VISA 480 Sample Student Essay

In a minimum of 2000 to a maximum of 3000 words, develop the notion of “nothing” that you perform in your work.  It can exist in how you handle materials, process, content, or how the work performs in context or in the trajectory of artistic practice.  In sum, it can be any aspect of your work or practice that you wish to connect to the idea of nothing.  Articulate this space by using the readings from class, or elsewhere.  As a note, further reading recommendations are provided in the class bibliography and you are free to consult with Christine or your fellow colleagues on advice for other references, etc… You may also use professional artworks to further develop your articulation, or describe how it is used in your own specific artworks.  If you do use your own work to uncover, please provide an image.  Describe what your nothing is, how you use it, how it develops further, how it becomes, how it is conquered, how it affects, or other ways that it functions specific to you and your practice.  The writing can be experimental or scholarly, but must work with class texts and convey in a particularly enlightened way, the text must be considered complete and up to academic standards.

Sample Student Essay from Fall 2017 Course

After the search for meaning        bills in the mail.
          -George Swede

More often than not, I don’t know what I’m doing. Any sense of direction seems to be an accident. I have a loose grouping of things that capture my (fleeting) attention and like a tick towards ankles, I move. Inevitably these things change, distort, become tired and predictable, or maybe they always were. In this condition, I am not fulfilled, yet I persist. I am a reticent nihilist. Or more accurately– a passive, reticent nihilist.

In his book Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance, Simon Critchley outlines a near-universal way of being that arrived after the failing of religion and then the failure of politics to bring about change, and collectively enrich our lives. He writes:

“The passive nihilist simply focuses on himself and his particular pleasures and projects for perfecting himself, whether through discovering the inner child, manipulating pyramids, writing pessimistic-sounding literary essays, taking up yoga, bird-watching or botany, as was the case with the aged Rousseau. In the face of the increasing brutality of reality, the passive nihilist tries to achieve a mystical stillness, calm contemplation: ‘European Buddhism’. In a world that is all too rapidly blowing itself to pieces, the passive nihilist closes his eyes and makes himself into an island.” (Critchley, 5)

He then goes on to describe the active nihilist, who also finds everything meaningless, but rather than biding his time with inward-looking pursuits, he plans to do something about it–to usher in a new world, and new ways of being. The most extreme examples being jihadists and militant political radicals. I find myself, as most people I know, in the former camp.

Art has been a way for me to make meaning out of meaninglessness, to bide time, to focus my attention, to feel better about my situation, but I know the limits of my art and of art in general. It won’t solve problems or bring about a new world. At best it seems to suggest ways of thinking through problems or even avoiding them outright. This condition of passive nihilism of which I find myself is a depressing one. The sort of downtrodden or helpless feeling I get when I confront the selfishness and insular, apolitical position I have cultivated personally and artistically is expressed, or possibly sought-out, in my practice. I have been working towards a sort of reductive praxis, which attempts to edit down, linguistically within the content or formally, the things that affirm, or reaffirm my experience as someone who is forced to create meaning, and make value in a milieu devoid of value. I have looked to poetry and its forms and effects. When I absorb an effective poem, or line of a poem, or even pairing of words, I feel changed. It is a marked difference in feeling from my usual default. I want to produce these same effects in my own work, which I envy in the work of others. I have become more and more interested in capturing moments which produce (in me) a sense of loss, desperation, and defeat; a sort of filling-up by emptying-out. At a minimum, I’m trying to harness the confusion and meaninglessness of my experience, and give it focus. That focus is a sort of worldview through which I hope I can maintain a sense of compassion for my fellow beings, big or small. The idea of paying attention has become a guide– that is, paying attention to nothing or what seems like nothing. Not nothing in an absolute sense, but smaller, unnoticed, or seemingly inconsequential things. The sorts of things that often fail to stir us to action or attention­– a disavowal of the monumental or earth-shattering and an emphasis on the overlooked. I think about things that have had a monolithic impact on our collective consciousness, such as the election of Donald Trump.  I can’t get any blood from that stone, and so I am forced to think about things like the starched handkerchiefs, used to dry all the tears cried after the election, and how they merely repositioned tears on so many faces. I think not of a universal missing child, but of the sun damaged poster representing that loss, compounding it, adding insult to injury. These are the types of things I fixate on. The tiny moments outside the “event”, are to me, more powerful and unifying. When conjuring up content, I could be directed anywhere, or nowhere. Tropes like the missing child, or a missing God, and the way our language around him persists, despite a lack of faith and earnestness, are beacons in a land of competing content all trying to vie for attention. I try to attend to these issues though implicit content, and maybe less directly through forms. Craft materials, dead animals, discarded objects, the unseen, unknown the cast off, the abject. These are the things I try to pay attention to, to bring out the encounters I hope for, because so many of the most powerful aesthetic and intellectual moments in my own life have been spurred on by these same materials and ideas around them. I aim to feel gutted, confused, unstable in knowing and feeling. I am aware that producing these small moments or affects is not revolutionary, and therefore wrapped somewhere within the realm of the passive nihilist, but I also hope that it is not that nostalgic stuff of a reactionary ethic. I do not long for a comfortable past which may or may not have existed. The political philosopher Mark Lilla speaks about this in his book The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction. He states:

