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Two nibs


Joe Amato
in conversation with
Chris Pusateri

This conversation took place over email in mid-2008


Chris Pusateri: I find very interesting your notion of “the industrial” in your book Industrial Poetics, which concept is never really assigned a stable definition. My reading of the industrial is bound up in its historical meaning, and we’ve seen in recent years a discernible shift from the Industrial Age to the Electronic Age, from mechanical apparatus to electronic network. This shift also brought about a change in attitudes: while the trappings of the industrial age promoted a belief in societal progress, the electronic age has nourished a sense of communal skepticism — a belief that, for all of our advances, our quality of life is declining, and that the future world will not be a particularly happy one.

Section 2

This shift in sentiment has its analogue in poetry. Not long ago, I heard a prominent literary theorist speak in Seattle. This critic (whose support of formally innovative work is well-documented) argued that there is a dearth of talent in the ranks of younger poets, and that poetry had exhausted its ability to innovate — that we had reached a point from which it was only possible to perform mannerist variations on past innovations. What is your view on the state of innovative poetry and what place does ‘the industrial’ occupy in it?


Joe Amato: First thing: “industrial poetics” is more a stance than a way of writing or reading or a formal category of text (literary or otherwise). I suppose in this sense it owes something to early modernisms — Futurism, and esp., Dada. And as you suggest, it’s inherently retro in that it harks back to the pre-postindustrial. This might itself be cause for concern, as it could constitute that species of class-based (let’s say) complacency whereby one feels entitled to fetishize past technologies (LPs, for instance) at considerable expense and accompanied by any number of conceptual rationalizations (the LP sound is “warmer” — which it might well be). Of course my aim is anything but. For me the industrial is all around us, underwriting our ideas and undergirding our ever more conspicuous consumption, even as its mechanizations and representations seem to be converging at some soon-to-be-reckoned-with virtual interface.


I’m trying to grapple with how we might better think about our work — generation and reception, or if you prefer, production and consumption — in historical/social/cultural context, so “industrial poetics” for me becomes a catchphrase to ground our aspirations and convictions in actual material circumstances. As a former engineer, I’m continually astonished at how much we take for granted, how little most people, here in the US especially, know about the industries that bring them their food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and toys. To be aware of these industries, and the labor associated with them, signals perhaps a new combination of work + ethic. Perhaps, too, there’s something of the same old work ethic, if in new trappings? — I’m not certain, but I like to think I learned something important about work and wage from the working-class world in which I was raised.


Now fast forward to (what I take to be) this watershed moment in environmental thinking. My response to climate change: we will probably not succeed in reducing our carbon footprint unless we all know a little something more about the sources of carbon, and what we’re doing to release it, and what it meant in carbon terms when we emptied our checking account last week on that high-def flat-screen TV. Mea culpa, certainly, but awareness has got to start someplace, and an awareness of our mutual hypocrisy, and the kind of conservational turnabout that might be (ought to be) in the offing, is as good an incipient gesture as any, particularly if the objective is political will. Buy my book! — but please be sure to ask yourself whether it’s worth its weight in rain forest matter and the physical and chemical processes that convert same into pulp. That might ultimately prove an unfair question, yes, but I for one appreciate that line of inquiry.


How do we get from here to this question of literary judgment, which your prominent literary theorist addressed in broad sweep by positing a dearth of innovation?


First, and by way of indicating what I value (or as we used to say, where I’m coming from): nothing gets my goat more than a poet who wants to talk about quantum uncertainty, but has no idea how a ratchet works. To say it in more abstract (some will say, dour) terms: industrial poetics places the realm of facticity squarely under poetic purview. Not facts as eternally stable, but facts nonetheless. And facts that circle about this question of our built environment, and its relation to the natural world (formerly Nature). Langston Winner made the point long ago about the ever-more-prevalent black-boxing of new technologies, and while the industrial hardly augurs a hands-on demonstration of block and tackle logic, it has at least the advantage of encouraging one to imagine things in process terms. Material is transformed with a purpose, or telos, and conceiving of our commodities in such terms can become a means of getting one’s mind dirty with the grimy details of said transformations.


One would think that the vast empire of D-I-Y, amateur-oriented, home- and self-improvement books and classes and TV shows would signal a veritable renaissance of interest in heavy industry and its machinations. But while you might learn more about beer by brewing your own than by working in a brewery, you learn more, far more, about social organization and its discontents, about the inexorable links between human and corporate resources, about the vast material consequences of global supply and demand, by working in a brewery. You learn how taste itself is manufactured, albeit homebrewing will likely give you keener insight into good vs. bad taste.


