ASMR: auratic encounters and women’s affective labor

by Laura Jaramillo

[Editors' note: For readers first encountering the genre, listening to a few minutes of this ASMR video without judgment might help to understand what is meant here by sonic materiality and embodied intimacy in this context: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yz9fI3yzF0E&t=29s]


In ASMR videos, predominantly women perform simple tasks or vocalize softly into the camera in order to arouse a tingling, euphoric sensation at the base of the skull and around the sides of the viewer’s face––this is what is described as ASMR (The initials stand for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response.) By focusing on the most popular scenario, in which performers enact traditionally female-gendered affective labor, I analyze how ASMR uses the materiality of sound recording to presence the body of the performer. Drawing on Walter Benjamin’s famous concept of aura and contemporary theories of media embodiment, this essay tracks how a seemingly marginal Internet practice like ASMR can serve as a temporary reparative to the somatic damage inflicted on the body by increasing dependence on technology. Because not everyone is susceptible to ASMR’s effect, the practice can seem odd to those first encountering it. These videos can strike even those susceptible to ASMR as gratingly awkward to watch because of the way that the subculture plays with mediated social intimacy, feminine gender performance, and therapeutic discourses in a way that is neither wholly chaste nor wholly erotic, and quite idiosyncratic.

ASMR performer The WaterWhispers demonstrates her shell collection, running her hands over the shells to elicit soft scraping and clinking noises. https://www.youtube.com/
ASMR Darling whispers in very extreme close-up to the camera, to emphasize the word “relaxing” as she monologues to the camera. https://www.youtube.com/watch?

In this brief introduction, I attempt to broaden the theoretical frame for understanding ASMR, pointing to its resonances with both older and more contemporary cultural forms like pornography, early video art, and therapeutic practices. ASMR’s relation to pornography is the subject of much speculation, a curiosity which I both acknowledge and try to move beyond in this essay. ASMR shares important features with two pornographic forms, namely the commercial phone sex industry’s eroticization of the embodied voice and the contemporary cam girl genre’s mobilization of affective labor and performers' self-branding. Commercial phone sex lines, which reached their heyday in the 1980’s and have fizzled out with the ascendancy of Internet pornography, offered per-minute rates to talk to women who would create and engage in fantasy scenarios for the caller. Commercial phone sex is unique in terms of pornographic practices because rather than depending on the visible for its erotic charge, it plays on the anonymous disembodied erotic materiality of the performer’s voice.[1] [open endnotes page in new window]

This 1991 sex chat line commercial plays on the eroticization of the disembodied voice by showing an anonymous lithe woman writhing in a window in silhouette. A few frames later, two attractive women dance, one behind a chain link fence and one one in front it, suggesting to the potential client that these disembodied voices have real life embodied correlates that can transcend physical distance and architectural barriers. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKdlb5yv5xo

Cam girls, who cultivate branded personas, performing sexual acts in exchange for money on a live webcam feed, offer a much more traditionally pornographic code of visual representation that relies on what Linda Williams calls “the frenzy of the visible.”[2] For our interests in this essay, the most notable parallel between cam girls and ASMR-tists is the unique temporal and spatial sense imparted by the webcam or cell phone: the fantasy of the performer being perpetually there for the viewer, framed and ready to perform emotional labor, whether it be therapeutic or pornographic.

This sense of self-branding and perpetual presence common to ASMR and cam girl porn is also intimately tied to the aesthetics of the video medium, which Rosalind Krauss identifies as inherently narcissistic.[3] Because video is capable of recording and transmitting at the same time, it is able to produce an instant feedback in which the performer finds themselves infinitely reproduced between camera and monitor, so that the self becomes an increasingly tautological and atemporal object of reflection.[4] If Krauss found this to be  the salient quality of late 70’s video art, exemplified by the early video works of Lynda Bengalis and Vito Acconci,[5] this tendency has only grown with digital culture and the mass availability of cell phone cameras. As a result, the selfie can now be understood as a dominant, contemporary cultural form. ASMR performers’ ways of figuring themselves in the diegesis of their videos––in extreme close-up, from flattering angles, in ways that affirm temporal immediacy and presence over broader cultural and historical context––are intimately tied to the visual and affective codes of the selfie. 

Kim Kardashian has become an avatar for selfie culture. The cover of her book of self-portraits, “Selfish,” exemplifies the kinesthetic framing that seems to give her body and face an exaggerated sense of almost-prosthetic perfection.

