ASMR and the Search for Digital Intimacy

Preface

This article was originally a paper I wrote for Dr. Phil Ford’s experimental Cultures of Improvisation course during my Master’s at IU.

The course was experimental in that it was extremely focused on the phenomenology of improvisation in its curricular design: not only were many of the lectures and discussions improvised, but we also took up a regular practice of an improvisatory activity that we’d never before attempted.

The results of this practical phenomenological research, if you will,1And I will. were recorded in regular journal entries. These entries, along with literary research, were agglomerated to form a research paper imbued with the subjectivity of our personal experience.

As you can probably tell by the title, the activity I chose to practice was making ASMR videos. You’d think, as a composer, this sort of thing would come easy to me—and in certain ways it did—but, as you’ll see, I had trouble triggering ASMR in myself.

This failure to evoke the ASMR phenomenon in myself—when I have felt it so many times with the videos of others—led to the discovery of new ways of thinking about intimacy, technological externalization of self, and the detemporalization of æsthetic experiences.

As mentioned above, I wrote this article with my professor as the intended audience, so the style is a little more formal than the usual oratory à la Garamond found on other pages.2No shits or fucks this time, folks! Might rewrite it. Probs not. In any case:

ASMR and the Search for Digital Intimacy

It’s pouring out.

I hear the doors of the evening Five bus close behind me. The air-breaks hiss, and the moan of the engine crossfades into the sweet pattering of water upon stretched polyester. Umbrella in hand, I approach the small moat that has emerged from a sea of asphalt in the parking lot outside my apartment.

Negotiating this will take deliberate action.

With calculated steps, exact movements, I navigate the archipelago of pavement that has remained above the tide. Only four meters of air, thick with the scent of dead leaves wafting from the nearby woods, lies between me and the comfort of my small apartment.

The door shuts behind me.
Keys onto the table.
Backpack down.
Shoes off.

Wednesdays are the worst.

After a moment of settling in, I lob my body onto the couch (not the small one, the big comfy one!), take out my phone, plug my headphones in, and open up the YouTube app. Who do I want to listen to today? Maybe Dimitri. Yeah, Dimitri.

Despite his name, Dimitri is not Russian. He is a middle aged man from Gold Coast, Australia who makes ASMR videos and uploads them to YouTube. After a quick search through my subscription box, and a couple of taps, Dimitri is standing in front of me with a pair of Tibetan singing bowls. Over the sound of the bowls’ hum, he whispers unintelligible words—only discernible as English by the linguistic flavor of certain consonant groupings—into two binaural microphones.

After a few minutes he leans in close to the left one, and the whispered words “…to help…you…relax….” trigger an autonomic wave of tingles that spreads from the back of my neck down my spine and over my scalp.

This is ASMR.

• • •

For the last several weeks I’ve been trying to create videos similar to those by Dimitri and other so-called ASMRtists. Despite some technical issues at the beginning, I feel I’ve done an decent job. Still, it’s difficult for me to assess whether I have been successful in creating videos that trigger this sensation because of one critical problem: no matter what I do, whether I’m making a video or watching it back, I can’t seem to give myself ASMR.

At first I was worried that I hadn’t refined the sounds enough to trigger the sensation of ASMR. I got a hold of a better microphone than I had previously been using and tried to be very particular with the sounds. I did a whispered reading of poetry. I experimented with the sounds of rubbed leather. Despite these efforts, nothing worked. As I reflected upon the differences between the æsthetic experiences of my videos and those by ASMRtists that trigger me, something dawned on me:

ASMR is not about the sound. ASMR is about what the sound means. That is to say, the sensation of ASMR seems not to be triggered solely by specific timbres, but rather by the intimacy that those sounds suggest.

This hypothesis, that ASMR is truly a result of perceived intimacy, is supported by the work of Nitin Ahuja, who discusses the specific trigger of “attentive touch” between the ASMRtist and the viewer.3Ahuja, Nitin K. “‘It Feels Good to Be Measured’: Clinical Role-Play, Walker Percy, and the Tingles.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 56, no. 3 (2013): 444. Accessed 19 October 2018. Joceline Andersen also argues that ASMR is “induced through cognitive associations” with the sounds, not simply by the affect of the sounds on their own.4 Andersen, Joceline. “Now You’ve Got the Shiveries: Affect, Intimacy, and the ASMR Whisper Community.” Television & New Media 16, no. 8 (December 2015): 686. Accessed 19 October 2018.

If ASMR is triggered by intimacy, then an attempt to trigger ASMR in oneself would be similar to trying to tickle oneself: it can’t be done—or at least it’s very, very difficult to do—because one can’t be more intimate with oneself than one already is by inhabiting one’s own body. Moreover, at least for me, there’s a sense of immersion that needs to take place for the illusion of intimacy to be created and for ASMR to take place.

