Surfing the Anthropocene

The Big Tension and Digital Affect

by Eric S. Jenkins (Author)
©2020 Textbook XII, 286 Pages


Surfing the Anthropocene shows how the "big tension" between the speed and scale of digital media characterizes affective life on the public screen today. An innovative look launched in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election, Eric S. Jenkins illustrates how the big tension is reflected in how we feel and talk about digital media. Exploring a variety of modes from following news on Twitter to discussion on Facebook, activism to witnessing police shooting videos, the book demonstrates how responses to the big tension make political activity more like videogames, with an "immeditative" temporality and "attentional" spatiality contrasted with meditative and tending modes such as gardening. As a near-monoculture of immeditative, attentional modes emerge, consumerism and affect privilege become reinforced in ways that make addressing the problems of the Anthropocene especially draining and difficult.
Original concepts throughout the book, including the big tension but also the affected subject, translucency, and homo modus, are sure to influence thinking about digital media. If you wonder why life today feels particularly urgent, heated, and intense, Surfing the Anthropocene offers a compelling answer—the big tension—as well as a way to reimagine digital experience with an eye towards surviving, rather than just surfing, the Anthropocene.

Table Of Contents


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As with any project of this scope, I owe a debt of gratitude to so many people who have influenced my thinking, supported my efforts, or otherwise aided in the project’s completion. First, I’d like to thank those people who read parts of the manuscript and provided me with feedback: Tony Liao, Ashley Hinck, Mack Hagood, Scott Church, and Jairus Grove. Your assistance has made this a better book, and your feedback gave me the confidence that despite the audacity of the project and the approach that I did not completely jump the shark. I am forever grateful. Over the past couple of years, many others have engaged my thinking at conferences and presentations and also provided invaluable feedback. These people include Corey Anton, Lance Strate, Mike Plugh, Damien Pfister, Peter Zhang, Robert MacDougall, Stephen Haas, Omotayo Banjo, and Betsy Bruner. I also rely on some close academic friends who always listen to my ideas and make me a stronger intellectual: Pete Bsumek, David Cisneros, Dustin Greenwalt, Davi Johnson, and Kevin Marinelli. My PhD and Masters advisors, Kevin DeLuca and Ronald Greene, greatly influenced my thinking and continue to provide advice and encouragement. Many other non-academic friends provided support throughout the project, especially those days during sabbatical in which I was hunched over a computer and isolated from human contact. Thanks to the Northside crew, Jeni Jenkins, James Moore, Chip Miller, Shawn Wahl, my ←xi | xii→sister Allison Conaway, my mother Carolyn Layne, my father John Jenkins, and especially my wife and kids, Mary, Skyler, and Gabe. I would also like to thank the University of Cincinnati, especially my colleagues in the Communication Department, for providing a supportive and friendly atmosphere, as well as the resources necessary to do original research. I am truly privileged to have so many wonderful people in my life. May we all surf the Anthropocene together, for years to come.

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Surfing the Anthropocene could be called a period piece, in a couple different ways. First, the book stems from reflection on my online experiences before, during, and after the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. This period was particularly intense, evoking a wide range of emotions and feelings that this book seeks to explicate. In a bigger sense, Surfing the Anthropocene considers the intersection of two profound epochs signaled in the title: the digital age, frequently dated to the spread of personal computers in the 1980s and the public Internet in the early 1990s, and the Anthropocene, a concept popularized in the early 21st century by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen that names the current geologic era in which human impact on the environment predominates due to plastic pollution, widespread mining, radioactive waste, climate disruption, rampant deforestation, and the Earth’s sixth mass species extinction, presently under way.1

From a geological perspective, these two eras are fundamentally intertwined. Critical geologists like Erich Hörl and Jussi Parikka illustrate how the Anthropocene as a concept responds to problems linked to the technological, and they diagram how the plastics, energy use, chemical waste, and rare-earth metals from the production of digital hardware and software contribute significantly to what Parikka calls the “Anthrobscene.”2 Take iPhones. Mined in Africa and Alaska, refined in Canada, shipped to China for assemblage, and distributed around the ←1 | 2→globe before being dumped elsewhere for disposal once their short lives reach the stage of planned obsolescence, iPhones are emblematic devices of the Anthropocene, planetary in production and consumption, with their decay and decomposition leaving a lasting trace for generations. As such, Parikka’s “addition of the obscene is self-explanatory when one starts to consider the unsustainable, politically dubious, and ethically suspicious practices that maintain technological culture and its corporate networks.”3

These direct connections between digital technologies and the planetary and epochal obscenities the Anthropocene names are undeniable, but not the focus of this book. Instead, Surfing the Anthropocene considers how these two epochs intersect in a more mundane way: on our screens. At this level, digital media not only contribute to the Anthropocene but also make us frequently aware of that contribution. Indeed, it is increasingly difficult not to be exposed to information about the issues Parikka stresses. On social networks, news about plastic pollution, climate disruption, the toxic chemicals and cobalt mines, the sweat shops and slave labor, regularly circulates. We surf—to use a somewhat dated metaphor for navigating online—scrolling, clicking, skimming, jumping from link to link, and there it is—the Anthropocene, or, if you prefer, the Capitalocene, the Eurocene and all the so-called wicked problems with global scopes and epochal time-scales.4 A news article about trash islands in the Pacific Ocean the size of Texas pops up, followed by a report about the impending devastation of global warming, stories about the corporate exploitation of big data to promote wasteful consumer spending, commentary on the oligopolistic control and manipulation of democratic governments, another video of police shooting an unarmed black man, laying bare the stark, ongoing history of institutional racism.

