- What Is Missing?An Affective Digital Environmental Humanities
The start of a new geologic epoch is as good a time as any to look backward. In this era of overwhelming species extinction and environmental degradation, a primary task for digital environmental humanities, or "EcoDH," scholars is to reimagine how to represent, cope with, and deploy loss in the service of a more just present and perhaps even a livable future. As a scholar of affect, I'm concerned not only with how we imagine and represent life in the Anthropocene but also with how we feel about it. If atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen's wish for the Anthropocene to be a "warning to the world" (cited in Kolbert 2011) is realized, then what affective registers should this warning take? Environmentalists have been sounding alarm bells for some time with minimal results, especially when guilt and shame have set the tone.1 An important project for the EcoDH, then, is to think more carefully about affect: the powerful, visceral, pre-or even non-cognitive feelings that arise and are transmitted in both virtual and actual environments.2 This essay considers affects about loss—especially nostalgia and solastalgia—as potential allies for environmentalism and as important subjects for scholars studying (in) the Anthropocene,3 an era some have characterized as a melancholy (Merola 2014) or anxious one (Merola 2018; Morton 2016, 232–33).
Forward-looking genres like speculative fiction and cli-fi offer attractive data sets for scholars seeking to imagine a global future. But backward-looking texts also warrant attention. How to represent the past, how to learn from it, and how to remember it in ways that might [End Page 189] motivate a public that is often depressed, or apathetic, in the face of a dismal future are pressing concerns for the EcoDH. Influential digital humanities scholar Bethany Nowviskie calls on us to "draw ourselves together with compassion, solidarity, and smarts—as an international, multi-disciplinary, and self-consciously inter-professional community—mindful of everyday extinctions and of the complexities of contending with them, cautious of the darker sides and callings of our drive to communicate in deep time, and yet filled with benevolence and hope" (Nowviskie 2014). The Humanities for the Environment project is one ambitious and important response to this call. Another—and my focus here—is Maya Lin's What Is Missing? memorial, a project that moves "beyond big-data algorithmic analysis and visualization" to confront viewers affectively with the macro-and micro-dimensions of our "lossy everyday" (Nowviskie 2014).
Memorials like Lin's raise interesting questions about affect in what Charles Travis terms the "digital Anthropocene"—a phrase he uses to describe our current epoch, which fuses the human, ecological, digital, and informational infrastructures and reconfigures how we perceive and interact with each other and with the environment (Travis 2018). In some sense, the "paper-thin" layer of the earth on which humans are writing the Anthropocene (Boes and Marshall 2014, 63) may be our most lasting memorial—a durable, if unintentional, geologic story for future generations to translate. Our intentional memorials matter, too, though. Geologically, culturally, and emotionally accretive, memorials are rich sites from which to theorize affects about change and loss in the Anthropocene. Whether located in physical or virtual environments, memorials invoke scale in provocative ways, often inspiring visitors to think across geological and anthropocentric time scales, sometimes both at once. Most memorials attend to discrete events, but What Is Missing? grapples with slow violence and global change that, while accelerated if represented geologically, doesn't typically feel fast at the scale of everyday human experience. The contemplation of deep time that many memorials encourage sidelines human agency, a useful tactic in an epoch in which humans are both exceptional, insofar as we self-identify as a force of nature, and just one species among many others, subject to geological forces in scary new ways.
Erika Doss describes the contemporary US as being in a state of "memorial mania," marked by an "obsession with issues of memory and [End Page 190]
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