In fact there’s a certain emphasis on matter at work in both scenarios, as against textuality. Whatever it is, matter has properties that render it more inert than text, and not as easily re(con)figured. If you doubt this, drop a ten-pound dictionary on your big toe. Then go to Haiti and do the same. The context will have changed mightily, but I daresay the effect will be much the same. Of course some will see this as a self-aggrandizing calculus, the Revenge of the Poet-Engineer. But I think we do well to distinguish between the effects of things, and the effects of things that point to other things. As someone who likes to cook, I’m pretty damn sure that a tomato, whatever it is, exceeds its many significations.


So OK: innovation, or (let’s say) the new, is probably overrated. Just b/c I lean toward the industrial does not mean that I take for granted the PR coming out of Fortune 500, and such rhetoric has for decades now exploited the idea of corporate innovation, the happy high-tech, military-industrial-university face of Big Science. Which, for the record, is not about to go away anytime soon. We need Big Science today, at any rate, to help provide solutions to the Big Problems facing the coming nine and a half billion stubborn bipeds. We also need new kinds of grassroots efforts, as for example, Lessig’s notion of a creative commons. And we could always use a few more backyard inventors.


One thing further: I don’t believe that anyone can say with certainty that any art form (poetry included) has exhausted itself permanently. I would argue that critical judgment, while hardly a function these days of the eternal verities, has been undercut in some damaging ways by social structures that are unresponsive to human needs, and have conspired to make the prospect of judgment itself suspect. At times I despair of the relatively impoverished discourse that passes for intellectual insight across so many channels, a dumbed-down social discourse that defers judgment on patently obvious issues of pressing concern, only to let a bench of nine ponder the lexical or syntactic infelicities of centuries-old parchment.


But to blame educational institutions for this dire situation, when such institutions are to an unavoidable degree symptomatic of larger social currents, seems misguided to me, albeit it’s unquestionably the case that such institutions ought to do better. (Ditto the attempt, in and sometimes out of the academy, to lay the blame at the doorstep of theory, or cultural studies, or whatever, albeit many of us who enjoy theory and its provocations may well have asked too much of it.)


Let me be clear: literature is diminished when we fail to confront the issue of literary quality, as vexing as it might be. This has little to do directly with making or breaking a canon, or with good and bad taste, though canons and taste are clearly at stake when we convene to discuss and debate quality. Giving voice to our convictions in this regard is, in my view, nothing short of a social (and communal) responsibility, and it can take the form of formal review, or editing, or simply spirited exchange. As I see it, we’re diminished when we behave as though you can make any old poem any old way to say any old thing. If you believe this latter, I suggest you take up another trade for a spell. Car repair, say. Or lawn-raking. There are better and worse ways to perform such activities, and at any given moment, there are better and worse ways of making a poem, with due allowance of course for multiple aesthetic inclinations. As my crystal ball ($9.95 at Walmart) peers only into the immediate future, I can’t really say what the posthuman world might make of such better and worse ways. I can say that to refuse to render judgment simply b/c we’re trapped within our own idiosyncratic skins will likely result in an abundance of piss-poor car-making, lawn-raking, and poetry.


In light of other things we might do, then, industrial poetics asks that we give the handcrafted or computer-generated poem, a thing made, the same measure of respect that we would give to any handcrafted or manufactured, $9.95 item. How well does it work to achieve its presumed ends? Indeed, we might well have to ask, what are its ends? To pursue these questions is not for the squeamish, whether poet, critic, or mechanic.


CP: I’d like to pause a moment to consider the role you’ve assigned to judgment. We might take two divergent examples from the genre of fiction — let’s say James Joyce and John Grisham; furthermore, let’s examine two representative novels from each author’s oeuvre (how about Joyce’s Ulysses and Grisham’s The Pelican Brief?) Now, one could argue that Joyce’s novel is better than Grisham’s, but I guess I’d ask: better for whom? Better for what? In recent years, much responsibility has been placed on the reader to assign meaning to a work of literature (I’m thinking here of garden-variety reader-response theory), yet when claims of literary quality are rendered, we want to make any final judgment the province of the critic (that is, the graduate-trained professor/critic). I’m also curious that you would cite industrial products as examples of how to judge literature. We might, as you suggest, make a judgment about the quality of an automobile. For instance, which is the better automobile: a Prius or a Jeep? Well, there are some baseline criteria: Does it run? Is it durable? Will it last? But beyond that, a lot of what constitutes a good car would depend on why you bought it. Do you want good gas mileage? If so, the Prius is clearly the better choice. Do you want to get safely to and from your house in the mountains when there’s a foot of snow on the ground? Then you probably stand a better chance in a Jeep.


