I have hitherto been a thoroughgoing nihilist
The role of the 21st century designer is evolving in keeping with the dynamic speed of market forces and product innovation; we no longer strive for beautiful aesthetics (necessarily) but rather, attempt to use design to ‘challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life’ (Dunne, 1999). Innovation and sustainability are the buzzwords and designs have an intrinsic relationship with the strategic value potential they hold. Designers are therefore tasked with tackling immense social, economic and political questions that come with the moral obligation to create work that positively addresses these demands. This is no small feat. In fact, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that, ‘Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does’ (1989). Designers, in moulding the spaces and contexts of our existence, are responsible for interpreting the multimodal reality of, and thereafter managing our relationship with, the world in which we live.
This study is an exploration into my own struggles with the purpose and value of design: to innovate, by definition, is to fully or partially negate what has gone before. Design, by its very nature, therefore has destruction at its core. New design must have value and generate meaning that has clear purpose albeit aesthetically, functionally or both. This involves a constant striving for renewal – or is it simply a constant reinvention of the wheel, in the name of design? Is the renewal necessary in an age when we are already over-burdened with material goods. What is the point? This question is explored through the lens of Nihilism as a philosophical concept reflected on and through my own practice as a critical designer.
Nihilism, as described by Alan Pratt (n.d.), ‘is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated.’ First popularised by novelist Ivan Turgenev (1881-1883), the fundamentals of nihilism can be seen throughout art and philosophical movements such as Dadaism, Existentialism, Futurism, post-structuralism and deconstructionism. I hold the belief that while a true Nihilist would reject ‘all religious and moral principles’ (The Oxford Dictionary, n.d.), one can experience Nihilism within certain aspects of life, which is true for my own situation regarding design. Nihilism, in my opinion, can be experienced as a point on a continuum with total negation of all values and meanings at the top end of the spectrum. It is a feature of every human being to doubt and question the fundamental issues of why we are here, what is our purpose (if any) on earth and what value could be attributed to our contribution to the human race. As a designer, it is a thorny issue since our vocation is directed towards adding value to the context in which we live: if we feel that the particular task or project assigned is valueless in its conceptual validity, we cannot be true in our endeavours and indeed the lack of existence of truth in meaning is a feature of Nihilistic dogma. I was assigned a project that threw up this dilemma for me: I was searching relentlessly for meaning and value to guide me, but when it evaded me I started to question my relationship with Design.
Michael Novak writes in his book The Experience of Nothingness (1997), ‘Today, in any case, the experience of [nihilism] is simply a fact: many of us have it. What did we have to do to get it? It arises only under certain conditions. What are these conditions? The form of the question as it arises today is: Granted that I have the experience of nothingness, what shall I do with it?’ Aligning myself with Novak, It was in this circumstance of experiencing nothingness that it became my decision to confront and challenge this feeling.
Nihilism is most commonly associated with philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who was often mistaken for a Nihilist. Whilst it is true that Nietzsche for the majority of his life experienced Nihilism, it is also true that he was largely a critic of Nihilism and was one of the first philosophers to study Nihilism extensively. Where the artists of Dadaism aimed to ‘destroy traditional values in art and to create a new art to replace the old (The Tate, n.d.), Nietzschean nihilism is the complete rejection of all values as they are all baseless and that ‘reason is impotent’ (Pratt, n.d.). ‘Every belief, every considering something-true,’ Nietzsche writes, ‘is necessarily false because there is simply no true world’ (1973). Nietzsche here is identifying the fact that in proclaiming the lack of meaning and value on the world is to also accept the existence of meaning and value: there cannot be a lack of something which does not exist.
Therefore, Nietzche recognised that, despite his rejection of values, that his own dissatisfaction with himself finding everything meaningless was actually signifying the existence of an alternative reality. ‘Nietzsche declares that life is worth living only if there are inspiring goals, or goals that inspire to live: accordingly, nihilism may be defined as goallessness’ (Reginster, 2008). If this interpretation is applied to my own experience of Nihilism, it can be seen that the struggle with a lack of direction and an open-ended range of possibilities in my assigned project left me feeling without purposeful goal and therefore I could ascribe no value to it. Is it not important to accept that the absence of value at one point can inspire a sense of value at another point and that there is a danger in over-analysis; seeking out a deeper meaning that is simply not there can stifle creativity elsewhere. In short, Nihilism, perhaps is a necessary rite of passage through which we can, ironically, generate a renewed sense of purpose and focus.
Cameron Tonkenwise (2013) asks, ‘Do [designers] graduate thinking of themselves as one of the most dangerous modern professions, as Victor Margolin pointedly made clear?’ I believe the danger that Tonkenwise is referring to is the designer’s universal ability and power to effect change through creation and destruction. We as ‘creatives’ possess the specific skillsets needed to actualise new ideas and products, whilst the cost of our creations is that we obviate the precursors to each new creation. ‘The point here is that designers engage in creation by destroying whole systems of existing products’ (Tonkenwise, 2013). This dilemma that drives us to design through annihilation for ‘innovation’, is often ignored by designers who neglect to observe their work through a critical lens. Tonkenwise laments ‘it is now clear the extent to which all design involves destruction – material and cultural. Designers seem insufficiently aware of this aspect of their practise (2013).
