal repertoire is the whisper. Compared to other vocal registers, whispers, emphasize sibilants—‘s’ sounds produced by bringing the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth. Whispers are differentiated from quiet talking in that they require a substantial constriction of the whole mouth, a reduction of vocal mobility that simultaneously forces more breath from the body. The repeated hissing of sibilants and surplus breath emitted by whispering call attention not to the words Maria is speaking, but to her embodied physical presence in the mise-en-scène. When Barthes discusses his preference for imperfect, raspy opera singers over virtuosic, technically perfect ones, he goes back to the Greek definition of breath. He writes, “The breath is the pneuma, the soul swelling or breaking,”[27] which suggests that the sound of breath not only materializes the workings of the body, but the more ineffable aspects of physical presence.

Maria is one a few successful ASMR-tists whose second language is English; others include a Dutch woman called TheWaterWhisperer and a Czech woman who calls herself Olivia Kissper. Maria’s fans often comment that they enjoy Maria’s nonstandard English diction. In a twenty-two minute video entitled, “Eye gazing, ear-to-ear blowing, head massagers,”[28] Maria gazes into your eyes; she blows into the left side of the frame with her mouth just out of frame and then into the right side of the frame, and finally massages and brushes her hair with various head massaging tools. With headphones on, the binaural recording emphasizes the sense that Maria blowing on each of the viewer’s ears. The basic set up for this video is a camera mounted on top of a binaural recorder.[29] When Maria’s face is framed in extreme close-up, the camera-recorder set up, mimics the spatial and sensorial experience of intimate face-to-face contact. Maria’s face, in its slight movement in and out of frame simulates movement around the viewer’s head. The left-ear, right-ear sound separation achieved through stereo recording is more obvious and intense with headphones on, creating an immersive sonic experience.

In this video, as in many others, Maria employs the breathy and careful vocal cadence described above (which is strikingly different than the regular speaking voice she uses in her occasional vlogs). Whereas in standard American English, inflections tend to come at the ends of sentences, Maria often inflects her sentences in the middle. In this particular video, Maria instructs the viewer to pay attention to the physiognomy of people’s faces in order to read their intentions, running her fingers over different parts of her face to demonstrate what different features signify, concluding at 9:13 by saying, “So / you can tell a lot by a per- / son’s face?” Her pauses in the middle of words for breath are fairly typical of her vocal styling. These nonstandard pauses and inflections further defamiliarize the content of her speech. Language in ASMR becomes a sonic material to be manipulated, rather than a medium for the delivery of information.

The gestural expressivity in Maria’s performance is crucial to eliciting the sensory meridian response. I argue that this form of embodied speech and signification through bodily gestures revives certain aspects of oral storytelling in which the body of the speaker is chiefly considered a vehicle for the transmission of affects rather than for the communicative aspects of language. Early twentieth century French anthropologist Marcel Jousse saw rhythmic gesture as constitutive of the oral style of speech, positing that mimetic gestures function to reactivate memory without recourse to thought, drawing attention to how the body’s entire movement enables cognition.[30] Jousse understood gesture as a tool, on par with any other physical tool in shaping human culture. Maria’s gestures and vocal technique activate the oral style of cognition that Jousse describes, in which movement is as central to expression as linguistic communication. Marshall McLuhan famously characterized the difference between oral and print culture as residing in the fact that oral culture maintained the interplay between all five senses, while print culture remained anchored to the abstracted and transcendental faculty of vision.[31]

For McLuhan, oral cultures, more reliant on the ear, were able to trigger all the senses through hearing; the eye is comparatively neutral, able to stay segregated from the rest of the senses.[32] Though ASMR is a video-based subculture, Maria’s physical and gestural performance achieves the interplay between the senses that McLuhan identified as central to oral cultures by using the auditory dimension to trigger sensation all over the body. ASMR technologically augments the oral style of bodily performance to incite physical sensations on the surface of the body. Part of ASMR’s striking oddness is the fact that this relation between sound and touch is unusual in the contemporary West, our habits of attention having been linearized not only by print culture, but by the predominance of ocularity. Maria’s ASMR performance bears out McLuhan’s assertion that digital media culture constitutes not a return to orality but an amplified and augmented orality in which acoustics once again gain primacy as a vehicle for acting on the other four senses.