I think similar factors come to bear on a conversation about literary quality. Rather than devising some single metric to judge all literary work, I think some measure of a book’s worth must be taken from what it intends to achieve. For instance, when Grisham sat down to write The Pelican Brief did he envision that he was writing the next great postmodern novel? My guess is probably not, just as I’m sure it was not Joyce’ s intention to write a legal thriller when he composed the opening sentences of Ulysses. And while we’re on topic, let’s speculate a bit: if we were to dig up the stinking corpse of Joyce, reanimate him and put a pen in his hand, do you think he could write us a solid potboiler? Maybe not. You see, people routinely assume that skill is transferable, when frequently it isn’t. I don’t think for a moment that just because someone can write a good novel in one mode that he’d necessarily be able to achieve equal success in another.


We might argue, then, that the amount of effort expended in creating an artwork is a reliable yardstick for measuring its quality. Or we might take the degree of influence that a work has on its readers as a measure of its worth. How then do we explain books like Kerouac’s On the Road, a novel reputedly written in three weeks? Or Duchamp’s readymades, whose fabrication was more a product of framing (whatever that can be taken to mean) than “original” composition (whatever that can be taken to mean). And on the topic of influence: does the work of Jack Spicer owe more to the Old Norse he studied in grad school or the pulp detective novels that he so voraciously consumed throughout his life?


Having said all of this, I strongly agree with your claim about the central importance of judgment to literature. I think every reader should have strong opinions about what he reads, and I’d like to see each person able to make rigorous evaluative arguments about why she thinks one book or poem is superior to another. This is how we nourish discourse — by crossing swords. And like you, I think that generating discussion around works of literature — whether through reviewing, editing, teaching, or what have you — is the responsibility of every writer. But while I prefer Joyce to Grisham (and would be pleased to say why), at the end of the day, I’d ask people to be as critical of their own judgments as they are of the judgments of others. And despite having strong opinions about what I consider to be good literature, I’d stop short of rendering any absolute statements about its worth for others. Once I become impervious to competing arguments, I fail as a thinker. Not that all argument must end with a rhetorical victor (e.g. with one party persuaded), but as with all conversations, I’d like to trust the openness of my interlocutor and I’d like to conduct myself likewise. Because, ultimately, my fidelity is to the discourse, to the conversation we’re having. I’d rather have an interesting exchange, even if it requires me to radically revise some cherished belief. For instance, if someone can make a convincing argument about the value of Grisham’s work, then I’ll need to account for that. And maybe I’ll need to make a trip to the drugstore for a copy of his latest.


I liked, too, your comments on the processes of industry and how little people know about how and under what circumstances their products are made. One of the common charges against poets is their startling lack of knowledge about the processes that make their art possible. I’m thinking here of Charles Simic, until recently our Poet Laureate, who said in the NYTBR ( that he didn’t think that poetry needed much promotion based on the fact that he and two other former poets laureate had read to an audience of 800 people the previous evening in New England. While I find it mildly reassuring that 800 people would come out for an evening of poetry (even poetry that I don’t particularly care for), I’d also have Simic acknowledge that it took not one, not two, but three poets laureate to generate such an audience, and I imagine that untold legions of students likely volunteered their time to get the word out.


What’s more, Simic is published by Harcourt Brace, which has an entire machine working behind the scenes whose sole responsibility is promoting books like his. So I find it more than a little irresponsible that he would pretend that promotion isn’t necessary just because he doesn’t have to dirty his mitts doing it. Simic goes on to say that a reading such as his is proof positive that poetry is alive and well in America. This statement strikes me as nothing less than absurd. I work at an urban public library and can tell you firsthand the almost total indifference that most people display toward the subject. It makes me wonder if this guy has ever read in a smoky bar to an audience of five people, all of whom he knows personally. Until he has, I’d urge him to refrain from making any sweeping statements about what’s good for poetry.


Switching gears a bit, I think we’re at a particularly interesting crossroads with regards to digital technology and its effect on literary production. Ron Silliman wrote recently that it is now easier for poets to publish than it was, say, thirty years ago, yet it’s harder for poets to attract an audience for their work than it was in 1978. Each year, I read that an increasing number of print titles are being produced, and that the actual number of books sold is increasing. And yet, the power structures that existed in trade publishing are now being replicated in the POD environment, with distributors like Amazon now insisting that small presses who distribute through them also use their Booksurge arm as a printer. What then occurs is that one company controls the entire production chain: from printing to distribution. It’s rapidly becoming an all-or-nothing sort of arrangement.


