2018, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 58, winter, 2017-2018
ASMR: auratic encounters and women’s affective labor
[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.
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. 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.” 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. 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. 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, 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.
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). 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. 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. 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. 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 connecting women’s affective labor to ASMR’s experimentation with sonic materiality, 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, 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, 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. 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. 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, 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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 into the 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
ASMR videos, in all their variety, can be characterized by two key interlocking traits
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. 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.
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,” 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,” 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
As mentioned earlier, not everyone is susceptible to ASMR videos and individuals’ specific triggers vary widely. In a 2015 video, ASMR-tist HeatherFeather details one hundred and twenty different discrete triggers—from more common one like scratching and tapping and whispering to the sound of latex gloves rubbing together and kinetic sand crunching. For some ASMR consumers, a sound-image conjunction is necessary in order to experience the tingles and deep presence of ASMR, where for others, the sound without an image track is enough to trigger the sensation. ASMR presents a vast field of unpredictable forms of new audio-visual experimentation, many with no particular interest in narrative role play nor representations of the human social world. New such genres include: videos of people eating specific types of foods with mainly their hands and face framed by the camera, girls’ hands’ manipulating slime, and animals making soft noises. This article focuses merely on the most popular ASMR-tist and her role play videos because they exemplify a tight integration between sound, image, and practices of affective labor. Maria’s videos tend to figure the source of the sound in the diegesis, working the objects and their accompanying sounds into the role play, which naturalizes the strangeness of ASMR by framing it within the performance of affective labor.
ASMR’s insistence on the maximum materialization of the image-sound relation create an auratic contact between performer and viewer which encourages what Laura Marks terms “a tactile epistemology” in which “knowledge is gained not on the model of vision but through physical contact.” In her analysis of video-based intercultural cinema, Marks designates a continuum of representation in which one pole is mimetic (tactility is a part of mimetic representation) and on the other pole is abstract, symbolic representation. Marks’ tactile epistemology proposes that there are whole spheres of sentient engagement with the material world that have been repressed in favor of symbolic representation. While Marks proposes tactile epistemologies as a form of alternative ethics in reading film, I contend that tactile epistemologies can serve an even more radical function: to repair the damage inflicted on the sensorium by constant stress through impressing a feeling of deep embodied presence on the viewer.
ASMR’s ability to effect a reparative sense of subjective presence in the viewer is rooted in the way that the practice uses the recording medium to impress upon the viewer the embodied presence of the performer. Another example from Maria’s “eye gazing” video further elucidates how auratic sound functions in ASMR. Maria runs a rake-like massager through her long hair. We can hear the strands being moved back and forth because her hair itself is mic'd with hypersensitive binaural recording devices. At the very end of the video, Maria remarks, “I hope you enjoyed my crinkly shirt,” a comment which reminds us that all of Maria’s physical movements are designed to elicit sounds that both emphasize her physical presence in space and envelop the viewer. This latter effect is achieved through the viewer wearing headphones. The crinkling of Maria’s shirt exaggerates the sounds of her movements, eliciting a tactile sound. This sonic tactility constitutes the auratic imprint of Maria’s body in space. It is Maria’s human trace imprinted in sound that transmits the deep feeling of presence that ASMR fans often report experiencing. I contend that the sonic trace in ASMR is analogous to Benjamin’s linkage of the breathy aura around the portrait sitter in early daguerrotypes. Benjamin writes,
“These pictures were made in rooms where every client was confronted, in the person of the photographer, with a technician of the latest school: whereas the photographer was confronted, in the person of every client, with a member of a rising class equipped with an aura that had seeped into the very folds of the man’s frock coat or floppy cravat.”
Here, the aura is the invisible, but still palpable trace of the portrait sitter’s bodily presence whose movements are inscribed in the temporal duration of the photograph. For Benjamin, the bourgeoisie that witnessed the first developments of commercial photography were endowed with this aura because they inhabited a transitional period in which industrialization had not yet come to completely dominate daily life. This passage illuminates aura as consciousness’ still-temporal trace, a trace which evidences lived experience on the threshold of technological transformation. If we are to understand aura as a category still useful in diagnosing the relation between experience, the body, and the technical apparatus in postmodernity, ASMR’s sound auratics are not just the imprint of the performer’s body, they are the imprint of a certain lived experience, marked in turn by the postmodernization of labor. Though Benjamin first proposed aura as a visual category, I expand the term to include sound. This expansion reveals the transmedial applicability of the term, but more importantly, it reveals how aura designates the abiding presence of the human body in mediation, which manifests as both visible trace and invisible affective force.
