Joe Amato, Industrial Poetics: Demo Tracks for a Mobile Culture. Iowa UP, 2006.
Joe Amato's Industrial Poetics: Demo Tracks for a Mobile Culture is a book about a great many things, but it is most successfully a book about the slings and arrows of outrageous academe. In this book Amato charts his trajectory through a blue-collar upbringing, a career as an engineer in large corporations, and, finally, through work as a poet and tenure-track English professor who accidentally jumps the track. He does this using all the tools in the shed--including poetry, aphorism, narrative, theory, and textual manipulation.
Amato's book is composed of three "demo tracks"--long, multifarious chapters--that are punctuated by short, aphoristic lists called "Grant Proposals" that meditate on the place of art in late capitalist culture. The term "demo track," which refers to the sample songs musicians use to gain fans, get booked at clubs and, they hope, signed to labels, at once communicates two very important aspects of this project: the energetic provisionality (carefully cultivated, of course) that is its style, and its constant self-awareness of its essential status as a professional gambit. Many other connotations of the term also resonate: Amato's is anything but a one-track mind.
The first and most cacophonous track of the three, "Industrial Poetics: A Chautauqua Multiplex in Fits and Starts," adopts the formal metaphor of the Chautauqua--a turn-of-the-century educational form that amounted to a kind of pedagogic traveling circus where the lions were supplanted by educational lectures and populist politics. As Amato stages his show, his most persuasive organizing principle is his interest in the plight of the poet-scholar (and his or her creative output) in the academic-industrial complex. The book is not a thorough survey of this complex problem, but is rather at its core a theoretically robust Künstlerroman, an erratic narrative of Amato's own progress toward an elusive self-realization as a poet and scholar.
In Track 1 Amato charts a direction for the project: "My polemic is geared, admittedly, toward the more positive aspects of a poetic industrial--an industrial poetics. To see where this takes us" (37). Amato's attempts to develop a theoretical or practical understanding of what an "industrial poetics" might be or do are continually thwarted, however, as the text swerves into discussions of the means of production of scholarly work. This is not, however, to suggest that the book fails--imagine our loss if Tristram Shandy had just gotten to his point. With Amato, we are along for a ride in which the whole point is how difficult it can be to get to the point, particularly within the working conditions of academe.
For example, the section that follows the above declaration of intention consists, without transition, of a pasted-in email message, rendered in a new computer-styled font. The email informs "Joe" that his manuscript has been rejected, and forwards along a reader's report about a text that sounds not unlike Industrial Poetics itself. The reader's report begins, hilariously: "I really think you should NOT publish this." Any writer--poet, scholar, or otherwise--will wince at the adamancy of the capitalized NOT, as it calls all of the ghosts out of one's own closet of horrifying rejection letters. Shortly thereafter Amato takes a new turn as he introduces an argument in which he equates academic scholarly practices to corporate bureaucratic supervision: "the refereed journal is thus a simple feedback mechanism designed to regulate 'quality,' yes, but 'quality' of the game itself" (41). Amato then proceeds to describe the parameters of this feedback mechanism in a barbed technocratic language that must really be read in total for its effect, but here is a taste:
Each thermo-regulating subcommittee accepts and rejects submitted knowledge-bodies to maintain professional, sangfroid environs, setpoint 68 deg. F., with ± 2 deg F. permissible variation. (42)
What makes this joke work is not only that it is a part of a larger argument that successfully skewers the flaws of the peer-review system, but also that Amato is fluent in such highly "engineered" language. Track 1 has already revealed Amato's former life as a design engineer, a life in which this was his primary professional language, but it is in Track 2 that this story, which is the reactor-core of the book, fully explodes.