There seems to be a broad perception that electronic technologies will level the playing field and make the publication of material (and access to those materials) more open and democratic. How do you think new media and its attendant technologies are affecting the lay of the land with regards to poetry?


JA : I like what you say about literary judgment, especially the necessity to tender one’s opines with due humility. Yes — it’s the exchange that’s most important. What we’re busy doing here, now.


Maybe it’s worth pulling out a few relevant threads in Industrial Poetics, which — fair warning — will force us both to get our hands dirtier than they are already with the nitty-gritty of valuation.


Note, first, that there’s an apparent paradox lurking at the heart of my insistence on the industrial, to wit: that the rubric itself and all that it implies is a prime culprit in undoing older, more staid notions of literary quality. Benjamin is useful here, certainly, but before launching into an excursus on the auratic (which might itself diverge to consider aesthetic intention), let me draw your attention to the opening salvo of Industrial Poetics (Track 1), where I nod to Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book that I continue to find provocative. You’ll recall that Pirsig’s narrational alter ego, Phaedrus, pursues Quality (at least, in my reading of the book) to the point at which his very sanity would seem to be at stake. There’s probably a lesson here as to the dangers of metaphysics, and it’s true, too, that good/better/best can constitute a mere marketplace diversion. At any rate, in my ensuing discussion in Track 2 of the corporatization of academe (the circumstances surrounding my first tenure denial), I detail how the incursion of Motorola’s quaint little acronym, QCEL (Quality, Creativity, Ethics, Leadership), into the IIT (Illinois Institute of Technology) academic environ places writing squarely under leadership.


This is what happens when words are consigned outright to the aims of power. It’s not the move toward the instrumentalized word that ought to give pause, exactly — lord knows, we need cookbooks and repair manuals and literary criticism written with an eye toward clarity, cogency, etc. — so much as the degree to which writing is thus domesticated by an overarching corporate imperative. Could this outcome have been so handily achieved had writing been placed under Quality, or Creativity, or Ethics? Or would these latter rubrics have provided at least some room for resistance, a modicum of dissent? Difficult to say (especially now that the study of literature has been all but banished from the tenure-track ranks of IIT’s Department of Humanities), but it’s clear in any case that writing as a subset of leadership is a blatantly ideological ruse.


Also, I didn’t say what ends up happening to presumably more thing-bound professions, like engineering, when subjected to the QCEL worldview, but it’s doubtful that theoretical articulations of thing-ness — e.g., F = ma — can be as easily subsumed by such follow-the-leader strategies, no matter how caught up they may be in symbolic order. This is one reason why so many scientists resist social constructivist views of science — such views unseat not only the authority scientists wield over the physical world (a Good Thing), but they place such professional pursuits under the purview of those who would reduce things to words (not necessarily a Good Thing). By way of enhancing my discussion of things in the first part of our exchange, then: to domesticate things you need first to render language subservient to your agenda. Either that, or you take a hammer to things, a decidedly tougher proposition.


So one might offer the following conjecture: that the failure to understand how our increasingly professionalized words privilege a world in which privatized selves prize things first and foremost, seeking self-definition via ownership of such things, is one measure of the public’s anemic grasp of literary/artistic/aesthetic/ideational value, which probably (give me a few paragraphs!) has something to say to the media question you raise.


But let’s take your example, first, of Joyce vs. Grisham. (I work at a deficit of sorts in not having read Grisham beyond a few pages, albeit having viewed most of the Grisham-based films and read reviews of several of his books.) You raise a nice point when you ask, “better for whom? better for what?” In essence this is the line of reasoning informing the approach to the value of a literary work in terms of the cultural work that it performs. I’m sensitive to this perspective, and in terms of English department history, it’s surely helped (via cultural studies and the like) to crank open the woefully white, male, straight (etc.) canon to include a diverse range of voices, to critique connoisseurship notions of value, etc. I’ve always been a fan, too, of collapsing high-low cultural distinctions, but if this means eradicating distinction outright, and pace Bourdieu, you can count me out.


A problem persists here, too, in that word, “cultural.” (Well — it’s a problem word, let’s face it.) Some books have great cultural impact — John Grisham’s writings probably qualify — but, as you suggest, one can be a member of US literate culture (i.e., someone who reads and writes) and care very little about (or for) the books themselves. (Nb: It’s perhaps worth having a glance at Pirsig’s Afterword, in which he discusses “culture-bearing books.” I believe Edward Said advances a similar concept, but I’ll be damned if I can recall where.) Does popularity have anything necessarily to do with quality? I think we can agree that the answer is no, regardless of how either of us might assign value. Or perhaps there are some aspects of any popular artifact that must meet minimal quality “standards.” In which light we might agree, too, that Grisham’s sentences are at least serviceable and answer to the demands of his narratives.