According to its viewers and performers, ASMR comes closest to a therapeutic practice, an assessment I ultimately agree with though for slightly less obvious reasons than that the videos often enact therapeutic scenarios. In its technology-free aspect, the voice in ASMR is the traditional voice of the therapist, social worker, mother, kindergarten teacher, best friend, even of the soothing robot voice of the iPhone’s “Siri.” For all of the West’s traditional devaluations of the auditory dimension over the visual, the voice, particularly the disembodied voice, does seem to retain its status as a locus of both authority and comfort. In its technological aspect, ASMR also exemplifies the tendency to turn technological media into therapeutic tools, exemplified by the recent preponderance of meditation apps like Headspace; psychotherapy offered through cell phone text message based services like Talkspace; and hundreds of YouTube channels dedicated to music that promises bring to either focus or relaxation (or focused relaxation).[6]

This still from a promotional animation for Talkspace implies that happiness indeed does have a price and that price is being able to afford psychotherapy.

This still from a promotional animation for the meditation app Headspace presents meditation as a form of cognitive training. The cute image of the cotton candy-like brain lifting weights drives home the idea that brains can be weak or they can train to get strong and the choice is in the consumer’s hands.

The ever expanding role of therapeutic discourses and tools in our culture points not only to the tremendous stress that the average person faces, but to the eroding ability of an increasingly economically precarious and socially isolated population to access in-person kinship networks capable of providing care or even of health insurance to subsidize affordable psychotherapeutic assistance.[7] In light of these larger social fractures, I argue that the care offered by ASMR serves a legitimately important, though also totally mediated, function, for its users in its capacity to make the embodied presence of the performer palpable for the user.

Finally, ASMR enters the field at a moment when a number of artists, sound engineers, and scholars have turned to sound as an important object of cultural inquiry. In the past ten years, there has been a spate of critical interest in how sound plays into questions of embodiment, power, and space.[8] As a result, the works of feminist sound artists like Pauline Oliveros, Eliane Radigue,  Janet Cardiff, to name just a few, are enjoying a renewed visibility.

Early experimental electronic musician Pauline Oliveros developed a practice called “deep listening,” which emphasized that the ability to listen to ambient noise was as important as the ability to listen to composed music. She developed a number of exercises and activities around the idea of deep listening. Sound artist Janet Cardiff’s “The Forty Part Motet” plays “Hope in any other” on forty different speakers fitted with movement sensors activated by the viewer’s proximity. The piece links listening with kinesthetic movement, allowing the listener to experience sound as multi-layered and interactive. Audio recording’s capacity to produce kinesthetic sensations have become a rich field of inquiry in the turn towards sound studies.

Through an archive of aesthetic practices and critique too vast to fully name here, the idea that listening can be an ethical form of attention, has gained significant traction as a counter-practice to the West’s linkage of rational vision and social control. By linking women’s affective labor and ASMR’s experimentation with sound’s embodying qualities, this essay questions whether ASMR can function as one such ethical counter-practice.

ASMR in a post-2008 world

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is a burgeoning YouTube subculture, which opens up new avenues for engaging with reparative media practices under late capitalism. “ASMR-tists,” as performers often call themselves, use binaural recording techniques, which mimic left ear right ear sound perception,[9] to elicit hyper-real tactile sounds from the everyday objects they manipulate on camera. ASMR consumers report different kinds of responses to the stimuli presented in ASMR, from tingles up and down their spines to deep relaxation and a sensation of deep embodied presence. Performers modulate their voices into a whisper to induce a relaxed state in the viewer. While many audiovisual media forms can be said to have some haptic content,[10] ASMR offers a unique form of expanded sentience in that for those who experience the tingles of ASMR, it is a medium that quite literally touches you back. Drawing on Walter Benjamin’s famous notion of the aura and contemporary theories of media embodiment, this essay tracks how ASMR has been used by this burgeoning subculture as a reparative practice against what Teresa Brennan calls “bioderegulation,” the somatic damage inflicted on the body by telecommunications’ compression of temporal and geographic distances.[11] If the historical task of film, as Walter Benjamin claimed in the 1930s, was to train the sensorium under industrial capitalism, then I believe ASMR offers us such training under economic postmodernization, a regime characterized by the feminization of labor.[12] The women who perform the banal tasks of care labor in ASMR urgently recognize the need for the anxiety-ridden sensorium of late capitalism to be grounded in the substance of everyday life.