In the video “Eye gazing, ear- to ear- blowing, head massagers,” Maria both performs and thematizes the facial and bodily expressivity that Jousse diagnoses as constitutive of oral cultures. Maria opens the video by saying,

“I would like to start this video by establishing a nonjudgmental, loving, and compassionate contact with you and this can be done by eye gazing… This lil’ exercise can help you see the beauty of the human face––their mimics, their expressions, the way they carry themselves, the way their face shaped. It can tell you different things about a person…”

Maria proceeds to provide a typology of the different meanings of certain physiognomic aspects of the face, including the shape of eyebrows, the forehead, and the roundness of cheeks, while alternating between touching her face and rhythmically gesticulating with her hands fanned out. Maria’s lesson in the video draws on a variety of folk wisdom as well as a New Age pseudoscience termed, “personology,” which purports to map personality through the face. Though I tend to treat the content of her speech here as somewhat arbitrary, it is very much worth noting here that the pedagogical framing of the video is one of Maria’s most prominent rhetorical modes. Maria is one of a few ASMR performers who explicitly refer to themselves as healers, thus the didacticism of her performance bears some weight on my analysis here. Maria takes on the role of the traditional role of the storyteller-pedagogue, whose job it is to transmit information in the form of experience.

In this particular video, Maria touches her face and gesticulates in undulating waves. But it is Maria’s gesticulations, rather than the content of her speech, which function to make intersubjective contact with the viewer. Maria’s rhythmic performance here reflects Jousse’s analysis of how under the oral style, cognition is tightly nested into gesture and mimicry serves as mnemonic. Maria’s gestures mimic the types of movement required to make a baby fall asleep or the basic rocking back and forth motion that soothes the parasympathetic nervous system. Thus the viewer is drawn into empathic identification with Maria not just through her entreaty to relax but through her mimetic gestures which recall the affective labor of comforting a person. The orality of ASMR encourages an active embodied engagement with the sonic and visual materiality of the video on the part of the viewer, a type of engagement less prominent in more standard sound-image montage.

ASMR-tists like Maria whisper, coo, and purr into the camera, their voices materializing not just the sonic presence of the body, but their cultural position as bodies marked feminine. The ASMR whisper, de-emphasizing communication and foregrounding the material traces of the feminine body, cuts against liberal assumptions within second wave feminist discourses in which “having a voice” serves as a metaphor for gaining political agency.[35] Pooja Ranjan’s writing on voicelessness and vocal materiality in documentary traces how in Western philosophy, the articulation of reason through speech constitutes the free, agential subject.[34] By this prevailing cultural logic, the voice whose materiality supersedes its rational communicative function is a non-sovereign voice. Frances Dyson historicizes this logic in her study of U.S. radio, pointing out that the dominant voices of radio, Euro-American and male, are constructed as neutral, authoritative, and essentially disembodied. By contrast, voices containing traces of age, illness, ethnicity, race, or aberrant gender are considered too embodied for radio.[35]

In light of the historical-cultural authority granted to the sovereign communicative voice, ASMR’s breathy whispers seem to insistently contest gendered notions of competence. The ASMR whisper mobilizes “techniques of femininity” toward the aim of reparation and care, treating feminized labor as agential and important to the perpetuation of daily life. Sandra Bartky identifies these techniques as a complex set of bodily comportment and practices that exert disciplinary force on women, a repertoire which includes the treatment of the body as an aesthetic surface and a culturally circumscribed set of gestures and movements that comprise feminine behavior.[36] I would like to differentiate my own definition of techniques of femininity as more aligned with Marcel Mauss’s concept of bodily techniques, in which bodily behavior is not just shaped by culture, but itself shapes culture.[37] Mauss’s analysis of the cultural transmission of bodily techniques brings to light the ways that movement transmits cultural experience. I believe this shift in emphasis enables us to examine femininity and its association with affective labor, not as a kind of self-imposed disciplinary project for women to suffer but as a set of techniques which themselves help to constitute the social in ways that are both disciplinary and generative of community.