But my point is that, in assigning literary value (which term I’m using at the moment interchangeably with quality), some “we” would be busy gauging the attributes of Grisham’s work against the class of such works — literary works, right? As Wittgenstein might be quick to remind us, we’re not comparing Grisham’s novels to Jeeps, albeit working through such analogies can help to illuminate what’s at stake in delineating form and function. So, in ascertaining the value of Grisham’s artifact, one might begin by asking, What kind of an artifact is The Pelican Brief? It’s a book, a novel, a legal thriller, etc. And in addressing this question, one would simultaneously situate the function of said artifact (i.e., better how).


Genre becomes a complicating factor here. The bookstores (it is, after all, a book!) might shelve the book under literary fiction, thus inviting comparison with Joyce, among others (if against, it must be said, Grisham’s stated intentions); or a used bookstore might shelve the book in their mystery section, thus inviting comparison with Agatha Christie. Either way, because we’re talking about works of fiction, some “we” might want to compare Joyce, Grisham and Christie with one another, which would require that said “we” identifies what works of fiction should accomplish, and why, and how well a given work accomplishes same.


This is all a very arduous way of describing what happens all the time in the reception (which often includes purchase!) of a literary work. To cut to the chase: I could assert either (1) that of Joyce, Grisham, and Christie, the writer whose work best embodies the aims of literature, as I’ve come to understand literary art, is Joyce; or (2) that of the three, Joyce is obviously the greater writer. While (1) is a nicer way of putting things, it doesn’t amount to much more than (2), in the end. So thanks to decades of theory-laden investigation — I will come off here as trivializing, I know — we’ve (I’ve) found, among other things, a more generous way of reaching the same conclusion. Alternately, will someone please step forward and mount the ‘Grisham and/or Christie is better literature than Joyce” argument?


Now, we know there are people — readers — out there who believe this latter to be the case, and who strongly believe this. But of what might their argument consist? That a lot of people feel as they do? Not an argument, I’m sorry, unless sheer popularity is deemed in itself a necessary and sufficient condition of quality. An argument would have to turn, again, on how one imagines the aims of literature, and we would, as above, have to distinguish between the imagined aims of various genres (nonfiction vs. fiction, say, and with due regard for overlap). We could talk, for instance, in terms of entertainment value — I’m all for that actually, as I would love to see us attempt to bridge the art/commerce divide — but we’d have to qualify, first, what we mean by entertainment that works, as opposed to entertainment that doesn’t work, and this would mean dealing with the formal attributes of the text in question, and the effects they achieve (for whomever), in order to distinguish between better and worse forms of entertainment.


In the absence of a bona fide argument, at any rate, why should I accept an opinion as worthy of sustained consideration, especially when offered by the very people who would likely be the first to discredit so much vital work merely on the grounds that it’s too “difficult” (difficulty being, in my view, a good thing generally, which is not to say that the absence of difficulty is always a bad thing). Moreover, it’s a fair bet that the vast majority of writers whom I’ve come to admire — experts, if you like — would most certainly agree with my assessment of Joyce-Grisham-Christie. And that fact itself ought to give one pause, much as we should seriously entertain, grain of salt notwithstanding, the advice of a master electrician who’s instructing us as to the safest way to rewire that 240V service.


Here’s another in a long line of axioms that guide my thinking: so much of conscious life entails selecting things, tacitly or otherwise, that require or demand our attention. In an important sense, then, what draws our attention (our desire) is that upon which our mortality expires. As literature is a category of phenomena that requires sustained attention (duration) — and even setting aside what I see as the value of good literary art (which may or may not be linear in exposition) — I would say that related selections (judgments) are too important to be left to unexamined conceptions of value (a hint here of the unexamined life).


So one way of stating the rub of judgment, then: while we examine very publicly, if superficially, the things in our lives from the standpoint of value — including bang for the buck, as in Jeep vs. Prius, or that seam I just caulked with acrylic latex putty, licking my finger to smooth the finish — the discourse surrounding literary value has gone (or should that be, remains?) largely underground, even among the most putatively literate tribes (i.e., English faculty), leaving the public-at-large (incl. students) with an impoverished vocabulary (e.g., “sucked,” “awesome”) for discussing said value.


