ZMI Transcends Pathos

The Z Media Institute was just recently completed for this summer. Each day, four classes of an hour and a half each, plus an hour and a half project group work period (or bonus class), plus three excellent meals chock full of discussion and exchange, plus an intense evening session – four of which were talks plus a q/a, and the rest of which were collective endeavors – plus, finally, partying after all else was done each day – occupied people from early morning to late and sometimes really late at night. 


The four project teams of "students" worked on conceiving and mapping out plans and even budgets and some materials for four hypothetical undertakings – a media network, a political artists network, a national organization for a participatory society, and a new participatory socialist international – thereby learning and inventing in a hands-on experiential way.


The nearly 50 courses and four evening talks addressed analysis, vision, strategy, and skills and methods  bearing on gender/kinship, race/culture, economics, politics, ecology, international relations, and media – and a list of their descriptions will soon appear for future reference on our ZMI section of ZCom. 


Guest faculty were Ron Daniels, Stephen Shalom, Rosa Clemente, Cynthia Peters, Noam Chomsky, Justin Podur, Leslie Cagan, Juliet Schor, Chip Berlet, and ex ZMI student Lonnie Atkinson. 


Z Staff were Andy Dunn, Chris Spannos, Lydia Sargent, and myself. 


And the heart and soul of it all were the forty five "students" – about twenty less than usual due to the economy – from many homelands, who brought their energy, interest, and insights for all to share.


I hope quite a number of those who attended ZMI 2010 will share their experiences with others who they know or meet in coming weeks and months, of course, and perhaps also share them more widely by writing a blog like this or whatever else might best suit them. We all do too little reporting on worthy things we work on or experience that others can also benefit from and perhaps even emulate in a spreading circle of influence. And so, in that reporter mode, I would myself like to here report on just two aspects of the incredibly diverse and multi focused events and happenings at this year’s ZMI – two evening events that especially affected me.


First, Lonnie Atkinson, a past graduate of ZMI, came to teach about music and politics on the one hand, and to perform an evening of hip hop as well. I missed Lonnie’s daytime classes, as I was teaching other topics at the same time. But I and everyone at ZMI got to enjoy his evening performance which was utterly incredible in many respects. You can yourself hear the songs online, and also read their lyrics. I urge you to do so. I am not an expert on Hip Hop, but others who attended had a lot of experience, and they verified my uninformed reaction that the music, passion, rhyme, and persona, the performance and the songs were exceptional. Yet to me, and I think everyone else too, what also blew us away was for Lonnie to have created an album of music, in this case Hip Hop, to emotively and without intellectual compromise relate the full substance of a complex vision, in this case parecon, not only without being pedantic or boring, which is exactly what one would expect, but while inspiring and entertaining. To seriously educate and to simultaneously be passionately angry, soulful, caring, funny, instructive, and entertaining, all in a genre uplifting event, was simply mind boggling. 


And here is the kicker – and it is why we do ZMI and also says a lot about why all of us do, and need to keep doing, the kinds of work we all emphasize. Lonnie is not a musician. He plays no instrument. At the ZMI he attended some years back, he humbly reported to us, he learned about and became interested in parecon. He was also moved by talks about music and the sixties that he heard there and subsequently. He left ZMi those years back, and over time looked more closely at the vision and came to advocate it ever more strongly. He wanted to contribute to its dispersal and assessment, and so he hatched a plan. He would write and perform a set of songs – an album – which would all together teach parecon, motivate it, passionately advocate it, and yet also be entertainment art in the form of Hip Hop, a form he loved but had zero prior experience creating. And so, he did it. He just did it. He worked on the songs, along with all his other responsibilities, for two years. He learned the ins and outs of the genre, and the subject matter as well, including learning to perform, getting the mixes together, refining the lyrics and conceiving and mastering the delivery, all from nothing – and finally brought the finished product back to ZMI – with resounding success. Of course for me this was incredible – someone doing what I work so hard to do, but so much more creatively, and I suspect in months and years to come, also more productively. But it was also a remarkable tale of personal transcendence with this individual becoming who he wasn’t, to get done what he wanted to do, at least in part because of the effects of ZMI. There are lessons in this galore, and it was a fine fine night.


Second, though, at every ZMI we have one night a session called "why we are radical and what keeps us going." Some faculty start it off, but then it quickly becomes students telling their own stories. The event occurs near the end of ZMI after people have developed great trust and community. Yet what happens shocks and inspires and turns inside out everyone present. 


Why? Because people reveal what is rarely revealed thereby telling an incredible set of tales not only about themselves, but about society. One after another after another it turns out that in the lives of people who you think you know, people who you encounter or even talk with or even work with or call friends, there lurks a pathos of generally unspoken unseen pain, suffering, insights, and resistance. I don’t know how to relate the prevalence of violence, drugs, family agonies, racial assaults, sexist denials, and class calamities that surface. I am not talking only about the day to day injuries of oppression in our society that we all know and that are, of course, so prevalent and so destructive. I am talking about the immense formative experiences dramatically limiting lives and turning nights into nightmares. I am talking about people seeing murders of friends and family and their own experience of brutal life threatening assault and rape, and their own suffering from the slings of addictions. We know about all this in theory – all of us do. But every year at ZMI, somehow the combination of intimacies and trust, of shared views and agendas, and, yes, of the fact that people are from far and wide and will leave one another, releases an outpouring of stories any one of which is profound, but which all taken together are absolutely dumbfounding. The staff at ZMI have gone through it over and over. We know what to expect, and yet we are still blown away each time. Everyone else, encountering it for a first time, are, well, turned inside out. 


And here is the thing about this pathos. 


First, of course in many respects those at ZMI are not a random cross section of society, yet, in this one respect – what pain and suffering lurks in people’s lives – I suspect they are. And if so, that means that out there in the world, when we meet someone new, or we say a word or two in passing to someone on the street, or we share a class at school with someone, or work with someone, or whatever else with someone – the odds are really quite high that that person we are interacting with has a story in their lives, or even a bunch of stories in their lives, that makes TV drama look tame, that makes our rhetoric about oppression seem muted. For person after person – this world is far more deadly, far more denigrating, far more soul crushing, than even our worst descriptions of it imply. Far more. 


Second, the resilience and capacity of people to get up and go at life again, after the most incredible knock out blows, is astounding. We carry marks, cuts and bruises, often deep ones and even debilitating ones, yet we work on. The days before the evening’s revelations, all visiting faculty agreed this was an incredible group of capable and caring and productive people. Not one viewing the goings ons and not having experienced something like this evening before, would predict, or fail to be astounded by, the horrendous weights carried around by these same people. The point is, there is more than meets the eye to everyone, and patience and respect ought to have even more claim on our energies in mutual relations than we tend to realize.


Finally, thanks to all who contributed to ZMI 2010, each in their own ways. 

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