Eating together online: The ambivalent conviviality of ASMR videos

SAS ASMR, Krispy Kream Donuts (Soft Eating Sounds), 2019 Photo courtesy Francis Russell
SAS ASMR, Krispy Kream Donuts (Soft Eating Sounds), 2019. Photo courtesy Francis Russell

The proliferation of food media is a mainstay of late-capitalist culture and our compulsion to participate online. Through the circulation of videos and images of food, individuals can climb social hierarchies, display their worldliness and sophistication, revel in comfort and leisure, and connect to competing notions of nationality and heritage. While the social function of food is nothing new, social media has helped to commodify all aspects of the culinary and gastronomic lifestyle. Food dominates online platforms, from the occurrence of individuals photographing, posting, sharing and commenting on their lunches to the fact that the most-liked image on Instagram is an egg.

Despite its pervasiveness, such media is unsparing in its variety with the homely, chic, orientalist and molecular all competing for attention by offering divergent visions of food. This aestheticisation is evident in Instagram posts of bottles of olive oil arranged on a countertop with the simplicity of a Morandi; a video tutorial of a BBQ in which hands are shown pulling apart meat like Viennese Actionism; or, scrolling through the feed, a highly technical lab prep for a tagliatelle that wouldn’t be out of place in a SymbioticA exhibition. Despite this variety, the vast majority of food media represses the one vital aspect of food: active eating. Whether in the form of chewing, slurping, crunching, or simply getting greasy hands, the visceral side of eating is typically marginalised if not entirely obscured. However, in the emerging world of ASMR eating videos, eating’s unflattering side attracts hundreds of thousands, if not millions of views.

The interconnected phenomena mukbang and ASMR eating videos present two examples of a contemporary shift in attitudes around the embodied act of eating in contemporary visual culture. The term mukbang has emerged to describe new forms of digitally mediated eating that have become popular in South Korea since the 2010s. As linguist Hanwool Choe clarifies, “먹방 (mukbang) is short for 먹는방송 (muknunbangsong): 먹는 (muknun) combines the verb, 먹다 (mukda) “to eat” with a relativiser suffix, ‑는 (-nun), and thus characterises 방송 (bangsong) “broadcast.” Thus mukbang means, roughly, “a broadcast where people eat”.[1] Mukbang videos focus on the consumption of a large meal by a “broadcast jockey”. Watched by hundreds if not thousands of people—who comment and make requests live—mukbang videos place the corporeality of eating in the forefront, as broadcast jockeys “intentionally eat loudly” or increase “their microphone volume to dramatise their eating sounds.”[2]

ASMR eating videos are a similar phenomenon that have become increasingly popular with an international audience. ASMR stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response” and refers to the purported existence of a specific tingling sensation that is produced by certain sonic phenomena. While the origins of ASMR are arguably pseudo‑scientific interpretations of sound’s capacity to affect the nervous system, the contemporary appeal of ASMR videos does not rely on a commitment to the existence of a possible ASM response. Instead, ASMR videos are considered to be a form of entertainment, one conducive to meditative viewing. Similar to the mukbang phenomenon, ASMR eating videos centre on an individual eating what are often large or exotic meals, with food choice closely connected to the sonic textures made possible through eating.

Morpheus ASMR, Eating Popeye’s New Spicy Chicken, 2019. Photo courtesy Francis Russell
Morpheus ASMR, Eating Popeye’s New Spicy Chicken, 2019. Photo courtesy Francis Russell
Morpheus ASMR, Sandwich Whispering, 2019. Photo courtesy Francis Russell
Morpheus ASMR, Sandwich Whispering, 2019. Photo courtesy Francis Russell

ASMR videos of all types incorporate what the film theorist and experimental composer Michel Chion has referred to as “materialising sound indices” or MSIs. As Rob Gallagher clarifies, MSIs like “tapping, crinkling, lip smacking and other acoustic details” help anchor a filmic scene in the materiality of the objects rendered visible,[3] as well as an extreme form of intimacy. As Gallagher puts it, “the mixing and recording techniques [of ASMR] create almost hallucinatory distortions of scale and illusions of hyperproximity.”[4] ASMR eating videos bring these production techniques to bear on the relatively unheard sounds of eating. Indeed, when wearing headphones, an ASMR eating video can create the feeling that the crunchy or chewing sounds are emanating from one’s own body.

For this reason, ASMR eating videos tend to polarise viewers—producing either a sense of revulsion in the face of audio‑visual over‑proximity or facilitating an immersive and unusual experience. Regardless of the individual experience of enjoying or being unsettled by these videos, the question remains of their status as symptoms of shifts in cultural attitudes to the corporeality of food and eating. Put differently, it is worthwhile querying the meaning of ASMR as an idiosyncratic feature of the broader digital mediation of food consumption. Following this line of inquiry, one possible interpretation of ASMR eating videos would be to read them as embodiments of a return of the repressed, insofar as they render visible and audible those corporeal elements of cooking that were rendered uncouth over the course of modernisation.