Still. In the marketplace of manufactured things, the old adage generally holds: you get what you pay for. You can “research” thing-value of this sort by turning to Consumer Reports and talking with your friends, and lo! — you’ll end up with a $200 vacuum cleaner that does the job. Whereas in the marketplace of ideas, the realm of symbols and signs, the arts, the relationship between form and function is somewhat more obscure, and warrants considerable (industrial, ha) study. Form and function in the arts are marked by the singularity of the work in question, from concept all the way through to final material form. Ergo, valuation and revaluation is time-consuming — it consumes time, with the added insult that its more pragmatic contours are decidedly fuzzy. Time, as we know, is the one thing nobody wants to see consumed. We want to save time, yes? Let’s forgo fretting over why we like what we like, particularly if we can’t own it…


So a materialistic culture moves further and further away from those (ahem) forms of life that might facilitate examination of its increasingly illegible emotional and spiritual and, oddly, material underpinnings. Matter becomes consumer/consumed matter, process all but invisible, function reduced to instant gratification, Who We Are becomes What We Wish To Own, and at the posthuman horizon, What We Wish To Own will translate to What Kinds Of Beings We Wish To Be, a somewhat-less-than-edifying prospect no matter Who You Are. (I’ve got to believe that even Ray Kurzweil has had second thoughts about what it might mean for our species to reengineer itself courtesy of Fortune 500.) It’s all been said before, and better. (Better. And hey — I like things, incl. signs.) But I don’t believe it can be said strictly in terms, for instance, of Marxist problematics. The creative energies to which I allude (or the lack thereof), while bound up in class realities (and anxieties), often operate on a micro scale that defies sweeping theoretical limns. And besides, I’m too much of a capitalist to get behind the Marxist platform. As I see it, marketplace competition, if appropriately regulated, can be a good thing.


You asked about new media — what it might portend for poetry. As a writer-who-teaches, and who hails as a teacher from the more progressive, critical-pedagogy neck of the woods, I would have been expected perhaps to begin with a discussion of literacy. I would have been expected to argue that more books are being published today than at any time in history; that literacy rates here in the US, whatever we mean by literacy, are as high as ever; that the online world constitutes a veritable renaissance of writing, including poetry; that despite perennial claims to the contrary — e.g., the NEA’s Reading at Risk — the only thing at risk is access to those items that find themselves at the far end of that long tail of distribution. In short, that the only real problems we face are economic in character.


But in point of fact, and at the risk of flapping my prehistoric wings, everything I see in and out of the classroom (twenty years in the classroom, and Kass’s [ed: Fleisher, Amato’s partner and collaborator] twenty years have led her to a similar conclusion) persuades me to believe that reading and writing are at risk, finally. That interest in the written word is on the wane, even insofar as words can be tools for thought, for thinking about Important Things. And that disregard at the social level for the intricacies and possibilities of reading and writing could very well constitute a cultural as well as cognitive deficit.


The only hitch here — and this perhaps points to what I see as the worst, most compromising aspect of the digital world — is that the more we make available online, the more we dilute what’s worthy of our attention. (Jed Rasula has a stunning piece, published in Postmodern Culture some years ago, that assays this phenomenon through a literary-theoretical lens, “Textual Indigence in the Archive.”) To offset this, we’d need (aside from better search engines and the like) a critical-editorial function well equipped to deal with this question of literary value. At the individual level, positing such a function is tantamount to saying that we’d each have to be in the habit of thinking about and discussing what we like, and why — OK, sure, with an open mind — which intellectual orbit and associated public fora would help us negotiate the Web without being simply overwhelmed. Not a problem for most poets I know, but something of a problem for non-poets.


While the Web presumably connects everything with everything else, it seems at times not a little like a larger infinity housing smaller infinities. So perhaps this idea of connectedness is undermined by the sheer Balkanization of it all — not poetry, but poetries, each existing in relative ignorance of/indifference to the other, never mind other domains of knowledge and experience. And since whatever representational differences we perceive through the screen are, in a fundamental sense, imagistically equivalent — a rock becomes the image of a rock, people become representations of people, things in general become the kinds of signs that link (not point) to other things (apologies to Augustine) — we have differences without distinctions, a flattening out of the world that signals not merely Thomas L. Friedman’s leveling of the global economic playing field (The World is Flat), but a world in which things become as compliant as (we’ve made) signs. Hence the promise and the peril of the virtual.


Of course books manage this too, because words, like images, exert a leveling effect (words standing in for things), but good books nevertheless encourage their readers to make such distinctions. In fact I can’t write “good books” without in some sense already having predicated the active presence of good readers — readers who have learned that distinguishing good from so-so, and so-so from bad, is part of their readerly obligation (an obligation to communitas, let’s say). In a culture sans such wordy provocations, at any rate, the Web’s formidable capacity for foisting/pushing information upon us via sound and light can promote simplistic writing and faulty thinking and, yep, effective PR.