This second track, "Technical Ex-Communication: How a Former Professional Engineer Becomes a Former English Professor" (a version of which was published as an essay in PMC 10.1), presents a lively and relatively linear narrative of Amato's professional career--first as an engineer and then as a poet-teacher-scholar--so that he might make some key connections between those realms. For some of us, the transition from doing design engineering for a pharmaceutical company to teaching English and producing ambitious scholarship will seem so mysterious as to be nearly alchemical. And yet, Amato's primary argument in this section seems to be that the yawning gulf between the culture and practices of one job and those of the other is much smaller than we, even on our most cynical days, might imagine. Amato focuses on his work as a design engineer for Miller Brewing Company and then at Bristol-Myers Co., and details the tenacity of his desire to have a job in which he is left alone to do his own work (designing temperature regulating systems and the like), rather than being constantly encouraged and recruited into the management of his fellow laborers, a prospect whose endless meetings and corporate sloganeering never appeals to Amato. And so he leaves it all behind for the unmolested life of a poet in academe (cue laugh track).
In Track 2 Amato tells the tragicomic tale of his time as a tenure-track professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). The heart of this section is a close reading of a book probably few of us have read, The Idea of Ideas. Amato describes the book: it "appear[ed] in all faculty mailboxes [at IIT]. It's called The Idea of Ideas, by one Robert W. Galvin, 'Special Limited Edition' published in April 1991 by Motorola University Press" (85). Amato explains that Galvin, the former CEO of Motorola, sits on IIT's Board of Trustees, and along with fellow corporate billionaire Bob Prizker, has essentially kept IIT in business by donating many millions to the university. The Idea of Ideas, as Amato parses it, is a master-class in the fantastically empty language of Corporate America. Amato's skillful reading of the book performatively suggests why such a realm would have precious little space for the nasty critical reading habits of an Amato. While calling into question the practices of corporate-academic integration somewhat distinctive to IIT, this close reading also calls into question the work that the hallmarks of scholarly integrity--the paper quality, the scholarly apparatus, the university press--can perform for a writer, regardless of the quality of her or his work.
The Bobs managed, according to Amato, to forge a marriage at IIT between corporate industry and education that far surpasses the student-as-consumer model with which we are increasingly familiar--thus, corporate manuals in the faculty mailbox, and much worse. A liquidation of the Humanities at IIT predictably follows, and Amato finds himself a casualty, denied tenure for reasons that finally remain locked behind closed doors. He is told only that the deans had concerns about his being fully "aligned with the new vision of IIT" (93).
Track 3, "Labor, Manufacturing, Workplace, Community: Four Conclusions in Search of an Ending," contains the most traditional critical work in the book. It develops some new concerns and deepens others. While "Conclusion the 1st: Labor" goes on to thoughtfully deepen Amato's interest in imagining "a poetry that is not subsidized at some level by Fortune 500 attenuations" (111), "Conclusion the 3rd: Workplace" offers a fresh inquiry into the notoriously slippery issue of "craft," a discussion that is one of the critical highlights of the book. Of course, the problematics of the industry of poetics continue to seep in everywhere. "Conclusion the 4th: Community" theorizes the "poetic community," but the concern for the industry around that community necessarily permeates the discussion. Here, within an argument focusing on the poetic reading as a scene of community, Amato makes clear that the "regulating machinery" of scholarly publishing is always influencing his writing, and thus that his poetic performances are irrevocably inscribed within that feedback system, even as they work to circumvent it. He writes:
The magic of poetry
and my readers (provided I have any), from outside reader to editor to copy editor to blurb-er to John Q (in print and, if I'm lucky, during public reading), are forced to negotiate what I mean by these words. Like magic!--though we should bear in mind that all manner of material transaction has taken place in order to get these words "across." The magic of poetry, then, enables productive, unproductive, and non productive energy transfers associated with cultural, spiritual, and emotional work. Poetry works its magic despite the many trade-offs . . . that accompany the I-give-I-give of publishing, of going public. (156)
"Conclusion 2: Manufacturing" consists of a long poem that I can't help but feel would fare better in the sphere of performance which Amato discusses in Conclusion 4.
