ASMR & Narcolepsy

Giles Fielke

I am an Ent but Dr. Groot will attend to us now, for the next forty-five minutes, or on repeat for as long as we choose. Looking into this social mirror the reflection generalises our mimetic desires. I am in the screen. This mirror is ephemeral rift and it becomes a channel. I cannot just find what we are looking for. Like when they try to see past your own reflection, by standing between two mirrors. I’m out of this and into a book. Jim Carroll describes a similar moment in his downtown NY diary—Forced Entries—with a junkie vision, in an early seventies entry he called ‘Lost on the Back of My Hand’. Four decades later this loose, schizoid, party scene, seen by a de-distanced head assembler reads like a document of the post-narcotic effects of the alone together feeling of YouTube as a forum for pleasure cruising momentary communities. An inverted grouping of disparate and temporally synchronised bodies sit in close proximity with their browsers in a geo-blocked and zoneless zone.

I found a bathroom up a short, well-carpeted, circular staircase. It seemed empty when I opened the door. It was as impressive as everything else in the place: large and bright, the rug so thick naked feet would disappear in it. I walked in, and as I turned to shut the door behind me, saw I was not alone. There was a man to my right, completely naked, his formal wear folded on the rug beside him in a neat pile. He was standing there with a modest hard-on, jerking off. It was so modest in its size that, even though it was quite erect, the most he could get around it was two fingers and his thumb. He jiggled it furiously with this digital triad. His eyes were fixed, almost in a trance, staring into the mirrors cornering the bathtub. The image of the man repeated itself over and over, like the picture of the man on a Quaker Oats box. You know what I mean. The image grows smaller each time, but extends in theory on to infinity.

In theory was also in practice. The digital triad could now mean something more like the one which revolves around the computer which is the mediator, the son of the trinity. Today Dr. Groot you are my holy ghost. The Founding Fathers modelled the self by conceiving it around the sexual satisfaction for desire. To the point of absolute immediacy, one finds its technical realisation in the Apple i-Model of consumption and the production of the social as a Social Network, the fruit from the garden of Eden. This notion of the self was re-constituted by the trope of pleasure obsession in any number of industrial-aged, science-fictions—Huxley’s ‘soma’ in Brave New World, which was published in 1931, and in the same year as Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems which in turn would lead to Turing’s a-machine. ‘All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.’ The pharmakon is real, as well as imaginary. Carroll, a “right-place at the wrong-time” kind of wide-eyed observer of the cultural shift that resulted from the cocktail of post-war venture-capital and American Psycho type evangelism, not-so-subtly captured a shift from the public sphere concerns for political hegemony to the externalisation of desire, the arrival of a generalised private sphere for subjectivity. The century of the self styled itself on the boundless pursuit of excellence. He continues:

So, in that sense, he was standing there jerking off with an endless row of selves, each with the same lascivious glint in the eyes, each with the same salacious tongue flicking through the same grotesque smile, with lips thin as salmon fillets smashed over and over and over by a wooden mallet. It was the ultimate act of narcissism, and I couldn’t deny to myself that it was a pretty sexy operation—

ASMR is what I’m up to online. Finally I feel as though a spiritual encounter with the internet is possible. Headphones work best. I’m mostly alone. Massage ASMR is the strongest. I like Dmitiri. It seems to be about the volume and quality of the binaural audio, but there are images. I have an intense memory of a childhood visit to the dentist. His latex fingers were in my mouth and he was talking to me. It was sexual and it wasn’t about him, it was about me. The thrill of subordination was pulsing in the back of my head. This is relaxation and industrial therapy that deals with something saved for the church until it faltered. Freud saw it in the rhythms of writing memory. But this is also an erotism that breaks with the visual paradigm and returns it to music.