Blogs: based on the statistics I’ve seen, most (US) bloggers are between 40 and 50 years of age, and clearly, one of the distinguishing features of the blogosphere is the active and passionate attempt to evaluate all aspects of culture: films, books, music, political candidates, hot dog stands, etc. In particular, there are some damn good poetry blogs out there, blogs that serve not only to spread the word as to what’s worthy of our attention, and why, but that flesh out related histories and augment related theories (poetics). And as one might expect, there are some terrible poetry blogs, offering half-assed opinions and ill-conceived diatribes. How to distinguish the good from the bad from the ugly? Google “climate change” or “intelligent design,” imagine yourself a teenager, and the situation appears that much more dire, First Amendment surpluses aside.


Let me try, try to be hopeful though. When left to their own devices, people — or at least, middle-aged people — would seem to get off on scrutinizing what’s good, and why. Maybe there’s a lesson here for the English classroom? Maybe evaluation and interpretation need to be brought into closer contact, and maybe this needs to happen under the auspices of a thing made. Critical essays are things made; are evaluated (graded, or submitted for publication). But because their form is pretty much a given (e.g., MLA or Chicago Manual of Style), many of the assumptions guiding related discursive value often operate without a whole lot of critical interference (odd, when you think about it, given the sophisticated and nuanced interpretations of literary works and cultural artifacts one finds these days in the professoriate’s contributions). We need analysis and evaluation, that is, on both sides of the equation, from the generative through to reception.


If we ask, today, what kinds of readers and writers we want to be — or, say, what kinds of poets we want to be — are we in essence asking what kinds of creatures we want to be? Are we inquiring into the kinds of brains (minds) we wish to develop? We would seem to be at something of a bio-eco-cultural threshold in this regard, where such questions are no longer the domain solely of sci-fi writers and enthusiasts — where such questions are, as we say, in the offing.


CP:I think you’re touching on several very important points here, viz. how to reconcile one’s poetics with a manner of personal ethics, and how to use those things in the service of one’s humanity. But before I go any further, let me draw your attention to two passages in your previous response. In the first, you wrote:


… why should I accept an opinion as worthy of sustained consideration, especially when offered by the very people who would likely be the first to discredit so much (to me) vital work merely on the grounds that it’s too “difficult… ”


Yet that sentiment was later tempered by this statement:


If we ask, today, what kinds of readers and writers we want to be — or, say, what kinds of poets we want to be — are we in essence asking what kinds of creatures we want to be? Are we inquiring into the kinds of brains (minds) we wish to develop?


The tension between these two passages cuts to the heart of what I find challenging about poetic discourse. Like you, I find difficulty in literature desirable, but I recognize that not everyone shares this opinion. In my professional life as a librarian, much of what I do consists of mediating between readers and their reading material. In this respect, librarians have much in common with teachers, although the type and level of mediation we provide is different. Most public library patrons read for pleasure (who among us doesn’t?), although pleasure can assume many forms, and can be elicited by different kinds of texts. But as you note in your first passage above, there are some people who treat an affinity for difficult literature with disdain.


But after a time, you come to realize that this is little more than defensive posturing. Many people are conditioned to think they need special training to read difficult literature (a viewpoint that society in general and educational institutions in particular have done little to dispel) and that the act of reading complex text amounts to little more than a parlor game in which overdetermined interpretive techniques are applied to a literary work to unlock some sort of essentialist meaning. Rather than fighting fire with fire (e.g. dismissing those who dismiss me), I question their flippancy, and it seems to me that most use dismissal as a preemptive strategy, precisely because they fear that the company line is true: that they really don’t have what it takes to read Riding or Joyce or Andrews or Drucker. And so they dismiss me and my difficult literature before their deficiencies (whether real or imagined) become apparent. In a word, they dismiss me before I can dismiss them.


Dismissal presumes that your opponent’s concerns in this case, a fear of having your choices in literature found wanting — have no basis. Instead, I take pains to demonstrate that reading is, in large part, a process by which meaning is generated and assigned, and that many readers can perform this act with facility. If you place some trust in a person’s intelligence, I’ve found that it earns you no small amount of goodwill. And I’m continually surprised by just how quickly a person’s resistance evaporates when you make that basic concession.


