One of our students is the founder and editor of ZOD Culture; other students have written for it. I admire them for what they do. I admire their egalitarian, critical and creative minds, and the way they put them to use. Actually, I sometimes catch myself being slightly (hugely) envious of how thoughtful and creative they are – or simply how young, I don’t know.
In any case, they have nothing moralistic about them, nothing arrogant or dogmatic. There’s not the slightest hint of intellectual masturbation in ZOD – particularly refreshing from the point of view of an academic. At the same time, the ZOD Culture collective is intelligent enough to avoid the perils of relativism: the belief that we cannot distinguish between right and wrong. Of course we can. Bombing a toddler into pieces is wrong, for example, and so is the fact that tens of thousands of people die of malnutrition every day whilst others undergo a super-expensive treatment that turn their faces into shiny, golden apples – which, we are told, is a morally good deed as it satisfies desires and creates jobs.
Let’s be clear, though: ZOD seems destined for failure. It can fail in just too many ways. It can lose momentum. It can attract idiots (most sensible ideas and projects in human history have done that). Or it can be absorbed by structures or processes (or simply selfish individuals) that will change it into something it simply isn’t meant to be. Money can begin to play a bigger role at some point, and when that happens, people will start arguing. The bigger ZOD gets, the higher the risk.
Underlying all of these concerns is Kant’s insight that nothing straight has ever been made out of the crooked timber of humanity. He’s right, of course, which is why it’s quite fortunate that straightness isn’t what the ZOD Culture collective is after. ZOD simply (and categorically) refuses to be meaningless for people whose voices aren’t heard. My hope is that nobody will ever get a voice in ZOD who fails to embrace that refusal. We don’t need more sorry comforters, disciples of necessity and fetishists of “impact”. They are cold, boring, unimaginative. Cowards as well.
But I was talking about the prospect of failure. Perhaps failure is just what always happens to active thinkers and thinking activists who are allergic to the radical power asymmetries which still abound, and are in fact rapidly increasing, on planet Earth 2015; who object to people being looked down on, or up to; who throw privileges right back into people’s faces, saying: “Look at who you are, you lucky, selfish, meaningless bastard!” I know this is entirely inappropriate for a university “lecturer” to say, but it really isn’t my own fault, as I’m just trying to describe what I see when I look at the world through ZOD Culture’s lenses.
I think the ZOD Culture collective thinks that that privileged people who fail to acknowledge their privileges, and who fail to involve themselves in the abolition of material or discursive structures that have resulted in them being as privileged as they are, are entirely liable to be ridiculed, condemned, indeed fought. Or perhaps I am just less patient and thoughtful than my younger ZOD friends; perhaps they consider the privileged oppressed too. In any case, what I love about ZOD Culture is our determination to encourage thought that informs action, and our acute awareness of how careful we need to be. Collectives often act highly irrationally, which may explain my hesitation to speak of the “ZOD collective” when writing the first draft of this essay.
Since I don’t seem to be able to talk about the prospect of failure without immediately drifting back to what I actually want to say, let me briefly speak about why I think there is hope for ZOD. I noticed there was hope when I travelled to Germany recently in order to visit my former pupils, who are in grade 12 now and thus well on their way to their “Abitur” (the qualification one obtains when finishing school in Germany after 12 years of boredom and indoctrination). These students, whom I taught English as a foreign language a few years ago, and most of whom are now 18 or on the verge of turning 18, have become the most special friends I have. They make me think of ZOD Culture, and ZOD Culture makes me think of them. They have qualities which are rarely found in “proper” adults, people with jobs and, well, property. Like the rest of us, they are not perfect (and, unlike some of us, they don’t claim to be). But they think, act and question. I adore their bullshit detection mechanisms: the way they cut straight through the neoliberal nonsense which gets imposed on them, nonsense they are meant to reproduce in standardised exams which will be marked by teachers some of whom, the younger ones, apparently couldn’t have become teachers unless they had passed a multiple choice test on how to run schools like corporations (as I was told by Dominik, another German friend of mine, who loathes some of the “training” he needs to undergo in order to become a teacher). Actually, what I cherish in my former students is that they have not allowed anybody to stop them from being and becoming persons who act. Any attempt to somehow transform them into machines that merely functionhas turned out to be pathetically hopeless.
They are facing the world with a beautiful, irresistible smile, but one that also conveys a rather uncompromising we-are-not-your-hamsters-and-we’re-not-here-to-run-in-your-fucking-wheel attitude (sorry, turning descriptive again!). These youngsters recognise they are not alone in the world, but connected to others at every moment of their existence, and radically dependent as well. Whatever they do, or don’t do, has consequences for others, and they know. They also care. They never want to be above anybody, let alone below, and they despise a world of endless competition and antagonism, a world without (or with corrupted versions of) the things that really matter: friendship and love. I think my young friends are awesome, and I will tell them that at their graduation on 20 June.
What I’ve said above already demonstrates – irrefutably in my view – that there is hope for anyproject aimed at encouraging attentiveness (a term I am taking from Simone Weil). It seems impossible to shut those youngsters down: they keep popping up!
Something happened during my time in Germany that makes me hopeful for ZOD Culture in particular though. Loggas and Jannik threw their joint 18th birthday party at the time. I’d said to them that I couldn’t fly over just for the party, which was a lie. (As these things go, the surprise was beautifully spoiled when we managed to walk straight into each other in the centre of Kreuztal just a few hours before the party kicked off.) I took three things to the party: two crates of our favourite beer and a copy ZOD Culture Volume 1. Due to the nature of the event, I was not expecting to see me friends being at least as interested in the latter as they were in the former. I was wrong. They loved ZOD. It was passed around – they were all over it! They loved its design, the way it looked, felt and smelt. And as if we weren’t at a birthday party, where we were meant to be drinking and chatting and taking drugs, some of them actually began to read ZOD: Mersede, Jule, Cedric, Tom, Julian, Caj, Vicky and Menzler, for example. I look forward to introducing them to the ZOD community when they come to visit me in Brighton after 20 June. It will be a fine day.
Daniel didn’t stop reading, by the way, and asked if he could keep the copy (it was clear that he wouldn’t have taken the slightest notice of any “no, you can’t I’m afraid”). “Of course, Dan, but only if you pass it around to the others as well.”
“I cannot see how anyone would want to miss it, Doc. It’s just so obvious that ZOD matters.”