Collapsing the Five Senses into Two in our Online Lives,

Printed in Muff #2: Body


“The plaything of the online spirit, freed from corporeality, is not thanatos but libido” - Paul Levinson, Digital McCluhan

The first time I ever felt aroused was in a chatroom. I was eleven, it was 1999, and I was hanging out on the internet as “flareon55”, a human variant of the fire pokemon. My twin-passion to Pokemon cards was J.R.R. Tolkien, so I had a lot of pent up anglophile energy, and a nice British guy started chatting with me. Manchesterguy011 loved football, was a 21 year-old uni student, and may or may not have guessed I was eleven by my poke-inspired screen name. We didn’t have cybersex, he wasn’t a creep, or at least a fast-moving creep. The thing we did, though, was describe our bodies to each other in a lot of detail. In the virtual possibilities of the New Millennium, I was nineteen, had long legs and frizzy red hair, nobby shoulders, and an outie (alt-girl starter pack?). My friend proved his un-unsavory intentions by describing himself as totally ordinary: muscular legs, medium-broad shoulders, and short, light brown hair. I fell for his humble spirit easily and imagined reaching through the screen and stroking his partially filled-in beard. It was pure visceral joy. My older sister walked in soon after, though, and ruined the whole thing. She read back the chat aloud, laughed hard through her braces, and shamed me into closing the tab and never talking to that nice uni student again. Still, he and I gave each other something important in the short exchange -- it was just with text but we were figuring out together that on the internet corporeality could be just as spongey and amazing as our imaginations.

Almost twenty years later, I spend a lot of time on my iPhone 6S and am experiencing new, new possibilities for my body. For instance, I can be swiping on my screen, touching the Gorilla Glass, manipulating the light passing through it, and have the sensation that I’m kneading a well-made slime, popping its air pockets with manicured fingers, releasing a thousand farts of goodwill into the universe. I might just be looking at the screen, but it feels like I’m pressing my face hard into a loaf of Japanese hotel bread, marking it deflate under my face’s pressure. I shave bars of soap into neat curls with an X-acto knife often too, I crunch down on whole plates of corn dogs, and pop spoonfuls of boba against the roof of my mouth. It’s as if there’s a whole world of sensory experience available underneath my index finger. 

#Asmr, #mukbang, and #satisfyingvideos, in their florid sensuality, are fun extensions of the old rule that the internet is the playground of our animal instincts. These days we don’t have to open an incognito browser to excite the senses. On Instagram and Youtube, we can follow the accounts that bring us these odd sensory simulations, and they pop up in our feeds and recommended videos before we can ever feel funny about searching for our fetish fixes. 

Media theorist Marshall McCluhan was probably the first to prophesize the salacious reign of the body in AV media. Writing in 1978, McCluhan argued that print media “brings us the world”, while with AV media “The human perceiver travels through the [medium]”, that is, AV “brings us to the world”. With the aphorism, he's isolating the viewer's feeling of being transported to the recording site. Of course, that feeling is only heightened now, as Instagram and Snapchat have popularized documenting mundane details from our everyday lives. Watching your favorite meme artist's Instagram story, on a day she's sick but still somehow generating insightful content about being in bed, you have intimate, almost embodied access, to her sickbed -- her over-sized t-shirt and pile of tissues become textures of your own reality. 

ASMR videos have carved a place for themselves from this impression of embodied intimacy. ASMR (or autosensory meridian response) artists send shocks of europhia to viewers by carefully curating sounds and visuals. A video might feature nails tapping on ceramic, a feather being drawn against a back, or a hand manipulating a bowl of water marbles (with the video titled thoughtfully "touching, dropping, cutting" so you know which tactile fixes you're getting). The artist may even reach toward the camera and perform the action just out of view to simulate the first person experience of getting a haircut or having your back scratched. We, in turn, respond with a rush of pleasure and the promise of more views. 