ASMR’s extension and amplification of the recorded sound-image relation is premised on a simple and relatively old technology: binaural recording, which mimics left-ear, right-ear sound reception. Though ASMR recording techniques have become increasingly sophisticated, ASMR relies on basic sound and video editing to achieve its tingling effect. Most ASMR videos request that the viewer wear headphones in order to experience the binaural left-right sound division more acutely. ASMR directly equates the viewer’s ears with the binaural recorder and the viewer’s face with the camera lens. In a later part of the video “eye gazing,” Maria handles a marble incense burner, tapping on it, and blowing smoke from the burner into each side of the recorder to simulate blowing the vapor into the viewer’s ears. She then blows into the lens, saying, “and your face.” Her movements around the frame are meant to simulate her movement around the viewer’s head.
Binaural recording was first developed by AT&T and was displayed as an attraction at the 1933 World’s Fair.[46 When the technology debuted at the Fair, it was exhibited as “Oscar,” a mechanical man with microphones for ears sitting in a glass box. Fair goers sat around the box wearing headphones, listening to what Oscar heard: flies buzzing, crowds in the distance. The audience was astonished to hear themselves surrounded by the noises that Oscar heard. Receivers were placed into Oscar the manikin’s head in the place where his ears would be in order to more closely mimic human sound perception. AT&T would continue to produce more advanced models of these manikins until the receiver was shaped more and more like the human ear. Thus we see in the early origins of binaural technology a strong will to draw out the uncanny relation between body and apparatus, a will to imbricate machine and body. The difference in usage between the original Oscar device and contemporary ASMR headphone usage reflects a significant cultural shift. While early binaural recording was first displayed as mass culture spectacle premised on collective reception characteristic of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the use of headphones in ASMR reveals the private, isolated nature of ASMR consumption.
ASMR reverses the sound-as-supplement-to-image relation often found in narrative cinema. In ASMR, the fuzzy digital image is subordinate to the rich sonic textures of the soundtrack. In fact, the first semiformal ASMR “video” on YouTube was created by YouTube user “WhisperLife” and features a woman with a British accent cooing over a black screen. ASMR videos tend to possess the murky, desaturated cast of the video format, even when shot in high definition. What is highlighted in ASMR visuality is texture and light on surfaces rather than the crispness of the image even when the image itself is of reasonably high quality. This is partially because most objects and people featured in ASMR are shot in extreme close-up. Every aspect of ASMR shooting and framing is designed to increase the sense of intimate contact with the performer. While early ASMR videos used cell phone cameras to record and iMovie to edit their videos, as of the last two years, ASMR has gotten much more equipment driven and technologically savvy, and as this tendency has grown, audio recording companies have started catering to the ASMR market. Maria has gone so far as to construct a sound-proof booth to minimizes outside noise. Additionally, some practitioners have even made instructional tutorials narrating how to use Audacity to create clean, yet “three-dimensional” sound. The emphasis on three-dimensional sound and static zoomed-in framing combine to impress upon the viewer an exaggerated sensual intimacy with the performer’s face.
ASMR erotics are two-fold: constituted by the vaguely sexualized and often cartoonishsly feminine self-presentation of the performers, as well as by video’s medium-specific capacity to create textural pixelated images and a sense of embodied intimacy with the figures on screen. Female ASMR-tists by and large are conventionally attractive women who spectacularize their femininity in the video’s diegesis, while at the same time thematizing the process of feminine self-construction through the featured role plays. It is standard for ASMR-tists, for example, to wear heavy, almost stagey makeup in videos, or to include their cleavage within the video’s frame. However, my own analysis is interested in the way that performers highlight the constructed-ness of their appearance through hair, cosmetics, and dress, drawing on this process as a source of intimacy between women. It is no coincidence that makeup artist sessions are one of the most popular genres of ASMR role play. In some sense, ASMR practices enact a kind of affective labor for other women that would usually be performed by women for men in industries like phone sex. In one video, entitled “ASMR HOW I DO MY MAKEUP TO LOOK LESS LIKE DEATH (Softly Spoken),” AmalZD says, “People are like ‘you look so different without makeup’ and I’m like ‘that’s kind of the point isn’t it?” Amal’s comment, delivered in a strange cross between deadpan and soft ditz, drives home the degree to which ASMR’s stagey femininity is often treated as a process of continuous self-configuration performed for other women, a performance which bears both distinctly erotic and maternal valences for its female viewers.
For the straight male viewers who consume these videos, there is an undeniable thrill to the simulated proximity to an attractive woman created by ASMR practice, as evidenced in stray untoward comments littered in ASMR-tists’ comment streams. However, I argue that to reduce ASMR’s erotics to a scopophilic dyad of male viewer as voyeur and female performer as exhibitionist flattens the complex web of desires that may exist between ASMR-tists and their mixed gender audience. To assume that ASMR-tists address themselves only or mostly to men because these women generally adhere to normative codes of femininity also flattens the complexity of the scopophilic drive. Gerturde Koch reminds us that the scopophilic drive can include non-mimetic qualities, for example, a child’s identification with objects in the world and these objects’ material characteristics. I would argue that Koch’s expansion of the category of scopophilia gets at the heart of what is so powerful about ASMR—the practice confronts us intimately with the world’s materiality, objects' sound materality, and the very pleasure of examining every crevice and curve of the performer’s eye.