This book considers what these encounters on our public screens feel like, what affections and emotions surfing the Anthropocene tends to generate and what prospects and pitfalls such encounters and feelings pose for progressive political change. By public screen, I refer to Kevin DeLuca and Jennifer Peeple’s concept, which reforms for contemporary times Jurgen Habermas’ notion of the public sphere that emerged in the salons and coffee houses of 18th-century Europe.5 The public screen signals that today much of the political discussion and debate demarcating the public sphere takes place online, via the mediation of digital devices. This book focuses on everyday experiences on the public screen, the activities of (trying to be) democratic citizens in the digital age, of being a person who uses their smartphone or laptop to follow the news on Twitter, to watch the latest videos of public interest, to discuss politics on Facebook, and to engage in activism via social media. Employing affect theory, I dive into how surfing the ←2 | 3→Anthropocene feels, the anxieties and hopes, exhaustions and exasperations, fear and love, joy and sorrow evoked through various modes of engaging in the digital public screen.

In this portrayal, I try to avoid a rush to judgment, whether positive or negative. Surfing the Anthropocene typically results in an admixture, even a roller-coaster, of affections and emotions. Many of the emotions generated have a negative valence. Encounters on the public screen have made me sad, angry, and despondent, have led me to engage in shaming, boasting, contemptuousness, and even to enjoy the shallow pleasure of a little schadenfreude. Yet I have also felt awe, hopeful, inspired, motivated, connected, and enlightened. Both emotional outcomes occur, or how else could we explain the continued popularity of digital media despite the apparent negatives? Therefore, rather than concluding for or against digital media (as is common in most commentaries), I contend that this range of emotional outcomes emerges from some tensions or intensities that surfing the Anthropocene innervates—pressures on our time and space, frictions in our encounters, stresses on our expectations and appetites. These tensions, I argue, are the result of a clash between the two spatio-temporalities indicated by the title, the tension between being exposed to vast, epochal, and planetary issues but typically in a rapid, abbreviated, and cursory manner. The clash between these spatio-temporalities undergirds the various and varying emotions experienced and expressed in the digital media environment. I call this clash the big tension, both because I portray it as fundamental to political life on the public screen and because the contrast between surfing and the Anthropocene is quite large, quite stark, as I hope the discordance of the book’s title adequately captures.

These big tensions are felt, and those feelings become expressed in rhetoric attesting to the various emotional experiences. Although these expressions and emotions are not the big tensions but actualizations or translations of intensive forces, they index the big tensions, translating the stress and pressure into a sense that something is fundamentally wrong with our world, into a feeling that our problems are somehow more urgent, more intense, and more overwhelming than the not-too-distant past. One can find such a sense amongst scholars such as Bifo Berardi, who contends that we live in a century where belief in the future has dissipated and, hence, depression and drug addiction have swelled.6 Or in William Connolly’s Facing the Planetary, which contends that a passive nihilism has surged in response to awareness of the realities of the Anthropocene combined with a resignation or inhibition that precludes “moving beyond a vague sense of loss.”7 The result is an intensification of “existential anxiety” for “harried citizens who try not ←3 | 4→to think too much about the planetary condition” but instead engage in “explicit admission and tacit evasion.”8

Such worries do not confine themselves to the thoughts of critical scholars, however, but circulate throughout society, from growing numbers of people seeking therapy due to their existential terror about global warming to climate deniers who nevertheless sense a deteriorating world and project blame onto everything from the decline of Christianity to the globalist leftist cabal to the millennial generation. I see this sense expressed nearly every day in the all-too-common portrayals of post-apocalyptic earth in popular culture and hear it in nearly whispered gasps of resignation and anxiety in conversations both face-to-face and online. Just today, for instance, I came across a tweet that captures the sensation emerging from these big tensions all too well. Structured as a to-do list, the first bullet point, right before grocery shopping, reads:

My country is moving children to internment camps used to imprison Japanese Americans during WWII. A step we knew they’d take. The climate is dying and the United States is openly building concentration camps. If someone finds this diary in the future, We Knew. We All Knew. Some of us tried to stop it. Everyone knew.9

It is not my claim that everyone knows the horrors of the Anthropocene, but it is my claim that most people sense the big tension described here and offer varying emotional expressions such as this one to explicate it. It is also not my claim that digital media necessarily promote awareness of these issues. Our devices and media can be as equally distracting as enlightening, if not more so. Awareness remains unevenly distributed, just as it was in the early 1990s when, as a collegiate debater researching an environment topic, I became painfully convinced of the existential threats of habitat destruction and climate disruption. Awareness of the wicked problems of the Anthropocene is not unique to digital media, yet today that awareness often feels more urgent, more intense, more imminent and pressing, more overwhelming and straining. Such feelings are not the big tension but the stress, pressure, and intensity index its virtual presence.


XII, 286
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XII, 286 pp.

Biographical notes

Eric S. Jenkins (Author)

Eric S. Jenkins is an associate professor of communication at the University of Cincinnati, the recipient of numerous top paper awards at national and international conferences, and the author of Special Affects: Cinema, Animation, and the Translation of Consumer Culture (2014).


Title: Surfing the Anthropocene