Anna Caterina Dalmasso

Anna Caterina Dalmasso: »Like Organs of One Single Intercoporeity« – Exploring New Forms of Synesthetic Spectatorship in ASMR Video Culture.

Screens and digital devices have radically transformed – and are still transforming – our cognitive and social practices, and ultimately, our embodied existence. In fact, as embodied subjects, we are constantly remade by media and technics and, conversely, our techno-aesthetic2 relationship with the world engenders different scopic regimes and forms of subjectivity.

In the last decade, web 2.0 has been a source of interactive and multi-layered expressions, which incessantly reinvent from the inside the dispositive of the screen and our fashions to address. Thus, some of such web-based manifestations have come to challenge our conception of cinematic and postcinematic embodied experience and prompt us to rethink of the screen as prosthesis of our body. In this paper, I would like to focus on a self-created global YouTube community, which is connected to ASMR phenomenon. ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) is described as a subjective somatic reaction, eliciting a combination of positive feelings and relaxation, linked to a physical sensation of “tingles,” that travel through the body (most often beginning at the scalp) in response to auditory or visual stimuli. A large online community has recently formed around ASMR, including a variety of amateur videos which feature specific triggers designed to induce this sensation, intended for relaxation purposes and to help people struggling with anxiety, depression and insomnia. Often using stereo and binaural sound technologies, so called “ASMRtists” explore possibilities of reciprocal exchange of sensations through the screen.

Hence, what binds these digital videos together is their corporeal effects in the body, a digitalized evocation of sensations which are experienced intersubjectively. More precisely, ASMR videos does not just simply “evoke” sensations, they rather create them. In fact, the audio-visual triggers performed must not be interpreted as substitutes for real face-to-face encounters and perceptual experiences, they “deploys various aesthetic techniques designed not just to bridge the gap between performer and viewer, but to blur the boundaries between language, sound and gesture”.

Therefore – regardless of the scientific validity of ASMR phenomenon as such – several aspects of these videos, heavily invested in producing bodily effects, demand our attention and call for a phenomenological analysis of the embodied multisensory, immersive and empathic experience of screen interfaces they entail.


1. Multisensory Perception:

ASMRtists implement sophisticated strategies in order to raise tactile sensations by means of visual triggers, but, most importantly, by means of noise, and more precisely of what Michel Chion has called “materializing sound indices”, such as tapping, crinkling and other acoustic effects “that cause us to ‘feel’ the material conditions of the sound source.”5 ASMR videos convey tactility by immersing the user in a binaural sounding environment, which is then perceived as three-dimensional and surrounding. Involuntary successors of Cage’s experimentation and sort of post-cinematic Foley artists, ASMR vloggers are, in fact, sound performers developing an aesthetic of noise and acting with the explicit purpose of stimulating the spectator’s perception and provoking in them sensations supposed to elicit ASMR experience.

Hence, even though the hapticity of the cinematic image have been extensively explored recently6, in particular with regards to the entanglement of vision and touch in film experience, ASMR videos call for a new consideration of cinematic expression as synesthetic, taking into account sound as the immersive medium par excellence7, able to create an embodied space. I will develop this analysis by integrating Merleau-Ponty’s reflection on synesthetic perception8 with Dufrenne’s account of auditory perception and tactile imagination in Eye and Ear.

2. Immersivity and Sense of Presence:

In ASMR videos, significant efforts are devoted to create a strong sense of the presence of the user’s body. ASMRtists often propose role-play videos in which they perform make up, haircut or massage sessions, and other “caring” or “personal attention” activities. Two different strategies are then implemented: sometimes the activity is performed on a person who appears on screen, but, more frequently, ASMRtists address directly the camera objective as if they were engaging and taking car of the body of the youtube user. In such videos, the creative – even if apparently naïf – remediation of point-of-view shot and first-person-shot generates a virtually interactive exchange, which seems to break with most of the rules of such cinematic and post-cinematic figures. Nevertheless, brushes touching the camera objective, hands caressing the microphone or touching an invisible body around the screen, and so forth, are not felt to be in contradiction with the powerfully immersive effect of such experiences. Rather, in ASMR videos, immersivity seems to be reached by means of – or along with – emersive effects; in fact, far from being hidden or dissimulated, the presence of the camera and of the microphone is constantly recalled by the interplay of the artist with it. The mode of operation afoot in such practices, demonstrates how in contemporary mediality immersion does not always entail a quest for transparency, which, in the history of Western art aimed at abolishing the threshold between image and reality; quite the opposite, immersivity often derives from a constant emersion of the carnal presence of the interface.

Furthermore, the intimate relationship between the vlogger and the users raises the decisive question of the empathy related to the experience of screens, which can be explored through Merleau-Ponty’s notion of intercorporeity, insofar as it relies upon an intersubjective embodied relation.

3. The Body as the Primary Source of Mediation:

More radically, one could ask: what is the medium for ASMR performances? By proposing triggers intended to elicit specific perceptive responses in the user, ASMRtist make of the screen a prosthesis of human perception and at the same time they treat the user’s body as the fundamental medium of their performances. In so doing, ASMR videos implicitly redirect our attention to the body’s significance as the primary source of mediation, a conception which could be developed in the wake of Merleau-Ponty’s powerful account of the body as a medium and of the flesh itself as “self-mediation”. As it is known, the French philosopher breaks free from a conception of the medium as a means or as an intermediate term. The mediation of the body, to which Merleau-Ponty refers, does not simply connect the human to the world, but links things to one another and to their entourage. In particular, as I aim to show, Merleau-Ponty’s notions of body schema and intercorporeity, are not only decisive concepts to think of living body’s technicity, i.e. its capacity to expand its functions and annex objects as prosthesis or quasi-organs, but, significantly, offer an effective paradigm for an account of contemporary mediascapes as embodied environments.


Anna Caterina Dalmasso: She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy at Lyon III University and University of Milan (2015, supervisor: Professor Mauro Carbone; co-supervisor: Professor Andrea Pinotti). The results of her interdisciplinary dissertation, devoted to Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of the visual and its theoretical implications for our understanding of the notion of image, medium and screen, will be published in a book forthcoming in 2017. Her research interests include Aesthetics, Phenomenology, French Contemporary Philosophy, Philosophy of Technology and Cinema, Film and Media Studies. She has contributed to volumes and peer-reviewed International Journals. She is also filmmaker and she has worked as part-time lecturer in Aesthetics and Visual Culture, at Lyon II University, Lyon III University and at University of Milan. At present, she is Research Fellow of the Interdisciplinary International Project “Living Among Screens”, directed by Mauro Carbone at Lyon III University.

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