Laura Marks identifies a visual erotics at work in the video image due to video’s relative lack of quality (compared to 35mm film) and to the relay of visual information from source to screen, which encourages the viewer to develop a more tactile relation with the image. In the video “eye gazing,” we can observe the incitement to a kind of erotic tactility that Marks outlines above. Maria stands against an aquamarine curtain framed in close-up, lit by an overhead key light. The light catching certain strands of Maria’s long straight blonde hair echo the vertical weave of the aqua textiles behind her. Soft pastel tones dominate the mise-en-scène. All of these subtle details create a haptic relation to the ASMR image in which the viewer is immersed in the rich, but fuzzy sensory detail of the video surface. Indeed, ASMR embodiment goes beyond its haptic aesthetics and can ultimately be linked to the medium-specificity of the digital image itself. Mark Hansen proposes that the ontological basis for the digital image is fundamentally different than that of the indexical photographic image, that perception of the digital image involves a more embodied and affectively intense process of construction than does the indexical photographic image. Hansen’s phenomenological schema of the digital image helps us to understand why the affective transfer of ASMR is so strong. The very medium specificity of video lends itself to these intensities by encouraging an active, bodily engagement with the image of the performer.
Throughout this paper I address ASMR as a mediatic phenomenon, but ASMR advocates identify sensory meridian response as pre-digital: the halo-like sensation of tingles from real life personal attention, the act of getting a haircut, the feeling of someone gently touching your face. Because not everyone is susceptible to ASMR, it is widely debated whether the sensations associated with the practice are in fact discrete neurological phenomenon or whether they are the result of psychosomatic suggestion. My own approach to analyzing ASMR resists this desire to bestow epistemic certainty on ASMR through scientific knowledge. As Marc Perelman’s compelling study of audiophilia demonstrates, ‘Golden eared’ audiophiles have traditionally claimed their personal experience of listening to music as central to the creation of their subjectivity as music lovers and audio experts beyond the objective claims of sonic quality produced by audio engineering. Likewise, I contend that ASMR should be understood as a ‘golden eared’ listening community in which subjectivity, personal experience, and immersive habits of attention and listening shape ASMR production and consumption, whether the tingles that the practice produces are empirically generalizable or not.
What is fascinating about ASMR as a mediatic phenomenon is the way that the affective transfer between performer and viewer is not dampened by the fact that it takes place over the video medium, but is actually heightened due to the screen’s proximity to the viewer and the use of headphones. I would even argue that the affective charge of the ASMR performer’s physical presence is heightened because of how the sound recording and the video format emphasize embodied intimacy. ASMR, like certain monetized and mediatized care jobs before it—psychic hotlines, cam girl porn, and phone sex—democratizes forms of care that are not only considered to be intimate, but grounded in the unique physical presence of the caregiver. As we will see in the following two sections, ASMR’s offer of instant care, of embodied physical presence, can serve as a powerful repudiation of the norms of work when it circulates in a women’s gift economy. However, as the practice of ASMR increasingly enters a broader capitalist market, the threat of another low-wage occupation for women bolstered by a few wage-earning superstars looms large. Further, ASMR’s unique capacity to physicalize for the viewer the sound-image relation is a highly exploitable characteristic.
Affective labor and ASMR
The rise of ASMR as a media form in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis signals the increasing omnipresence of affect as a double-edged tool in the contemporary U.S. post-Fordist economy. Affect is at once central to the constitution of community and to fueling consumer desire. This double-edged quality also permeates the term affective labor, which designates aspects of work like emotion and social performance that are not quantifiable within orthodox Marxist value theory. Feminist sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s early study on emotional performance at work noted how flight attendants being constantly reminded to smile by their employers constituted a primary example of how the expectation of positive emotional performance was becoming as much a part of work as labor itself. However, the demand for affect in the contemporary workforce is not limited to the requirement of positive social performance. Successful capitalist enterprises produce affects in the form of ideas and information. ASMR, at its earliest stages as a media subculture, lies at the complex juncture of affect as the production of value, devalued women’s work, and online community building. ASMR distills the affects common to activities like unwaged housework and waged care labor: presence, attention, and care. The women who perform ASMR, precarious economic subjects in their own right, have created what I will argue is a gift economy (for a broad audience and for each other) that valorizes traditionally devalued women’s labor.