So we are given four conclusions and no ending, and I think Amato might be pleased that his book be deemed "suggestive"--not in the way that word is often used, which can be to damn with faint praise, but authentically, as a word that denotes a text original enough to jar your thinking out of the tracks in which it normally runs. As should be clear by now, Industrial Poetics works in two recognizable genres--critiques of the profession and genre-bending critical-autobiographical works by poets. This splice is productive, although the book is most successfully a critique of the profession that draws on the formal innovations of critical-poetic work like Susan Howe's. This works in part because one continually senses that Amato would prefer to be writing books like Howe's, if only the industry in which he toils would allow it, and this anxiety is itself an important part of Amato's project. In this way, his book differs profitably from other books in the state-of-the-profession field. One of last year's best examples of that genre, Marc Bousquet's How the University Works, is an incisive, formally traditional scholarly analysis and rethinking of trends in academic labor. Bousquet, an activist on academic labor throughout his academic career, writes from the safety of a tenured position, however, and thus is free to complete a book like How the University Works without having to live through the contingencies that plague Amato and others like him (which is not to imply that Bousquet is eating bon-bons all day, but rather to point out a fact to which Bousquet himself calls attention in his work). Amato's book thus produces a sense of urgency through an authentic anxiety that is qualitatively different from what a book like Bousquet's can (or should) achieve.
But Amato's book does more than illustrate Bousquet's ideas about the problematics of the academic division of labor from a perspective closer to the front lines. Indeed, Amato's uneasy relationship to academe comes not only from not having/making tenure, it comes from his working class background, from his experiences in white-collar jobs in manufacturing and, importantly, from his position as a poet. The innovation in language and form in Amato's book proves valuable as a way of disrupting our scholarly reading habits, which are conditioned by the very disciplinary forces Amato seeks to question. Think of the sections of Susan Howe's The Midnight in which she collages together scholarly research, the reporting of the process of that research, autobiography, images. Howe's book is like a Louise Bourgeois work in which rags from various places are sutured together and stuffed to make a human-shaped sculpture whose uncanny vital force is more than the sum of its parts. In Amato's book similar formal innovations succeed even (and perhaps especially) as they fray at the seams and fail to achieve the symbiosis of disparate elements that makes the work of Susan Howe so pleasurable.
As I finished Amato's book, the question left hanging was how it appeared in my hands in the first place, given the realities of the academic marketplace it probes. The sardonic honesty that characterizes Amato's voice in much of the book is, strikingly, a tone that one increasingly identifies with the genre of the blog. Academic blogs routinely take up issues related to academic production and destruction; one thinks of blogs like historian Claire B. Potter's witty Tenured Radical (< http://tenured-radical.blogspot.com/>), which (among many other things) offers practical career advice for untenured radicals as well as a space for commiseration. It seems important to note that despite tonal and some formal similarities, what Amato does in his book exceeds what can be done in a blog. Or, if it is imaginable that Amato might produce a similar text in weekly chunks on his blog, it is unlikely that they would ever be read holistically, in the way that we, at least for the time being, continue to read books. What would be lost in dismembering the book thus is the reader's very awareness of the disjointed, interrupted nature of academic production, a fact that is obscured in a blog because such discontinuity is the default character of blogs--it is the message of their medium and as such is usually invisible to their readers.
Interestingly, as self-consciously self-conscious as the book is both about its status as a non-traditional critical work and about the scant places for such work at the banquet table of academe, there is minimal discussion, even in the acknowledgements, of how the book got picked up and published in the company of a number of more traditional (though likewise strong and provocative) books of literary criticism in the Iowa Contemporary North American Poetry series. We are told by Amato to blame Charles Bernstein for the book, and Bernstein is nearly a palpable muse for this text. Naturally, the absence of the story of the book's coming-to-life makes sense, in that telling the story of the publication of a book within the pages of the book is the archetypal dilemma of autobiography, but it is precisely the kind of impossible task that a book like this leads the reader to expect to see attempted. No doubt Amato's book was selected for publication much the same way many books are--a combination of hard work, good luck, and generous friends (Bernstein among them) bending the right ears. I'm sure it was more complex than that, and ultimately that story remains to be told elsewhere. Regardless, the final paradox of a book that is propelled by them is the physical fact of the book itself--its very publication offers an optimistic rejoinder to the kind of dire questions it poses about the Poetic Industry.
Thompson Writing Program
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