“At certain moments, in certain rooms, algorithm bleeds into ceremony, and jargon becomes a kind of lullabye.”

- Nitin K. Ahuja, “It Feels Good to be Measured”

In J.G. Ballard’s 1970 experimental novel The Atrocity Exhibition, the protagonist careens toward a mental breakdown as images of violence (car crashes) and pop cultural icons (John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Marilyn Monroe) converge in his subconscious. The book’s deconstruction of traditional narrative form has been described as “like an instruction manual” – and its interplay with instructional texts is one of its most salient features.

The Kennedy Assassination is a key obsession in this exploration of semiotic overload. In his 1990 notations to the novel upon its reissue by RE/Search Publications, Ballard addresses the appeal of the Warren Commission Report as “a remarkable document, especially if considered as a work of fiction (which many experts deem it largely to be). The chapters covering the exact geometric relationships between the cardboard boxes on the seventh floor of the Book Depository (a tour de force in the style of Robbe-Grillet), the bullet trajectories and speed of the Presidential limo, and the bizarre chapter titles – ‘The Subsequent Bullet That Hit,’ ‘The Curtain Rod Story,’ ‘The Long and Bulky Package’ – together suggest a type of obsessional fiction that links science and pornography.”

Walker Percy’s science fiction novel Love Among the Ruins, which debuted a year after The Atrocity Exhibition, is similarly set in an apocalyptic future and features a psychiatrist who finds himself becoming a patient. Dr. Thomas More invents a machine called the Ontological Lapsometer, which he describes as a “stethoscope of the soul,” that, when passed across a person’s head can detect behavioral ailments. But the doctor also acknowledges that the process of applying this device to the patients – this kind of medical, nonsexual attentive touch – itself aids in soothing larger feelings of detachment or existential despair.

This device has been considered an analogue to what we now call Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR – which is a unique form of stimulation derived from things like minute, repetitive sounds – such as a whispering voice, the turning of pages, the tapping of fingernails on a table – or mundane sounds such as the recitation of instructions or clinical diagnostics. The response to these ‘haptic sounds’ is described as euphoric, and sometimes even orgasmic – though many in the ASMR community make a distinction between ASMR response and conventional sexual arousal, seeing it as “milder in intensity and more wholesome in intent.” Ballard on the other hand, creates a clear trajectory between the appeal of diagnostic minutiae and sex – one which can be seen in Peter Strickland’s most recent feature, In Fabric (2018).

In Fabric features any number of ASMR stimuli – the turning of pages, the folding of paper, fabric flapping on a clothesline in the wind – but most notably it protagonizes a washing machine repairman, whose detailed catalogue of technical jargon becomes a form of hypnosis for the other characters. Though these scenes in the film are not presented as sexual, they are presented in contrast with more traditionally tactile sexual imagery – including a pretty spectacular tribute to Shaun Costello’s controversial enema-porn film, Water Power (1976) – and this twinning of the two storylines likewise invites the twinning of these two modes of sexual stimuli and response.

The director Peter Strickland counts himself as part of the AMSR community, and in this sound piece, Terminal Speaks, he acts out one of ASMR’s most common triggers: the whispering voice. Through Strickland’s film – and here through the sound of his own voice – the mundane diagnosis of a broken washing machine becomes a fetishistic recitation. Writing on the proliferation of ASMR videos on YouTube, Nitin K. Ahuja – considered the first academic to write about ASMR in any formal, peer-reviewed platform – says, “The tendency to derive pleasure from clinical milieux, real or constructed, may be interpreted as a quality particular to the postmodern psyche.” That the community that surrounds ASMR cannot agree on whether their sensations can be interpreted as sexual or not leaves room to play with these ideas as Strickland has done here, in a most dazzling fashion.

By Kier-La Janisse

Peter Strickland began making Super 8 short films in the early '90s. His first 16mm film starring Holly Woodlawn and Nick Zedd screened at the Berlinale in 1997, only to be followed by a seven-year hiatus in which he founded an electro-acoustic culinary unit called The Sonic Catering Band. 2004 saw a return to film with two very short 16mm films and then his first feature film, Katalin Varga, self-financed from an inheritance on a shooting budget of 30,000 Euro. The film's critical recognition opened the doors to funding, which allowed both Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy to swiftly follow. His latest film, In Fabric should be released later in 2019. In between films, several of his radio plays have been aired, along with pop videos and a concert film (co-directed with Nick Fenton) for Björk.