Tracking the circulation of the term affective labor in feminist debates provides some background for understanding the traditional economic devaluation of women’s labor. Examining these debates also throws into high relief how ASMR challenges the culturally dominant narrative that women’s care labor is disposable. I want to focus here on iterations of the debate that seek to reinvest women’s care labor with cultural and economic value, arguing for affective labor as a potential site of political resistance, as well as a site for the production of subjectivity. Early autonomist feminist critiques of affective labor (otherwise called kin or care labor), which underpin contemporary debates about the term, posit that women’s labor has traditionally been excluded from Marxist economic analysis. This exclusion springs from the fact that orthodox Marxist political economy has tended only to examine formal waged labor performed by men outside the home as the object of its analysis, rendering women’s labor inside the home invisible. In 1975, Mariarosa Dallacosta and Selma James argued that political struggle needed to be reconfigured to understand the working-class housewife’s role as an agent of reproductive labor—work performed within the home such as child care and cooking. In its very early stages as a subculture, roughly 2009 to 2015, ASMR could be said to constitute a kind of housework of the Internet. ASMR performance is unwaged digital women’s work that is fundamentally reproductive in nature, providing the care that the exhausted bodies of late capitalism need in order to function.
Contemporary debates about affective labor primarily refer to the postindustrial service economies in which what is demanded from workers is not limited to the production of commodities, but also of affects. With the expansion of the service economy, there has also been a concurrent rise in flows of migrant women crossing borders to work in personal care jobs like nail salons, elder care, and childcare. While most contemporary interlocutors of affective labor understand this demand for affects to be highly taxing on the worker, critics like Kathi Weeks question whether the worker can any longer be said to have recourse to a private sphere outside of capital in which an authentic, non-alienated self is possible. I find this latter insight particularly prescient for understanding ASMR as a subculture that takes the emotional performance of contemporary feminine labor as its text. Weeks’ diagnosis of the ways that subjectivity is altered by the lack of distinction between work and leisure gives us some clue as to why ASMR would be an appealing practice to someone who already works an emotionally demanding job in the service industry. The mimetic performance of work in ASMR provides a venue to reimagine work. As Weeks asks,
“Could this notion… of work be fleshed out in a way that points in the direction of a liberatory project, one that strives towards relations of equality and autonomy rather than hierarchy and command?”
The horizontal non-authorial networked structure of ASMR subculture, in which feminized labor is valued and the work’s reparative function is acknowledged, we can see the formation of such potential structures. Further, ASMR’s use of the body and the sensorium as the privileged site for its reparative project brings to the foreground the way that affective labor and biopolitics—the production and management of life—are inextricably bound up. ASMR practices highlight the fact that without care, there can be no community, no world.
Sustained attention to the sociality evident in the comment streams of ASMR videos and the citational practices of ASMR-tists reveal that the women who perform ASMR are performing, in part, for other ASMR-tists. An air of platonic romanticism permeates the comments that performers leave for each other in videos and in comment streams, though these comments have become less visible as ASMR audiences have expanded and viewers leave hundreds of comments on a single video. This creates a gift economy in which videos serve as social currency. The gift nature of ASMR videos can be seen not just in the way that performers disseminate their videos on YouTube for free, but in how the ASMR community conceptualizes intellectual property rights. There is no ASMR technique or role play that is considered original or belonging exclusively to one performer. Techniques and video conceits circulate freely amongst a network of performers. ASMR-tists increasingly take donations to fund the purchase of recording equipment and software, but this too, continues to function on the gift exchange model, all capital going to improving performer equipment rather than to monetary surplus for the performer. The pattern of monetization whereby only the most popular performers asked for donations to improve equipment has significantly shifted as the specter of making a living off ASMR becomes a reality for about three performers. It has become common practice for ASMR-tists, even fledgling ones, to crowd fund, so the practice’s increasing monetization will likely continue to expand. As this process occurs, ASMR will resemble a subcultural gift economy less and less.
The early ASMR video economy most closely resembled online fan fiction communities before these fan subcultures themselves opened up new profitable markets. Fan subcultures, heavily populated by women, create and exchange free content like stories, memes, and gifs, with the aim of generating social solidarity. Critical studies of fan economies rely heavily on Maussian accounts of gift exchange to describe how these alternative economies create value outside of a commodity market. Mauss distinguished gift exchange from commodity exchange in that a gift is not property, and therefore retains a fundamental connection to the giver. The act of exchange creates binding ties of social obligation between giver and receiver. By contrast, economic exchange entails an alienated relation to objects in which property rights sever the social obligations that precapitalist gift exchange creates. Analyses of fan culture, particularly women’s fan cultures follow this basic model. Similarly, ASMR networks are bound through this process of reciprocal exchange. This gift dynamic’s saliency for ASMR relies on the practice’s circulation amongst a relatively small group of practitioners and fans. Sci-fi and women’s fan cultures have also tended to open up new markets for capitalist consumption as they increase in popularity.
