NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 45


Strike & Riot

Chris Lee

A few years ago, I started teaching graphic design at the University at Buffalo SUNY (UB), a public university in the Rust Belt. I started to think about how the historiography of what we were reading was shaping my students’ ideas of what it means to practice graphic design. Who and what counts as part of graphic design history and how does that history affect what these students believe they will become? 
Around the same time, an article was published in the New Yorker about Tolstoy College (College F), an anarchist college that used to be at UB. The college’s mandate was to study oppression in America, and was run according to anarchist principles—it practiced shared governance of the school and without a policy on grading, all students would receive A’s until the administration imposed a more measured distribution of grades. The students and faculty decided then that the grades would be distributed according to the rubric of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

Reading the article got me thinking about how I might also bypass grading students. The students don’t want to be graded. I don’t want to grade the students either, because grading is disciplinary and it terrifies them and it dulls their critical capacities. It’s also stultifying, it suppresses experimentation and risk-taking, and it forecloses possibilities of new forms coming into being. Grading makes students ask me questions like “is this how you want me to make it?” I can’t think of any good answers to questions like that.

What follows is a preliminary speculation on what a general reading list for a graphic design curriculum within Tolstoy College might have looked like, and what a radical theory and historiography of graphic design might be composed of—one that could very differently shape how a student imagines his or her practice.

An Essay on Crimes and Punishment by Cesare Beccaria
Cesare Beccaria: “These laws must be published, so that everyone has access to them; what is needed is not oral traditions and customs, but a written legislation which can be ‘the stable monument of the social pact,’ printed texts available to all: ‘Only printing can make the public as a whole and not just a few persons depositories of the sacred code of laws.’ (Foucault, 108)

Graphic Design / Labor History
Punctuation. by Charles A. Ruud
“The strike which started over punctuation marks and ended by felling absolutism.”
— Leon Trotsky
In 1905, the typographic workers employed by the publisher and printer Sytin & Co. (the publisher of the works of Leo Tolstoy), went on strike demanding to be paid for the setting of punctuation.

War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy
The Napoleonic invasion of Russia, which pursued the strategic agenda of choking off Great Britain from its ability to access international trade, forms the geopolitical backdrop for Tolstoy’s epic novel.  

Tolstoy College (College F): Courses and Syllabi
A compendium of syllabi and lecture notes from Tolstoy College (College F).
Tolstoy College operated from 1968 to 1985 was one of a handful of experimental colleges commissioned at the State University of New York at Buffalo to cultivate a campus that would be touted as the “Berkeley of the East.” 

Attica by New York State Special Commission on Attica
In 1971, the Attica Correctional Facility was taken over by nearly 1300 prisoners to protest the inhumane conditions in which they were incarcerated. 39 men were killed, among them hostages and prisoners. This was one of the bloodiest prison uprisings in US history and became a symbol for the struggle for prisoners’ rights.

Social Orthopedics
Surveiller & Punir by Michel Foucault
In 1970 and 1972, Michel Foucault served as the Melodia E. Jones Chair in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures of the University at Buffalo SUNY. However, he had not set foot in a prison until he visited Attica in 1972, less than a year after the uprising. A few years later, he published this book in which makes famous the panopticon—the prison design proposed by Jeremy Bentham—as an architecture of legibility and an instrument of discipline.

Crime & Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Dostoevsky based his protagonist, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov on the figure of Pierre François Lacenaire, a notorious French criminal. Lacenaire was a promising young man, but he would become a criminal who was in and out of prison—what he called the “criminal university.”

Criminal University by Pierre François Lacenaire
Foucault casts Lacenaire’s criminal celebrity amongst the bourgeoisie as a mark of the shift from an illegality against the state to an illegality that is trivialized as delinquency, and aestheticized as “ art of the privileged classes.” 
Lacenaire was executed in 1836. In 1837, France revived the official project of universalizing the metric system, which had earlier been abandoned.

The Disciplines by Jeremy Bentham & Willey Reveley
The 39 case studies contained within this book map the intersections of educational and penal architecture and consider a number of modalities by which buildings “know” and facilitate the management of their constituents.

Social Orthopedics
Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott
The schematic rationality of planning, and epistemological privileging of quantification impose a disciplinary, managerial gaze upon otherwise plural and contingent physical and social landscapes. This managerial agency depends on making these landscapes legible.

Politics/Graphic Design
Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson    
The birth of nationalist struggles is attributed to the effects of the artifacts of print-capitalism. Printing subordinated local habits and cultures of writing to a standard centralized around administrative script languages. It also cultivated popular national imaginaries that inspired independence movements in the colonies (i.e. the American Revolution) and eventually in the metropoles themselves (i.e. the French Revolution.)