Paul Levinson, in 1999, my special chatroom year and way before ASMR was something your aunt would bring up at Christmas, applied McCluhan to the Digital Age, by noting our libidinous content consumption online. “The plaything of the online spirit," he wrote, "freed from corporeality, is not thanatos but libido”. I had to look up what thanatos meant the first time I read that, but basically it’s the Greek concept of our mortality, of living experience always actually being the experience of our bodies decaying. Saying that the online spirit is all libido, he’s isolating the wild lust we have on the internet. At eleven, I sped through space, time and my bodily reality to chat with a sad British dude. Now, I space-hop daily into vats of microbead porridge and my brain uses my sensory memories to fill in the the tactile, olfactory, and gustatory impressions absent in audiovisual content. I’m not dying on the internet, I’m living. 

However, with the recent surge of “explicit” sensory content online, one has to wonder what we’re really getting out of it. Levinson argues that the appeal of cybersex stems from the lack of corporeal consequences online (that is, you can do it as much as you want without getting anyone pregnant). This dynamic is certainly at work with Mukbang, the Korean cousin to ASMR, in which the video subject scarfs down a big plate of food for their audience. With the audio track spiked up, viewers hear (or audio-consume?) the carnal crunch of lobster legs or the slurp of noodles. The eater describes the food as they go, informing us, “The sausage is tender and chewy”, or “I just got to the mozzarella center”. We too get to enjoy the gooey mozzarella, free of concern for fat or calorie content. We can’t help but notice, though, that the overwhelming number of Mukbang stars are 

slim and young. Their cute faces and slight figures seem to reassure us, “yes, on the internet you can eat whatever you want and be forever young , slender and with a clear complexion”. With the absence of bodily repercussions when we “indulge” in AV media, we can eat as many plates of oysters or sizzling hot pots as we want without any impact on our health. 

Is that it, though? Are our feeds increasingly crowded with sensory-rich content because consuming it has no consequences for our bodies? I think actually that the trend is responding to something deeper, to a void growing in our unfiltered, unstreamed lives, where we once really touched, tasted, and felt things.

Take me, for instance: the average weekday I work on the computer for most of the day, making money by manipulating boxes in Adobe InDesign. I get off work around 8, flick at my phone during my train ride, and when I get home I heat up a Trader Joe's shortcut meal involving refried beans or frozen gyoza. A hundred years ago, in a design job, I'd be receiving the varied tactile experiences of hard and soft lead pencils, weights and textures of paper, and the liquid stream of ink or paint. Meal prep, too, would offer a wealth of sensory feedback: I, or someone close to me, would have to pound corn, knead dough, and boil and mash beans before they arrived on my table. My life would be in intimate contact with the pencil tapping and spongey doughs that I'm now consuming as AV, "satisfying" media. 

I do think that this emerging class of sensory videos, with all their bubbly, foamy textures, hint to a nostalgia for a time when we received sensory stimulation simply from making useful things. Before we had iPads and smartphones, we had much more contact with the textures of our baking, carpentry, or foraging. I won't argue, though, that this means the world is ending. 

Here (as in most places), it’s best to look to Donna Haraway. Grounding ourselves in the Cyborg Manifesto, we remember human cultures have always had ways of "programming reality". Before we get sentimental for a lost Garden, we should rejoice in evolving technology's new nodes of connection, and its inherent possibilities for communication. It's cool that as disembodied internet spirits we can travel through space and time, and if we're mindful about the media we're producing and consuming, a lot of awareness and action might come out of our new penchant for AV viscerality. Our hunger for texture might be hacked by images of oil-slicked herons or contrasting videos of organic and GMO tomatoes being slowly and precisely sliced. Our obsession with watching people eat and drink could be piqued in taste-test videos of urban water quality around the globe. McCluhan would of course note that the “user is the content” of these emergent media. As we get smarter in choosing and recording the subjects of our sensory fascinations, we may become apt documenters of the Earth’s diverse and startling realities. Our facility in fetishizing the visceral might be applied to mobilizing the world -- by making our viewers feel something.