- Tracking the Field
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...