Poids et Mesures: The Renovation of the Bastille Prison—A Monument to the Metric System by Cabelle Ahn
A cadre of “revolutionary architects” produced proposals to replace the monuments of the ancient régime. The most symbolically charged was the proposal to renovate the Bastille Prison into a monument for the new metric system.
“The centuries old dream of the masses of only one just measure has come true! The Revolution has given the people the meter.”

The Development of the Modern State: A Sociological Introduction by Gianfranco Poggi
“From the heights of the state, the society below increasingly appeared as an endless series of nationally equal particulars with whom it dealt in their capacity as subjects, taxpayers, and potential military draftees.” 1

“The Revolution Has Given the People the Meter.”
by J.P. DeLion
The legalization of the metric system indexes the modernist disdain for the traditional, and a desire for rational forms immune to bias. Processes of knowledge production and validation privilege that which can be sensed inter-subjectively. Claims made from outside the modernist epistemology are considered to be dubious, unaccountable, and politically invalid because they are illegible to rational modes of governance.

Graphic Design/Consensus
The Banality of Excel: Orthography, Grids, Borders, Colonization by Jeff Thomas
The grid has been under-scrutinized by graphic designers. This book contains examples that range from accounting to urbanization, cadastral maps, data visualization, and typographic style, to ask what role graphic design plays in processes of management and state-making. 

Graphic Design/Consensus
UB SUNY: Graphic Identity Manual, 1967–1982
by Chermayeff & Geismar
The seal represents a radial cluster of books which symbolize the integration of knowledge achieved through the diverse faculties of the university incorporated into a silver medallion of office.2
The logo also resembles the structure of a panopticon.

Social Orthopedics/Fiction
1984 by George Orwell
Winston works in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth. He works for a publishing apparatus of the Party. He fabricates historical documents that align with the Party’s agenda. Winston secretly hates the Party. He struggles to manifest his own desire in spite of it. He writes a diary, he falls in love. To Winston, these are the only things that are true, but he learns that truth is a matter of power. His resistance is suppressed—the gaze of Big Brother and the Party’s official language, “newspeak,” and the practice of “doublethink” make it unthinkable, unsayable, unknowable—ungood.

Border Thinking
Learning to Unlearn: Decolonial Reflections From Eurasia and the Americas
by Madina V. Tlostoanova & Walter D. Mignolo
What is knowledge production and theory that has not been authorized by the institutions of the colonial matrix of power? Where does it come from and who is making it? How is it lived?
“Border thinking is the epistemology of the exteriority; that is, of the outside created from the inside” (Mignolo & Tlostanova, 2006:206)

The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study
by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten
“Refusing to be for or against the university and in fact marking the critical academic as the player who holds the ‘for and against’ logic in place, Moten and Harney lead us to the ‘Undercommons of the Enlightenment’ where subversive intellectuals engage both the university and fugitivity”3
“Ruth Wilson Gilmore: ‘What is, so to speak, the object of abolition? Not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons.’”4

Émigre est. 1984: A New Régime by Zuzana Licko
Émigre’s fonts represent some of the first “native” digital typefaces, signaling an abandonment of modernist tendencies and principles of graphic form. Legions of typographical labor that supported the production of design in the previous labor régime, are collapsed into the contemporary figure of the graphic designer.

1986: The Dissolution of the I.T.U. by Johanna Gitelman
The International Typographical Union was the most powerful trade union in North America—it held the power to halt communications. Automation triggered the atomization of this labor force and the gradual dissolution its power. Graphic design inherits this tragedy a precondition of its labor.

 1 James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 365.
 2 “University Visual Identity,” University at Buffalo Libraries, accessed May 31st, 2017,
 3 Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2013), 9.
 4 Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, 42.

Chris Lee

is a graphic designer and educator based Buffalo, NY, and Toronto, ON. He graduated from OCADU (Toronto) and the Sandberg Instituut (Amsterdam), and has worked for The Walrus Magazine, Metahaven and Bruce Mau Design. He was also the designer and an editorial board member of the journal Scapegoat: Architecture/Landscape/Political Economy. Chris’ research explores graphic design’s entanglement with power, standards, and legitimacy. Chris is an Assistant Professor at the University at Buffalo SUNY, and a programming committee member of Gendai Gallery, and Squeaky Wheel. With Ali Qadeer, he is currently co-guest-editor for C magazine on the theme “Graphic Design.”

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