Sound is the perfect mediator for this illusion—which may explain why sounds, instead of visuals, are the most common triggers for ASMR—because it’s very difficult for our ears to perceive the difference between the sound, through headphones, of a recorded thing and the sound of a thing in real life. As mentioned in the anecdote above, a powerful trigger of ASMR for me is the sound of someone whispering into my left ear. When I’m listening to a recording of someone doing this, I cannot tell that sound from the sound of someone actually whispering into my left ear. This is especially true if the headphone is right up against your ear—where a whisperer would presumably be whispering in real life.

While the visual component of an ASMR video adds to the immersion of the experience in various ways, it’s readily apparent to the eye that the digital reality of the ASMR video ceases to exist at the bounds of the screen. When I’m watching an ASMR video, I can see that I’m not really there (by where the picture meets its border), I can know that I’m not really there (by the memory of starting the video only a short while ago), and I can even feel that I’m not really there (by feeling the headphones around my ears or touching the screen), but I can’t hear that I’m not really there. That is what makes sound such a powerful medium to deliver the illusion of intimacy.

There’s more to it than this, however. You see, if triggering the ASMR sensation were only a matter of creating the sounds of intimacy without considering the agent of those sounds, then I shouldn’t have any trouble giving myself ASMR, either during the sessions or when watching them back. But even when I listen back to my closest and most deliberate whispers or rub leather very close to my own ear, I still don’t get ASMR. During these experiences I am acutely aware that, despite the pleasing sounds, it’s still me making them. There needs to be a deeper level of immersion for ASMR to take place, not a sensory one, but a temporal one.

Denatured Causality & the Collapse of Temporal Immersion

Each ASMR video encapsulates an æsthetic experience of intimacy with its own temporality. As Andersen describes, an “ASMR video intimately connects two bodies, that of the whisperer and the spectator.” This connection, however, “is actually distant, not only spatially but temporally, as people watch videos months and years after they have been recorded and uploaded to YouTube.”5 Andersen, “Now You’ve Got the Shiveries,” 691.

Even though these videos exist outside time, however, when one clicks on an ASMR video and it begins to play, one transports oneself into that distant temporality which the video encapsulates. Within the reality of the video, the æsthetic experience is still temporal: one event follows another in chain of causality that is beyond the control of the listener. When I’m making sounds for myself, however, I already know what’s going to happen before it happens, and I have control over whether these events take place. And if I know what’s going happen before it happens, it detemporalizes the æsthetic experience, shattering the illusion of intimacy.

Technological Exteriorization & the Mediated Self

Another way of answering the question, “Why can’t I trigger myself?” is to look at ASMR through the lens of industrial or technological exteriorization, as described by philosopher Bernard Stiegler. In his essay “Anamnesis and Hypomnesis,” Stiegler writes:

We have all had the experience of misplacing a memory bearing object—a slip of paper, an annotated book, an agenda, relic, or fetish, etc. We discover that a part of ourselves (like our memory) is outside us.6 Stiegler, Bernard. “Anamnesis and Hypomnesis.” Accessed 19 October 2018.

This idea of writing (a technological innovation) as the externalization of memory echoes an idea in Plato’s critique of the invention of written word:

This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learner’s souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.

The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without reality.
7Eig, Andrew M. “Group and the Myth of Cyberspace.” Group 36, no. 3 (2012): 199. Accessed 19 October 2018.

Harsh words.

But while Plato may have been jumping to conclusions about writing-technologies making people stupid, he, like Stiegler, describes those technologies as externalizing memory. Both Plato and Stiegler draw a fundamental distinction between the experience of remembering something for yourself and the experience of consuming another person’s memory that has been exteriorized by some technology, be it writing or something else.

Today we live in a world where digital technology is so pervasive that, according to Andrew Eig, the term cyberspace to refer to the digital world may be obsolete. “Cyberspace may no longer be viewed as a distinct, separate entity from reality,” Eig writes. “Instead, virtuality commingles with the ‘analog world’ to form our new world.”

In a culture that is never truly free of cyberspace, the line between digital and analog begins to blur, and people’s modes of interacting with one another become “technologized”—and, subsequently, externalized. It’s hard to say how much of my own experience I feel has been externalized by technology, but I am certain that a lot of it has, including intimacy.

And the manifestation of the externalization of intimacy—via technological mediation—is the ASMR video.

So we can now begin to see the problem of triggering oneself in this context: if I’m watching myself back, to me, the intimate experience is not externalized because I have all my memories of being there making the sounds within me. I’m unable to consume the exteriorized experience of intimacy because, to me, it’s not even exteriorized to begin with: it’s already inside my head.

If I’m performing ASMR, on the other hand, then I’m engaged in the act of exteriorizing some intimate experience—to be consumed by someone else at some distant time and place. Therefore I’m not engaged in the act of consuming, but in the act of creating, two vastly different experiences.

I Remember Touch

Describing ASMR as externalized or technologized intimacy may be an uncomfortable thought for some, as it raises an alarming sociological question: does the externalization of intimacy isolate us? Ahuja notes that,

Isolation mediated by modernity is a relatively well-established idea,… yet it provides the basis for another, somewhat radical, model for ASMR—that is, as a kind of hypersensitivity to touch in the setting of its relative deficiency…. Under this hypo­thesis, the use of technology to relieve distress caused by a technological age con­tains within it a tidy, almost homeopathic, paradox. 8Ahuja, “It Feels Good To Be Measured,” 445.