I have highlighted now the importance for designers to critically consider the value and implications of designing new artefacts, however, Nicholas Bourriaud argues that we should not be striving to create but rather to repurpose. ‘The artistic question is no longer: "what can we make that is new?" but "how can we make do with what we have?" The mantra of the war and post-war period in the U.K, ‘make do and mend’, phrases such as ‘fusion’ and ‘re-mix’, ‘re-cycle’ and ‘sustainable practice’ reflect this new reality. In other words, how can we produce singularity and meaning from this chaotic mass of objects, names, and references that constitutes our daily life?’ (Bourriaud, 2002). Bourriaud’s aim is to sway from ‘adding to the ‘systematic and limitless process of consumption’ (1996) by ‘[programming] forms more than they [composing] them: rather than transfigure a raw element (blank canvas, clay, etc.), they remix available forms and make use of data.’ In this description, Bourriaud affirms the need for the modern day artist and designer to liken themselves to DJs, by which they manipulate and present pre-existing ‘stockpiles of data’ to reposition the data and find ‘a means of intersection’ to form new knowledge.
Whilst regarding Bourriaud’s proposition of a world of postproduction as a means of sifting through and organising the immeasurable mass of data that surrounds us, it is still hard to not feel overwhelmed by the ‘pollution of objects’ (Baudrillard, 1996) that is likened to an ‘ocean of messages in bottles’ by Brennan Letkeman (2018). Letkeman describes himself as ‘ahighly productive maker who refuses to make anything’ in fear of creating too much metaphorical noise in an ever expanding wasteland of virtual rubbish. Letkeman’s reasoning for refusing to make anything comes from the idea that anything made is inherently meaningless because it’s a) arbitrary and b) amessage in a bottle thrown into his metaphoricalocean of messages.
As I was reading Letkeman’s philosophy of design, his conceptual reflections resonated with me and it was at this stage that I realised that I was actually experiencingNihilism. I empathised with the notion of creating ‘metaphorical noise’ simply to add to a bank of meaningless ideas; it was through this very process of negation that I became re-aware of the existence of the opposite truth, and therefore the possibility that both Nihilism and non-Nihilism were of equal value. Extremist views or beliefs, such as Nihilism or Anarchy serve a very important role in allowing us to react with and respond to them in order to calibrate our own norms of thinking, behaviour and sense of who we are. Meaning and value are relational such that our lives and work hold meaning to us in relation to something else. Interestingly, as Novak (1970) draws our attention to, ‘What has caught my eye in the history of Nihilism’ is that Nietzsche, Sartre and others wrote books: a most committed and disciplined use of time. The same drive that led them to the experience of nothingness seemed to teach them other values as well – and without contradiction.’ In negating the existence of value, they went on to create meaning and value through their writing.
It follows that not every person can be a Sartre or Shakespeare, for example, whose work resonates through time and space and in our interactions with it, we are able to find our own levels of meaning, value and understanding. Every human may not impact the world in the way that a great philosopher, writer or designer might, but their lives retain meaning for them even if it may seem to others that their lives are meaningless. A sense of value and meaningfulness are therefore measures along a continuum that cannot exist in a vacuum: they are relational and, as we have seen, in fully negating value we are accepting that there exists something to negate and thus Nihilism is a vehicle through which we can become more self-aware.
As reflective practice, this process of self-determination through an exploration of Nihilism has been almost catharthic. Likening myself to Nietzche, I have been able to use my own discipline as a designer as a way of reaffirming and repositioning my own values and thus remove myself from my nihilistic decline.
Just as Nietzsche wrote about himself that he had ‘Lived through the whole of nihilism, to the end, leaving it behind, outside himself’ (1973), the summation of my research needed to conclude in such a way that I could pull myself out of the gravity of nihilism, whilst acknowledging the value of experiencing nothingness. The decision to create Nietzche’s The Birth of Tragedyout of concrete aimed to signify the crushing metaphorical weight of the contents of Nihilistic writing as a whole. Nietzsche’s original text wrestles with the division of the soul in two parts through Greek mythology, the creative and the conservative. It could be seen that this existential battle was the source of my experience of Nihilism; a part of me longed to create but the conservative side held me back.
Finally, by placing all of the weight of the knowledge I had accumulated into the physical form of a concrete book (literally and figuratively unreadable) it allowed me to, whilst acknowledging its existence, relieve myself of the burden of Nihilism, leaving it behind, outside myselfas Nietzsche managed, and enjoy my affirmation of meaning.
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