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The VCFA MFA in Graphic Design Program Blog

Radical Empathy

October 15, 2019

What follows is a transcription of VCFA faculty member Ian Lynam’s welcome speech titled “Radical Empathy” to the VCFA MFA in Graphic Design Fall 2019 Residency:


These are troubling times that we live in, but being here gives me hope. The current moment sees notions of society, in particular, American society, rolling back into isolationist feudalism, retreating from collectivist notions of the world, and we have seen the power of technology atomizing each of us into individuals obsessed with fleeting, ephemeral entertainment, gazing into pieces of glass that we hold in our hands.

We are in a moment of extraordinary economic precarity that was largely heralded into place by the first dot-com boom and bust of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Employees of technological “product”-based plutocracy became contractors. Academic institutions increasingly based their employment practices on contract-based adjunct teachers, and tenure largely disappeared for most.

A lot of other stuff has happened, but as people involved in graphic design and graphic design education, we know these things to be true. Each and every one of our lives is precarious in some way, and most of it is economic.

But, because we are all here together in this space, I somehow still have hope.

We are here, together as a community.

As I have relentlessly repeated over the years the base of a community is economic interaction as well as social interaction. We are all investing in being part of this community. Students are paying a lot of money to be here and teachers are not making enough money to be here.

However, that is the part that actually gives me faith. We are all here because we care. We all want better lives individually and collectively.

This care for one another, both individually and collectively, flies in the face of contemporary technology and contemporary forms of governance. I encourage you all to think about this throughout the week, the notion of radical empathy, and what happens when you really put your life on the line financially, intellectually and emotionally with a group of people. We are all already doing this, but most people forget about the political dimension because contemporary American politics is so ugly.

What we are doing here is bigger than that.

Also, you can’t escape politics, so speak them freely.

We are here to help each other and I encourage each of you to do that: Think about what it means. A lot of the words which are very popular these days are extensions of social and economic control.

“Authenticity” is a prop for a narcissistic infatuation with the self. “Creativity” often translates into economic and labor-based flexibility designed to subjugate individuals and extract as much labor as possible from them in new, “innovative” ways.

We all work within a sector of cultural production in which there is a lexicon of words that has implicit and explicit meanings.

I’d like to suggest a term which hasn’t become a catchphrase in tech culture, or really, that has, but has since been “let go”. That term is “imagination”.

In the writings of philosopher and critic Immanuel Kant, the term “imagination” means having present what is absent—to ensnare and hold in one’s mind, and in our collective minds, what is not immediately in front of us, and… yet… to know it—to honor the past and to extrude the future from within.

I am so happy that we are here at school to peel back the surface and to really look at what these words mean.

And what we mean to each other. Yes, as an economic force, but also as a social force…

We are a community.