“Every major social transformation leaves behind a fresh Eden that can serve as the object of somebody’s nostalgia. And the reactionaries of our time have discovered that nostalgia can be a powerful political motivator, perhaps even more powerful than hope. Hopes can be disappointed. Nostalgia is irrefutable. (Lilla, xiv)

This irrefutable fixity that comes along with the nostalgic mode is not only applicable to political movements but aesthetic ones as well. Using art and aesthetics to be sure of myself is a position that I want to confront. I want to heighten my sense of unknowing and be more comfortable with this epistemic lack and to foster it. This is a sort of conception of nothingness that I can abide. The more I know, the more I realise I know nothing. All of the contingencies, all of the bedrocks are so rapidly shifting, that to stake a position and feel confident in it becomes a sort of delusion of grandeur. To be forced into a situation in which my attention and where I cast it becomes a tool of being unsure about what I see and what I think I know about it, is a way of asking questions which I know can’t be answered. This is the only way I can continue to create. If I set up a sort of teleology, in which I could imagine an end-point to my attention, and therefore my investigations into these attentions, the whole enterprise would collapse. A finish line is a dangerous and arbitrary construct for an artist.  When Lilla talks about hopes and their tendency to collapse, I identify with this. It’s not a bad thing for me to confront failure or disillusion. It keeps me focused on the continued search. Knowing I won’t find anything seems to be the point of art, or birdwatching, or whatever activity I choose to invest my time and energy into. The idea of becoming comfortable with the changes in ways of knowing about these things means I can find new ways to pay attention, and with that, find and produce new affects within these investigations. This is as exciting as anything I can imagine. The potential within a cleared ground is seemingly limitless. From a reactionary position, I can only pine away for feelings already experienced, when “nothing” is the goal, there is always a small modicum of hope– hope that we might leave behind something vital in our nihilistic wake.


Critchley, Simon. Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance, Verso, 2007.
Lilla, Mark. The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction. NYRB, 2016.

Response/Comment to Student

Thank you for an insightful journey into your thinking and resulting incapacities.  Your division of passive/active nihilist was provocative in relation to the differences between hope and nostalgia.  I’m excited to check out these two books, once again thanks for the recommendation, but it was your bringing them together in order to develop your own very complex position, stuck between very heavy details and pinpointing your defensiveness from the disappointment that only comes from hope to the self-inflicted trauma that comes with allowing yourself to be in the space of “not knowing”, or perhaps face to face with the fact that the more you know, the more you know you do not know.  It is interesting to see your trajectory from VISA 375, (from “fail better” to perversity, to political self-effacement) I find that the particulars of your approach are ever-evolving and growing, your next essay will probably once again critique your own conclusions from this one, and with much gusto, knowing that if you don’t, there is a failure in there that would be “too much to bear”.  I thoroughly enjoy reading your writing, stylistically every sentence works poetically and points to a negotiation with an abstract thought in such particular details.  While honest and sincere, it is also luscious and labored to impose something more.