The workings of the ASMR gift economy reveal how gender, particularly the performance of femininity, becomes a site for the reclamation of women’s care labor. Karen Helleckson contends that women, traditionally tasked by patriarchal culture with gifting aspects of their personality in order to manage social relations, are empowered by fan culture to perform an alternative, queered model of social exchange outside monetary value, which results in forms of social cohesion antithetical to patriarchy. Helleckson’s account of the way that fan culture allows women to queer the patriarchal dynamic of woman-as-gift provides insight into how ASMR functions as a strategy for reclaiming commodified care labor. ASMR, in its mimetic performance of care labor, allows women to act out care labor in an imagined community where care is not only valued, but intensely reciprocated by other performers. While it would be tempting to dismiss ASMR as a practice that reinscribes a patriarchal linking of women and care work, I contend that the ASMR gift economy recontextualizes care as a creative and ludic activity. ASMR’s playful reimagining of affective labor emphasizes social solidarity, reciprocal exchange over commodity relations, and foregrounds emotional and physical presence in a virtual medium. The danger inherent to ASMR is that as performers professionalize and streams are monetized, that ASMR will lose its playfulness and become just another form of work. As audiences expand and the demands of quality recording and for higher production values increases, it becomes difficult for performers to not seek compensation for their work.
ASMR, utopia, and consumer desire
ASMR is a young media practice, but its development and expansion since its inception in 2009 has been rapid. The overwhelming dominance of women in ASMR has begun to shift as an increasing number of men join the practice, which will undoubtedly change how ASMR is practiced and understood. However, as I have hoped to elucidate in this paper, early iterations of online ASMR manifest some distinctly utopian valences for its female practitioners and its audience. However, ASMR’s blend of media haptics and its mobilization of affect is so potent that the likelihood of the practice staying limited to a relatively small network of performers, or even of the practice staying bound to the small subculture from whence it originates, is unlikely. ASMR is on the verge of becoming a more broadly exploited technique of the senses, ripe for integration into mediums like music, advertising, film, and virtual reality. Experimental electronic musician Holly Herndon, for example, used ASMR sound effects in her 2015 album Platform. The migration of ASMR techniques from small women’s subculture to contemporary art practices signals that the next step for ASMR is its entrance into mass culture.
There is nothing inherently emancipatory about ASMR as a technique of the senses, or about the larger category of expanded media haptics toward which the global market is gravitating in search of increasingly immersive new media technologies. This tendency towards immersion is evident in Vivian Sobchack periodization of photography, film, and digital computers as technologies that marked three large-scale epistemic breaks within capitalist modernity: realism, modernism, and post-modernity, respectively. From the invention of film in the late-1890’s to the contemporary predominance of the digital screen, there is a clear escalation of immersion and interactivity in media. The portable screen of cell phones and other digital interfaces represents a big step in the tendency towards immersion in media, not only de-temporalizing the user and creating a sense of diffuse embodiment, but also allowing the user’s body to be in constant interactive relation to the screen, perpetually bathed in the screen’s light .
Virtual reality has been heralded as the teleological apotheosis of this immersive tendency. Where sophisticated virtual reality was once the province of research labs and military simulations, the entrance onto the mass market of relatively affordable virtual reality devices like Oculus Rift signals that immersive media will only undergo further expansion. ASMR’s “three-dimensional” binaural sound is significant not only because it proposes almost as high a degree of immersion as VR through much simpler technological means, but because ASMR’s binaural recording technique reinvigorate the traditional cinematic-televisual sound-image relation. ASMR not only lends an established medium like television advertising a new sonic immersiveness, but brings television advertising closer to more contemporary immersive technologies. A 2015 Dove chocolate commercial produced for Chinese markets features a foil wrapper binaurally recorded to emphasize its crinkling, signaling ASMR’s entrance into advertising.
Thus we can see how expanded media sentience is always a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it offers new modes of sensuous engagement with the material world (and thus potentially new ways of being), and on the other hand, it offers new and ever more intimate ways of infiltrating the lives of potential consumers. The double-edged nature of expanded media sentience is evident even in practices that far predate ASMR, namely experimental and genre film. ASMR seems to me irrefutably linked to what Linda Williams calls “the body genres” and to certain experimental film practices, particularly what Tom Gunning terms the “cinema of attractions” in which display and wonderment are prized over narrative development. As Miriam Hansen points out, the films that Walter Benjamin himself was interested in were not classical Hollywood or French poetic realism, but rather slapstick, Mickey Mouse cartoons, and early surrealist film. Benjamin proposed that these films could provide sensory training because of how they engaged the body and mobilized an affectively intense process of collective viewing.
However, as film history has shown us, many of the positive aspects of the cinema of attractions went “underground” into artisanal modes of production and viewing, as is the case with experimental film. The history of twentieth century film does not quite bear out Benjamin’s utopian proposition that film could serve as a proletarian training ground for the senses. Instead, narrative psychological dramas reflecting the hegemonic values of the bourgeoisie came to dominate commercial screens. Simultaneously, the tendencies evident in early experimental film of display and attraction became central strategies to inciting consumer desire in advertising. I point out these earlier developments in experimental film because I believe they highlight what is so particular about technologies in their early stages before they are captured by capital. ASMR at this precise historical juncture of extreme bioderegulation and neoliberalization does not yet circulate exclusively as a commodity in the global market, but rather, still functions on the model of gift exchange, prizing women’s experience and an ethics of care.