As the political theorist Chad Lavin has argued, over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, bodily processes that were open to public display were increasingly shunned and pushed into private spaces. Drawing on the work of Norbert Elias, Lavin argues that, whereas “blowing your nose into your hand or spitting out a disagreeable piece of food” had been perfectly acceptable, it became vulgar “to even mention the existence of snot, saliva, or gas.”[5] Lavin argues that this process of rendering invisible certain affects and bodily functions reached greater intensity during the emergence and expansion of liberalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Over this period of time, the body’s openness and vulnerability “posed a threat to the idealised representation of the autonomous individual” so central to liberal political thought, fixated as it was on “boundedness and integrity.”[6]

For Lavin, these historical ideologies cannot be separated from the increasing tendency for individuals to eat alone. Longer working hours and the accessibility of dining options certainly play a role, but Lavin maintains that such economic and technological factors still fail to explain why eating alone has become so desirable.[7] Indeed, one does not have to subscribe to Eurocentric-liberal notions of bodily propriety to grasp the importance of consumer sovereignty and individual self-control. Arguably, ASMR eating videos allow for a fragmented and excessive body to reassert itself. Against the liberal preoccupation with self‑control, ASMR eating videos present the body as porous and affected by the sensuousness of food.

The aesthetic intensity of eating is visible in all ASMR eating videos, but popular content providers such as SAS‑ASMR embody this more than most. Unlike the typical ASMR content provider, who will have their entire upper body visible in the majority of their videos, SAS‑ASMR frames her videos so as to exclude the majority of her body and face. As a result, her videos are typically comprised of hands selecting and pulling apart food, whilst her mouth bites and chews in a manner that is paradoxically disembodied. As in Beckett’s Not I, the aesthetic choice to focus on the mouth and obscure the face and eyes anxiety and madness, SAS‑ASMR’s video are intended to calm and soothe. Both foreground the mouth as a zone of excess, one that disturbs the liberal notion of the self-contained and sovereign individual.

Whether through the excessive talking of Not I or the excessive biting and chewing of SAS‑ASMR, they help to bring into focus those affects inimical to the neoliberal reliance on the promotion of self‑control. Against standard decorum, the most popular ASMR producers typically eat with their hands. Not only does this spare listeners the potentially excruciating sound of cutlery scraping against plates, it also signals an informality that might be associated with the intimacy of eating amongst friends. Visually and sonically, ASMR eating videos suggest a mass interest in those aspects of eating that sit uncomfortably with liberalism’s clear demarcation of the public and private, interior and exterior body of the subject.

SAS ASMR, Krispy Kream Donuts (Soft Eating Sounds), 2019 Photo courtesy Francis Russell
SAS ASMR, Krispy Kream Donuts (Soft Eating Sounds), 2019. Photo courtesy Francis Russell
SAS ASMR, Krispy Kream Donuts (Soft Eating Sounds), 2019 Photo courtesy Francis Russell
SAS ASMR, Krispy Kream Donuts (Soft Eating Sounds), 2019. Photo courtesy Francis Russell

Beyond the return of the repressed affective or bodily qualities of eating, ASMR videos also speak to a desire for communal eating in an increasingly isolated world. Fans of ASMR eating videos often comment that they watch them after work, when feeling stressed, or while eating their own meals. Accordingly, these videos can function as a surrogate form of sociality, and the intimate sonic world that is so characteristic of the genre helps to facilitate a sense of community and friendship. This digitally mediated sharing of food potentially functions as a remedy for loneliness and anxiety—two undeniable features of contemporary neoliberal societies. They provide new means to connect with other people—facilitated by the feeling of proximity created through sotto voce and the aforementioned MSIs.

In this way, ASMR eating videos demonstrate parallels with the discussions of the gastronomic that predominate in the discourses of slow food and relational aesthetics. For both Carlo Petrini and Nicolas Bourriaud, “conviviality” is a key term used to describe a possible alternative to the alienated existence offered by late‑capitalism. Indeed, Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics is littered with references to food: Rirkrit Tiravanija’s hospitality, Gordon Matta‑Clark’s FOOD, and Daniel Spoerri’s dinners are presented as examples of shared eating as a means of pursuing “resistance within the overall social arena.”[8] One could very well read ASMR eating videos as an example of what Bourriaud refers to as an area of “conviviality,” wherein “heterogeneous forms of sociality are worked out.”[9]

Perhaps there is no greater moment of intersection between the discourse of relational art and ASMR eating videos than Georgina Starr’s performance of distributing pamphlets about the anxiety of eating alone to single diners. Starr’s text, which explores the anxieties of being cut off from the conviviality of eating, highlights the experiences of alienation that ASMR eating videos potentially salve. Given these affinities, it is tempting to connect ASMR eating videos to the broader focus on food as a site of resistance that has been offered by influential figures like Bourriaud. But I would also argue that they also express a desire to renew the social bonds corroded by late‑capitalism, while simultaneously reproducing a neoliberal logic of self-control and individualisation.