The earliest ASMR video archived on YouTube dates back to 2009,[13] indicating that ASMR as a media subculture gains force after the financial crisis of 2008, a period in which U.S. life came to be characterized by housing loss, debt, and mass layoffs.[14] Many critics point out that though markets recovered after 2009, the extreme precarity that the 2008 housing crash imposed on low- to middle-income workers continues to shape not only post-recession economic life but emotional life, resulting in declining health rates and a skyrocketing number of suicides in the United States.[15] A growing body of critical work on the emotional experience of late capitalism has begun to refer to the subject’s life under this regime as one fundamentally marked by trauma.[16] Whereas classical definitions of trauma understand the phenomenon as an experience of social or physical injury so intense that it cannot be fully absorbed by consciousness, the traumatic experience of late capitalism can no longer be connected back to a single event.[17]

Instead, trauma in contemporary life is diffuse, yet omnipresent. Under postmodern regimes of labor, stress can be attributed as much to the lack of social safety net as to as the mores of work itself where workers are expected to exert a combination of self-discipline and flexibility in the face of an ever shifting set of demands on time and bodily energy. These pressures have only intensified in the years following the economic crisis of 2008. Technology, too, has played a major role in shaping the trauma-inflected subjectivity of the modern worker. A host of popular medical literature links cell phone light to insomnia and excessive sitting in front of computers to musculoskeletal problems, to name just a few health issues caused by excessive dependence on technology. This stress is not merely a byproduct of interfacing with machines, but a physiological reaction to the spatiotemporal regimes that technology has enabled in which the global pace of production and consumption have far outstripped the body’s ability to keep up, resulting in the exhausted, bioderegulated body.[18]

Recent interventions in affect theory have been attentive to the ways that neoliberalism wields therapeutic discourses to mold compliant subjects, and an older body of work on trauma theory analyzes how trauma shapes cognition and memory. However, comparatively little attention has been paid to the somatic effects of neoliberal socioeconomic conditions on the senses. The total effect of the economic-technological trauma brought on by late capitalism is evident in a range of symptoms—from anxiety to insomnia to depression—which ultimately point to the ways that constant, low level trauma de-presences, or dissociates the subject. Dissociation constitutes the splitting off of body from mind, causing a fundamental disconnection between sensation and experience, between the tangible world and the body. If trauma rends a person’s relation to the symbolic order, dissociation disrupts the body’s sentient relation to the material world.

The problematic of the body’s alienation from sensuous experience in modernity is not new. It can be traced back to the dawn of industrialization, and constitutes the heart of Benjamin’s claim that human experience was on the wane. For Benjamin, as early as the mid-nineteenth century, Ehrfahrung (long experience) was giving way to Erlebnis (short shock episodes) that could not be narrativized or made sense of in the same way as preindustrial experience.[19] I contend that Benjamin’s argument for film as a training ground for the sensorium is implicitly an argument for haptic materiality as a potentially restorative property of media. The difference between the media landscape that Benjamin addressed in the 1930s and that of the contemporary moment is one of not just of degrees, but of leaps toward a paradigm in which critics propose that technology is complicit in the radical reshaping of human consciousness. The shock experience catalyzed by urbanization, trench warfare, and railroads in the early twentieth century is now promoted by far more abstract and isolating, but no less psychologically or physically violent technologies: Skype, gentrification (and its counterpart, commuting), and drone warfare.

ASMR videos intervene in this fractured bodily schema of late capitalism. The practice’s emphasis on aural performativity and haptic materiality induces a feeling of deep presence in the viewer, a sensation that the few neurological studies performed on ASMR liken to meditation.[20] I contend that this sensation provides a form of sensory training that helps withstand the deregulated pace of contemporary life. ASMR practice’s insistence on the quotidian is part of its reparative effect, working on the dissociated body to reestablish the connection between physical sensation and experience. ASMR performers, predominantly economically precarious women, enact the unwaged labor of care on camera for each other and for their ever-growing audience. The main subject of this piece, MariaGentleWhispering, as of recently has been able to quit her job at a receptionist in a doctor’s office and draw an income from crowd-sourcing site Patreon, through which her fans fund her ASMR practice.[21] But Maria is really an exception. Most ASMR-tists work in relatively low-paying care work fields like massage therapy or as hair stylists or makeup artists. Some ASMR performers like AmalZD and ASMR Darling are young adult women who live in their parents’ homes.[22] It is common for ASMR-tists to reference their day jobs as makeup artists or body workers on camera.

While contemporary feminist discussions of affective labor tend to focus on the socially and economically coercive aspects of feminized labor in post-Fordist economies, I hope here to put an emphasis on the sometimes neglected positive side of affective labor, its capacity to produce community and collective subjectivities.[23] In this paper, I focus primarily on how affective labor generates use-value, rather than on the ways that it is used as a tool to extract surplus value through emotional and economic coercion. ASMR performers have created online communities whose goal is healing and care. That they have done so through mediatic contact with the viewer’s body is at once revelatory of new thresholds for media embodiment and of the condition of the body under late capitalism.