ASMR practice, with its modest proposition of making the viewer feel good, challenges the traditional devaluation of women’s work and represents a form of reparation for the somatic tax placed on bodies by postmodern regimes of labor, while pushing the very boundaries of mediatic sentience by means of a few simple and widely available technologies. To understand ASMR in its early utopian dimensions helps us remember that technological developments can be driven by values antithetical to capital. ASMR as a reparative media practice takes back both time and embodiment from what Jonathan Crary calls the “expanding non-stop life-world of twenty-first century capitalism.” In exchange, it provides the simple, but ever-elusive state of embodied presence.
1. In her 1998 book, The Fantasy Factory, Amy Flowers identifies phone sex as the “disembodiment of intimacy,” a development which she understood as pernicious for all social relations. Flowers, Amy. The Fantasy Factory: An Insider’s View of the Phone Sex Industry. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.
2. Williams, Linda. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible”, Expanded Edition. Reprint edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
3. Krauss, Rosalind. “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” OCTOBER, Spring 1976.
4. Ibid., 52.
6. This tendency is not new and has a longer history like the long playing records available in the 60’s to aid meditation and yoga.
7. Critics like Eva Illouz argue that rather than create a rationalistic present, unemotional present, late-stage capitalism produces a hyper-emotional relation to everyday life, in which intimate relationships provide less and less comfort, as these relationships are increasingly governed by economic logics. For Illouz, the growth of the self-help industry is an index of these shifting social relations. Illouz, Eva. Cold Intimacies : The Making of Emotional Capitalism. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2007.
8. In recent years, “sound studies” has emerged as an interdisciplinary field distinct from the traditional music department. For more, see: Dyson, Frances. Sounding New Media : Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. Eshun, Kodwo. More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet Books, 1999. Sterne, Jonathan. The Sound Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2012.
9. The term binaural refers to a type of stereo sound recording which not only captures right-ear, left-ear sound perception, but often uses prosthetic ears to mimic the way that sound travels through the human ear canal.
10. I use the term ‘haptic,’ to describe the way that audio visual media can produce tactile sensations in the viewer through textural qualities in the image, and through particular conjunctions between sound, vibrations, and image. Haptic, in this sense, refers more to the synesthetic qualities of visual art first theorized by Austrian art historian Alois Riegl, rather than to haptic technologies like touch screen digital media interfaces. The term haptic gets taken up in certain strains of film and media studies context to indicate visual media’s virtual and affective characteristics. For other authors who use this expanded definition of the haptic, see Cranny-Francis, Anne. Technology and Touch : The Biopolitics of Emerging Technologies. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013 and Marks, Laura U.Touch: Sensuous Theory And Multisensory Media. 1 edition. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2002.
11. Brennan, Teresa. Globalization and Its Terrors: Daily Life in the West. London; New York: Routledge, 2003, 19-32. Brennan contends that increased automation, rather than reducing work, actually increases the duration and intensity of labor time by demanding that workers keep pace with machines. The physical and psychological toll of exceeding the human body’s physical and psychological limits results in bioderegulation. Brennan cites urban sprawl and increasing commute times to work as one major driver of the bioderegulated condition. Longer commute times extend the workday, place an inordinate stress on workers, and compound the environmental effects of the 24/7 global economy.
12. Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility,” (2nd version) in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935-1938 (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2005).
13. Whispering Life. “Whisper 1 – hello!” Filmed [March 2009] YouTube video, 1:46. Posted [March 2009]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHtgPbfTgKc
14. Online communities like the Steady Health forum, the 'Society of Sensationalists' Yahoo! Group, and the 'Unnamed Feeling' Blog began discussing the sensation now called ASMR as early as 2007. The feeling was often described in forums as ‘orgasm.’ Debates about what the sensation should be called raged until 2010 when Jennifer Allen coined the term ‘Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response.’ This term gained general acceptance because it downplayed the eroticism of ASMR practices in favor of a more neurological-sounding moniker. Despite the fact that the tingling and shivers now called ASMR existed before it became a subculture, the 2009 video cited above is the first time that ASMR appears as a video-based YouTube practice.
15. See Stuckler, David, and Sanjay Basu. The Body Economic [Electronic Resource]: Why Austerity Kills : Recessions, Budget Battles, and the Politics of Life and Death. New York: Basic Books, 2013. And Roelfs, David J., Eran Shor, Karina W. Davidson, and Joseph E. Schwartz. “Losing Life and Livelihood: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Unemployment and All-Cause Mortality.” Social Science & Medicine (1982) 72, no. 6 (March 2011): 840–54. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21330027
16. See Berlant, Lauren Gail. Cruel Optimism. Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press, 2011. Konings, Martijn. The Emotional Logic of Capitalism : What Progressives Have Missed. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2015.