Autonomous sensory meridian response is a placeholder term for a little understood psychosomatic phenomenon perhaps most closely related to hypnotism. I think of humans purring like cats, but silently. There is a massive need for it, and that could explain why it has spontaneoulsy developed online. The symptom is a growth. Suddenly I’m self-conscious. Is this an encounter group? Cybernetics got weird in a bad way. Stewart Brand’s nominative determinism cannot be understated. The Whole Earth Catalogue was a manual for distributed power.

Today ASMRtists are ubiquitous as a generalised sub-culture. Berlin Community Radio hosts a show dedicated to ASMR titled ‘You’re Worth It’, hosted by Claire Tolan. On Youtube, audio is usually coupled with a domestic interior, a lounge room, or a bedroom – a living room. Sometimes a stage is set, creating a non-site for the heightened investment of the fantasy. It seems that a majority of ASMR is triggered by audio, especially in-ear headphones, and while it may also be triggered visually, it almost always requires an auditory supplement that is also driven by a nostalgia for childhood bed-time stories read by a parent or carer as we waver on the edges of consciousness. If a response requires a visual component at all it seems to me that it is for an erotics that has been thoroughly fucked by the media focus on images.

I’ve since noticed how pop music engages the attributes of ASMR techniques as a necessary component for the hit single. Rüfüs, electronic dance music from Sydney, released Innerbloom at the start of this year as a lead single from their album Bloom, and they exploit ASMR as a marketing strategy. There is no distinction between the conscious and unconscious. This kind of instrumentalisation should come as no surprise and ASMR may have, nameless, done just fine for a long time without too much identification, especially given the ubiquity of the close-mic’ing of the voice. It is the reverse of reverb, which simulates distance. Crisp closeness provokes intense pleasure.

It follows that the introduction of industrial products for delectation, from shaving cans to cellophane, tapped and rustled for your internal pleasure—your neck and back—can only be described as a targeted address to your pleasure receptors and to trigger neuroses and addictions through self-affirmation. Gifting you the strength to move forward.

Tolan is also a policy advisor on digital privacy and activist advocacy for an NGO in Berlin, she described ASMR in a recent interview,

The phenomenon was christened in an online forum around 2008 and has since sparked a huge community of people making videos to trigger this tingling sensation on YouTube. The video creators are dubbed AMRtists.

Christened is an important word. Secularisation created a vacuum of religiosity that the internet rushes to fill. Tolan features on musician Holly Herndon’s new album, Platform, imagining a 1 percenter, a business success story, who needs a whispered and pleasing-dose of ASMR delivered straight to the cerebral cortex—think Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K film Strange Days—as a reassurance of his individuality, his leader-of-the-pack styled dominance, WINNING, a maternal and positive therapeutic comforter for those who have difficulty sleeping at night. ‘You really deserve it. You work so hard. I don’t know how you do it. I’m going to touch you now.’ Life goals are required behaviours. Work is. Herndon, for her part, has also experimented with the vibrational potentialities of a tape deck in an automobile as a fetish object project that attempts to actualise the image presented by J.G Ballard in Crash. Herndon’s cassette release, Car, is designed to interact with the hum of your engine and shake the driver’s seat, to wobble with the gear stick while you are idling in traffic, or frequently cruising some supposedly emancipatory highway that just leads you home.

If the era of imagination ends with this closed culture of our networked society, the battle for desire and re-engagement with narcissism began with the techno-fetishism permitted by the economisation of the industrial object. Recently Daniel Ross, maker of perhaps Australia’s most serious film production, The Ister, wrote an essay questioning the anthropocene which ends by asks whether we need less narcissism or more. To wage a war against the dissolution of desire in our contemporary technocratic subordination when traditional thinking says we need less self-obsession, to encourage our “kids” to get off their computers, to stop with the video-games and re-connect with nature as if it is something that really exists and can be distinguished. This kind of reactionary and evasive U-turn is futile, but perhaps what we need is more narcissism and less at the same time. And that is about the closest definition of the impossibilty of art that I can think of right now, Dr Groot.


Giles Fielke is a Melbourne-based reader, writer and researcher of images. He works with the Artist Film Workshop and is completing his PhD at the University of Melbourne.