Continuing this line of questioning, one might ask whether technologized intimacy has supplanted analogue intimacy. And if so, is the ASMR phenomenon the result of a collective foraging for intimacy in a world so thoroughly technologized that individuals are desperate for analogue touch, however illusory it may be? Are we just touch-starved cyborgs dreaming of electric sheep?

As dramatic as this dystopian view of modernity is, deeper exploration reveals—perhaps to Plato’s chagrin—that there’s simply more to it than that. As Eig argues,

The same hyperbolic rhetoric can be found for the invention of the telephone, the television, and the telegraph. These in­ven­tions were not only going to make us stupid but we would lose our intimate relationships, much as the threat of cybersex and cyber­affairs will ruin marriage. It is true that watching television or texting or Face­book­ing can be an escape from relationships. But to say that these technologies cause the escape and lead to such demise oversimplifies the matter.9“Group and the Myth of Cyberspace,” 199.

My own experience with the ASMR phenomenon aligns with this more moderate view of technologized intimacy.

Throughout my practice, ASMR has not existed in opposition to physical analog intimacy, but rather has emerged as a parallel externalized incarnation. This incarnation of intimacy, however, behaves differently from face-to-face intimacy.

Generally, we associate face-to-face intimacy with sexuality. In ASMR, intimacy is often—though not always—dissociated from sexuality. My experience of ASMR is a non-sexual one. A quick YouTube search for “ASMR” reveals thousands of videos, each with millions of views, in which artists play out myriad scenarios generally regarded as non-sexual: cranial nerve exam role-plays, whispered ramblings about their day, the close-mic’d opening of beer cans, quiet tapping on foam and paper, etc.

While some ASMRtists have included sexual themes in their videos (e.g. making kissing sounds into a microphone), it’s clear that most videos don’t do this. Furthermore, following my final presentation of my ASMR practice in class, several of my classmates revealed that they did, in fact, experience tingles, but the performance was, at least to me, far from sexualized. I find this separation of sexuality from intimacy via technological externalization to be quite remarkable, and it is exactly what makes ASMR such a fundamentally different experience from face-to-face intimacy.

Externalized Intimacy as a Deepening of the Human Experience

In recognizing the emotional power and uniqueness of the ASMR experience, as distinct from analogue intimacy, I am reminded of an art exhibition I attended this past summer at La Gaîté Lyrique, an contemporary art space in Paris. The exhibit is called Capitaine Futur et la Supernature, and is meant to bring young children in close interactive contact with technology for the purpose of broadening their minds and cultivating new forms of creative thought. In their artistic manifesto, the organizers assert,

The digital world is not devoid of affect; on the contrary, it is teeming with senses, sensitivity, and sensuality.10Les Voyages De Capitaine Futur. “A Brief Manifesto.”

Under this philosophy, the externalization of intimacy by technological mediation does not create a dystopian touch-starved society. Rather, it simply creates a new way for us to “better understand the world around us and better define our place and relationships with others.”11Ibid.

For me, this exploration of ASMR and digital intimacy—begun by simply practicing the activity weekly and asking why I can’t trigger myself—has afforded me compelling new ways of thinking about how I interact with technology and experience intimacy in my everyday life. Through creating and listening to ASMR I was not able to trigger myself, but I was able to connect with others in an intimate, non-sexual way, something that might have been more difficult to do in the analogue world where intimacy and sexuality are so often coupled.

Through glowing LCD screens, surrounded by phantom whispers, together in our aloneness, ASMR gives us a opportunity for human connection and a deeper understanding of the emotional value and potency of intimacy for it’s own sake.

• • •

Notes

1 And I will.

2 No shits or fucks this time, folks!

3 Ahuja, Nitin K. “‘It Feels Good to Be Measured’: Clinical Role-Play, Walker Percy, and the Ting­les.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 56, no. 3 (2013): 444. Accessed 19 October 2018. doi:10.1353/pbm.2013.0022.

4 Andersen, Joceline. “Now You’ve Got the Shiveries: Affect, Intimacy, and the ASMR Whisper Community.” Television & New Media 16, no. 8 (December 2015): 686. Accessed October 19, 2018. doi:10.1177/1527476414556184.

5 Andersen, “Now You’ve Got the Shiveries,” 691.

6 Stiegler, Bernard. “Anamnesis and Hypomnesis.” Accessed October 19, 2018. http://arsindustrialis.org/anamnesis-and-hypomnesis

7 Eig, Andrew M. “Group and the Myth of Cyber­space.” Group 36, no. 3 (2012): 199. Accessed October 19, 2018. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41939417.

8 Ahuja, “It Feels Good To Be Measured,” 445.

9 “Group and the Myth of Cyberspace,” 199.

10 Les Voyages De Capitaine Futur. “A Brief Manifesto.” http://capitainefutur.voyage/en/les-histoires/le-petit-manifeste

11 Ibid.