17. Konings, Martijn. The Emotional Logic of Capitalism, 96.
18. Brennan, Teresa. Globalization and Its Terrors, 29. Also see Crary, Jonathan. 24/7 : Terminal Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. London; Brooklyn, New York: Verso, 2013.
19. Benjamin, Walter, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” (1939) Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938-1940 (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2006).
20. Barratt, Emma L., and Nick J. Davis. “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR): A Flow-like Mental State.” PeerJ 3 (March 26, 2015) https://peerj.com/articles/851/. And Campo, Marisa A. del, and Thomas J. Kehle. “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) and Frisson: Mindfully Induced Sensory Phenomena That Promote Happiness.” International Journal of School & Educational Psychology 4, no. 2 (April 2, 2016): 99–105.
21. Miller, Jenni. “Whispering on The Internet Is Paying This Woman’s Rent.” Cosmopolitan, June 8, 2015. http://www.cosmopolitan.com/lifestyle/a40025/gentlewhispering-maria-Internets-most-fascinating/.
22. Though performers are beginning to monetize their ASMR channels through crowdfunding websites like Patreon, this funding mostly serves to finance the financing of recording equipment and a growing variety of ASMR props.
23. Hardt, Michael. “Affective Labor.” Boundary 2 26, no. 2 (1999): 89–100, 89.
24. As discussed in the introduction to this essay, this narcissistic self-presentation is apparent in early video art experiments and runs through to the selfie. As Rosalind Krauss asserts, narcissism is the “medium” of video. Krauss, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” 50.
25. Ihde, Don. Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound. 2nd ed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.
26. Barthes, Roland, “The Grain of the Voice,” in Barthes, Roland, and Stephen Heath. Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977, 188.
27. Ibid, 183.
28. GentleWhispering. “~.~Eye gazing, ear-to-ear blowing, head massagers~.~” Filmed [March 2014]. YouTube video, 22:09. Posted [March 2014]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_haPLEHgh8Y
29. While binaural recorders have existed since 1933, the recent growing popularity of ASMR and Virtual Reality has spurred companies like 3Dio to produce special binaural recorders with plastic ears on each side of the device to simulate more closely the experience of sound entering the ear canal.
30. Jousse, Marcel. The Oral Style. New York: Garland Pub, 1990.
31. McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy; the Making of Typographic Man. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1962, 27.
32. Ibid, 21.
33. See Olsen, Tillie. Silences. 25th anniversary ed., 1st Feminist Press . New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2003. And Russ, Joanna, and Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture. How to Suppress Women’s Writing. 1st ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, n.d.
34. Rangan, Pooja. “In Defense of Voicelessness.” Feminist Media Histories 1, no. 3 (July 1, 2015): 95–126. http://fmh.ucpress.edu/content/1/3/95.full
35. Dyson, Frances. “The Genealogy of the Radio Voice,” in Augaitis, Daina, Dan Lander, Walter Phillips Gallery, and Banff Centre for the Arts, eds. Radio Rethink: Art, Sound, and Transmission. Banff, Alta., Canada: Walter Phillips Gallery, 1994.
36. Bartky, Sandra. “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power,” in Diamond, Irene, and Lee Quinby. Feminism & Foucault : Reflections on Resistance. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988.
37. Mauss, Marcel. “Techniques of the Body,” in Crary, Jonathan, and Sanford Kwinter, eds. Incorporations. 1st Ed. edition. New York, NY: Zone Books, 1992.
38. This is the most widely held definition of Benjamin’s aura because it is the one that appears in Illuminations, for many U.S. readers the first access to the Art Work essay, or any of Benjamin’s works. As Miriam Hansen exhaustively documents in the fourth chapter of Cinema and Experience, “Aura: The Appropriation of a Concept,”the version of the Art Work essay which appears in Illuminations was famously edited by Adorno, who tried to strip the concept of aura of its mystical valences, as well as to shape the essay to more easily fit into existing critical aesthetic Marxist debates. Hansen, Miriam. Cinema and Experience : Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012, 104-131.
39. And Benjamin, Walter. “Little History of Photography,” in Benjamin, Walter, Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 2: Part 1: 1927-1930. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2005), 512-14.
40. Benjamin, Walter. “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.”
41. Ibid., 338.
42. Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility,” (2nd version)
43. Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film : Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000, 138.
44. Ibid, 139.
45. Benjamin, Walter. “Little History of Photography,”517.
46. Ganz, Cheryl. The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair: Century of Progress. University of Illinois Press, 2008, 78-9.
