At 8:00 pm London time, Resonance FM is airing a program on ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) — tingling sensations in the brain brought on by hearing things like repetitive scratches and whispers in accented language. At @autodespair's request (thanks!), I wrote a short, highly speculative essay that will be featured in the program; I'm pretty sure it will even be whisper-spoken in ASMR style. The text I submitted is below (some of it was recycled from here).
Maybe the way to understand ASMR is as an anti-aesthetic, or rather an ur-aesthetic hidden in plain sight — art without the egotism of the art world, the concern for cultural capital, the status displays. Intentionality is irrelevant to the experience; ASMR recordings and videos aim to reproduce the feeling of having something resonate accidentally, despite its content. The reaction is pure, undeniable, uncalculated.
Like outsider art, ASMR delivers aesthetic transcendence with a formal vocabulary that excludes authenticity from the outset, embracing instead the primacy of role-playing, positing relationships of boundless care and concern masked by the ritual simplicity of commercial exchange. In unlikely, near arbitrary scenarios, in language instruction, in travel agent’s advice, in makeup counseling and hair-salon patter, sensation spirals and flows. Attention dilates to infinity. An endlessness becomes thinkable, experiential.
It resembles the inexplicable compulsions of pica, the yearning to eat the inedible, to taste something beyond flavor. It unveils unanticipated sensitivities in the afflicted, impossible yearnings. The perplexing, vaguely infantile longings threaten shame but also afford the thrill of the faux forbidden. After all, ASMR is on its face a kind of cerebral explosion of the ordinary, a tingling brought on by a surfeit of mundanity.
ASMR offers the sublime self-negation of art while precluding any hermeneutical pretentions. Gentle murmurings in a foreign language, crinkling packaging, meticulous descriptions of folding towels or the feigned administration of eye exams bypass the defense of interpretation to become sacramental. To call this relaxation is to underplay its uncanny intensity.
ASMR videos are well adapted to the cloistered intimacy of the smartphone as a medium, taking advantage of its possibilities for immersion and surrender. Smartphone users have already suspended presence and negated the space they inhabit, intently vanishing into the screen. ASMR videos extend the implicit logic of the smartphone as security blanket, authorizing total withdrawal into a mediated womb. They arean unforeseen portal to regression.
The videos fetishize focus without recognizing what that focus yields, or that the focus could ever end. They afford a vicarious attentiveness, absorption at a remove, or becoming absorbed by the possibility of absorption itself. An enveloping intimacy on demand, beyond reciprocity. They evoke an escape from productivity, from measure and merit and deserts. They create a space that seems to preclude, pre-empt judgment, where whispers don’t connote secrecy but solicitude.
ASMR is sensuality without sensuousness, separating the experience of intimacy from sexual desire. Instead desire is suspended for a preternatural plenitude. Its triggers can seem like test patterns for the limbic system, the dullness of the surface content a found neutrality, an incidental innocence of signification — decontextualization as discovery, role-play in which the posited roles refute individuation and augur of the nebulous conceptual nonspace of the prelingual, preindividual.
An inarticulate pursuit of pure feeling, ASMR promises inexplicable pleasure, and then, pleasure as inexplicability. The fulfillment of sensuality with sense — pure aurality reaching deeper synapses beyond the impulse to understand. Irrationality becomes a concrete state of consciousness, a pleasant confusion of stimuli, a smothering overload, a soft suffocation of sound.