Sound and media theorist Mack Hagood’s term “orphic media” is useful for articulating the ambivalent relationship ASMR eating videos hold with notions of community and conviviality. Introduced in his recent book Hush: Media and Sonic Self‑Control, “orphic media” are those technologies—such as, but not limited to noise-cancelling headphones and white noise generators—that allow one to modify, if not control their sonic environment.[10] As contemporary subjectivity has come to increasingly depend on illusions of self‑control and self‑optimisation, orphic media, so Hagood argues, have become an essential means of designing or curating the affects and messages that we encounter.

They provide, as Hagood describes, “a sensory and material framework for our often abstract debates about public and private spheres, media echo chambers, urban noise, online noise, fake news, triggers warnings, and safe spaces.”[11] The centrality of headphones to the experience of ASMR, and the medium’s overall function as a form of affect control, supports Hagood’s analysis. If orphic media have risen in popularity to facilitate a sense of control over the sheer array of messages and feelings that can be distributed through online channels, ASMR videos similarly facilitate intense moments of bodily transparency on behalf of the video’s subject, while remaining opaque to the viewer as distributed media. Put differently, any desire on behalf of the viewer of ASMR eating videos to connect with others, and to share a love of food, is complicated by their status as a hidden voyeur.

Binaural Eats ASMR, Eating McDonalds: No Talking, 2017. Photo courtesy Francis Russell
Binaural Eats ASMR, Eating McDonalds: No Talking, 2017. Photo courtesy Francis Russell

Hackneyed critiques of the inhumanity of digitally mediated interactions sit oddly with ASMR’s emphasis on mood. Rather than doubting the reality or intensity of the affects produced through interacting with ASMR videos, such media can often be the most affecting due to the user’s capacity to curate and tailor their playlists to content that they know will have the greatest impact. The capacity of these videos to enable relaxation and meditative calm, the alleviation of boredom or stress, is distinct from, but comparable to pornography—individuals are able to reengage in the sensuousness and corporeality of the body without any risk of embarrassment through exposure. Since the most popular ASMR eating videos focus on eating to excess, enjoying food more than is polite or proper, and eating the “wrong kinds of foods”—specifically junk food and fast food—the appeal of this media is its liberation.

The celebration of this more carnal side of eating as self‑initiated, indicative of the neoliberal subject’s drive for “atmospheric food regulation,” as described by Paul Roquet is just another instance of reinforcing the underlying position of atomised self-control, insofar as this encourages an experience of excess or fragmentation.[12] In line with this injunction, ASMR eating videos circumscribe a desire for eating with others within a visual culture that is inimical to the “trans-individuation” that can arise through sharing a common space. By allowing us to watch others enjoying food, the viewing of ASMR eating videos potentially reinforces the collective privatisation of stress. But regardless of how troubling one might find the rise in popularity of this sub-genre of ASMR, the elimination of the time and space for shared public eating will only extend the necessity of this kind of media.

Footnotes

  1. ^ Choe Hanwool, “Eating Together Multimodally: Collaborative Eating in Mukbang, a Korean Livestream of Eating,” Language in Society, 48:2, 2019, pp. 171–208, p. 173.
  2. ^ Ibid., p. 174.
  3. ^ Rob Gallagher, “Eliciting Euphoria Online: The Aesthetics of ‘ASMR’ Video Culture”, Film Criticism 40:1, 2016.
  4. ^ Ibid.
  5. ^ Chad Lavin, Eating Anxiety: The Perils and Politics of Food, Minneapolis: University Minnesota Press, 2013, p. 26.
  6. ^ Ibid., p. 29.
  7. ^ Ibid., p. 23.
  8. ^ Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, trans. Simon Pleasance & Fronza Woods, Paris: Les Presses Du Réel, 2002, p. 31.
  9. ^ Ibid.
  10. ^ Mack Hagood, Hush: Media and Sonic Self‑Control, Durham: Duke University Press, 2019, p. 3. The term “orphic media” refers to the myth of Orpheus, one of the Argonauts of Greek mythology, who used his lyre and song to drown out the bewitching song of the Sirens
  11. ^ Ibid., p. 4.
  12. ^ Paul Roquet, Ambient Media: Japanese Atmospheres of the Self, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016, p. 5.

Francis Russell is the coordinator of the Bachelor of Arts Honours program at Curtin University. He writes on art, politics, and critical theory.

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