47. Ibid, 78.
48. As of 2016, for example, Maria has started listing her equipment in her video descriptions—two Blue Microphone Spark Condensers, a Zoom Portable Recorder, and a Canon Powershot digital camera.
51. The cinematic gaze as inherently fetishistic and gendered male is put forth by Laura Mulvey in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16, no. 3 (October 1, 1975): 6–18. https://academic.oup.com/screen/article-abstract/
52. Koch, Gertrude. “Exchanging the gaze: Revisioning Feminist Film Theory,” New German Critique, No. 34, Winter, 147.
53. Marks, Laura U. Touch: Sensuous Theory And Multisensory Media. 1st edition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002, 10-11.
54. Hansen, Mark B. N. (Mark Boris Nicola). New Philosophy for New Media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004, 10.
55. One recent psychology study links ASMR susceptibility to personality traits like Neuroticisim and Openness-to-Experience. See Fredborg, Beverley, Jim Clark, and Stephen D. Smith. “An Examination of Personality Traits Associated with Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR).” Frontiers in Psychology 8 (February 23, 2017). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5322228/
56. Perlman, Marc. “Golden Ears and Meter Readers: The Contest for Epistemic Authority in Audiophilia.” Social Studies of Science 34, no. 5 (2004): 783–807.
57. See Oksala, Johanna. “Affective Labor and Feminist Politics.” Signs 41, no. 2 (2016): 281–303. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/682920. And Weeks, Kathi. “Life within and against Work: Affective Labor, Feminist Critique, and Post-Fordist Politics Ephemera.” Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organization, vol 7 (1): 246-247, 2007. http://www.ephemerajournal.org/contribution/life-within-and-against-work-affective-labor-feminist-critique-and-post-fordist
58. Hochschild, Arlie Russell. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983, 4.
59. Hardt, Michael. “Affective Labor,” 89.
60. Costa, Mariarosa dalla, and Selma James. The Power of Women and the Subersion of the Community: Women and the Subversion of the Community. Bristol: Falling Wall Press, 1975.
63. For more on recent sociological accounts of migration and the personal care economy, see: Kang, Miliann. The Managed Hand [Electronic Resource]: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. And Anderson, Bridget, and Isabel Shutes. Migration and Care Labour: Theory, Policy and Politics. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
64. Weeks, Kathi. “Life within and against Work,” 245.
66. Hardt, Michael. “Affective Labor,” 99.
67. Kollock, Peter. “The Economies of Online Cooperation: Gifts and Public Goods in Cyberspace” in ed. Kollock, Peter, and Marc A. Smith. Communities in Cyberspace. London ; New York: Routledge, 1999, 220-242. Also see: Penley, Constance. NASA/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America. Londo ; New York: Verso, 1997.
68. Sabotini, Rachel. “Fanfic Symposium: The Fannish Potlatch.” December 20, 1999, http://www.trickster.org/symposium/symp41.htm.
69. Hellekson, Karen. “A Fannish Field of Value: Online Fan Gift Culture.” Cinema Journal 48, no. 4 (2009): 116.
70. Sobchack, Vivian Carol. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004, 135-162.
71. Ibid, 156-162.
72. As Ken Hillis reminds us, this drives towards immersion, at once a drive towards complete simulation, is a Western ideological project of subjecting “space, information, and identity” to rational control. Hillis, Ken. Digital Sensations: Space, Identity, and Embodiment in Virtual Reality. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999, xvii.
73. Dove. “Chinese Sihua Dove ASMR ad campaign – Angelababy.” Filmed . YouTube video, Posted [April 2016]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhwYbH5n15c
74. See Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde,” Wide Angle, 8, no. nos. 3 & 4 (Fall 1986). And Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly 44, no. 4 (1991): 2–13. http://fq.ucpress.edu/content/44/4/2
75. Hansen, Miriam. Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012, 82.
76. Ibid, 89-101. And Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility,” (2nd version)
77. Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attractions,” 2.
78. The extreme close-up, the zoom, montage, and abstraction are all techniques that Gunning calls “exhibitionistic confrontation” developed within early film and later, within experimental film, that eventually entered advertising’s visual vernacular. For example, the zoom and extreme close-ups that Gunning alies with “exhibitionistic confrontation” would become important strategies in figuring various kinds of commercial products in a spectacularized way. Eisensteinian montage, the juxtaposition of unlike images edited together for maximum visual and ideological impact, have become a fundamental aspect of television commercials and broadcast news. Additionally, there have been experimental filmmakers like Walter Ruttmann, who both films and ttman, who made experimental mercials gical means, d in the screen'th femininity and gendered labor. understanding whmade experimental films and worked in advertising. For Ruttmann, abstract animation was a key visual aesthetic in both occupations. On Ruttmann, see: Cowan, Michael J. Walter Ruttmann and the Cinema of Multiplicity: Avant-Garde, Advertising, Modernity. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2014.
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