Aura: the tactile sound and the haptic image

Online ASMR practices extend what Barthes describes as the “grain” of the voice much further than the body itself, but more importantly, much further than is standard in audiovisual recording. The techniques used to spur increased embodiment in ASMR are twofold: 1) sound tactility achieved through binaural recording and 2) the haptic visuality native to the video medium, as well as its aesthetics. I use sound tactility here to indicate the ways that sound recording can ‘presence’ (to use Idhe’s term) an object to the point of highlighting the object’s tactile dimensions. I use the term ‘haptic visuality’ to describe audiovisual media’s affective and virtual qualities, the way an image can produce a sense of being touched through textual qualities in the image or certain forms of sound-image montage. While the embodied performance of sound is crucial to ASMR, the production of sound tactility and image haptics through video and sound recording are essential in creating what I term the ‘auratic encounter’ at the heart of ASMR.

In this auratic encounter, the viewer is confronted with the ghostly, affective, and yet decidedly material force of the performer’s body through sound. The ASMR-tist’s ability to presence herself for the viewer restores the viewer, at least the one susceptible to ASMR, to her own bodily presence. Walter Benjamin’s notion of the aura is widely understood as an art historical concept, the unique presence of the artwork in space and time, a uniqueness which is liquidated by mechanical reproduction and modernity’s destruction of the art work’s ritual context.[38] However, Benjamin’s concept of the aura was never quite stable, as Benjamin recursively defined and redefined the term throughout the 1930s.

In my analysis of ASMR, I highlight two of aura’s lesser discussed paradoxical valences. The first, from Benjamin’s early theorization of the term describes aura as the way that daguerrotyping, with its demand for quiet durational sitting from the portrait subject and high light sensitivity, produced a blurry halo around the sitter, imprinting a visceral sense of the sitter’s temporally-bounded presence on the viewer of these pictures.[39] Thus, in Benjamin’s first iteration of aura, early photography is a medium in which human experience still retains a sense of lived time.

The second instance of aura I use from Benjamin’s 1939 essay “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” describes the the aura much more explicitly as an eroding index of lived human experience, an experience of temporality being fundamentally altered by urbanization and technology.[40] The dissipation of the aura is pegged to the waning of human’s ability to narrativize their lived experience. For Benjamin, only early photographs were capable of meeting our gaze, an inter-subjective ghostly encounter between photographic subject and viewer.[41] I choose these two pre- and post- Art Work theorizations of aura because they emphasize the ways that embodied physical presence and its ghostly materiality are central to Benjamin’s notion of aura.

While the second definition would seem to dictate that with the liquidation of the aura inevitably comes the total dissolution of experience, the paradox at the heart of Benjamin’s writings on modernity is that the liquidation of the aura sets the stage for another kind of experience. This new jagged, dissociative experience (Erlebnis) is one defined by shock and mediated by technology, namely the technology of film. For Benjamin, the cinema’s capacity to act on the human body included its haptic materiality; its immersive capacities; and its potential to foster collective experiences of empathic identification both with human and animal figures on screen, as well as with other spectators in the theater. These qualities all constituted Benjamin’s schema for how the cinema could serve as sensory training. Thus tactility (and implicitly, materiality) appears in Benjamin as not just a reparative property, but as a precondition to the reconfiguration of experience in modernity.[42] I posit that tactility emerges as a privileged mode of sensory reception in Benjamin because touch confronts the subject with a material sense of the world which trauma erases through dissociation. Touch also constitutes a mode of being in the world in which the body is as much of a tool as technology itself. We can observe the two valences of aura functioning in ASMR: first, the spectator’s feeling of literally being touched by the performer’s sonic materiality and second, the restoration of the very possibility of experience through the sensation of deep presence that ASMR promotes in the viewer.