I think this point is well-illustrated in your earlier book Bookend: Anatomies of a Virtual Self, when you address the issue this way:


When I think of “common folk,” I invariably have in mind my father, a man who worked for hourly (union and nonunion) wages his entire life as a furniture finisher. No college, a veteran, first-generation American, a craftsman by this country’s standards: he would indeed have had, as he might have put it, a helluvatime with my book. That he would have worked his way through parts of it, though, belies the fact that access to such texts is in large part a matter of preexisting social strata. (— Amato, 9)


This last sentence brings to mind David Antin’s oft-quoted phrase, “from the modernism you want, you get the postmodernism you deserve.” The avant-garde (at least in the US) subscribes to a particular notion of modernism, one that travels, at least poetically, through the Stein-Pound-Williams canon. This period also coincided with the rise of New Criticism, which would become (and in some ways, remains) the most influential form of literary criticism of the last century. As you’re well aware, Brooks, Warren and company removed influence and intention from the equation — they placed works of literature in little snow globes, and effectively divorced literary works from the social and political contexts that produced them. Despite all that we owe modernism (whichever modernism you want), it comes as little surprise to me that people (non-poet peoples) would react to difficulty as they have.


What I tell people in the library is that reading is a transformative act, and like Alain Badiou, I contend that “… what every emancipatory project does, what every emergence of hitherto unknown possibilities does, is to put an end to consensus.” And that, rather than fearing this, we should invite and encourage these differences, these ambiguities. And behave generously (and thoughtfully) towards them.


So, to return to an earlier point: if access to difficult texts is “in large part, a matter of preexisting social strata,” the question becomes how best for writers to contend with that? I, for one, am convinced that the postmodernism we deserve is better than the postmodernism for which we’ve settled. Whenever I look at large-scale National Poetry Month, NEA-sponsored public projects designed to entice people to read poetry, I think they suffer from a single overarching problem: they presume that everyone agrees (in advance) that poetry is a public good. Problem is, there’s precious little discussion about why it’s a public good. I’d hate to think that poetry became irrelevant to so many due to a simple argumentative oversight, but I think this is largely the case. And therefore, to most people (even those who might be persuaded to read it) poetry is the linguistic equivalent of cherry cough syrup: something that makes you suffer for your cure.


I cite the above examples not to trivialize the debate, or to ignore the basic fact that proponents of linear literatures (official verse culture, mainstream literatures, or whatever designation you prefer) wield a disproportionate amount of power in the literary world (power, I would assume, being measured materially, in terms of grants, teaching positions, publishing opportunities, Lilly bequests and the like), nor do I deny the basic fact that people the world over are routinely seduced by imbecility posing as entertainment or information. But I’d like to ask you where and how you see “difficult” literature being advanced? When you say (along with the NEA) that reading and writing are under threat, I’d have to agree. There is more hardscrabble competition than ever for people’s ever-dwindling attentions, and reading (even reading The Pelican Brief) is proving a less attractive option to many than more passive forms of entertainment. And as you point out in Industrial Poetics, part of the problem is economic: productivity has gone up even as real wages have declined, which means that most people spend more time at work, bring home less lettuce for their trouble, and have precious little energy to devote to that which makes further demands of them. In order to persuade people that such energies are worth marshalling, it’s imperative to articulate poetry’s worth for them. And indeed, this will not persuade everyone, but it may persuade some. So with this in mind, how do we counteract these developments? What strategies do you as a teacher use in the classroom when met with people’s dismissal (as teaching has a large element of “social work” involved in it)?


JA: Chris, by way of easing into your question, perhaps I should say something, first, about generosity. It’s an admirable trait and a great operating principle — to a point. Say, the point at which someone believes that putting a gun to someone else’s head is an appropriate way of handling dissent. Or, the point at which our science classrooms — and I certainly don’t wish to come off as a booster for all aspects of science — are populated by people who believe that man walked the Earth alongside dinosaurs.


Now, from what I understand, 25% of biology instructors in this country believe the latter. Against which reality, I simply must observe that dissensus will do only past a certain intelligible point. Prior to which, should Flat Earth knuckleheads persist in their attempts to teach Flat Earthedness alongside Spherical Earthedness — and further, to attempt to institute such teaching — such knuckleheads ought to be treated as, well, knuckleheads. To treat a blatantly bad (and potentially harmful) idea as a potentially viable notion is, to my way of thinking, a form of condescension, and hardly an act of generosity. I’m sure, too, that there’s no point in making life miserable for your Flat Earth in-laws (along with yourself and your spouse). So context matters here, certainly, when it comes to, what, pitched fights.


This has practical, political, and pedagogical consequences. Gerald Graff can talk reasonably about “teaching the conflicts” only provided that the conflicts are such that everyone begins with some shared assumptions, one such assumption being that we should not shout one another down in discussing said conflicts, and another such assumption being that we need not reinvent the wheel in making xyz points. Otherwise, the aims of dialogue will likely forever be deferred to the aims of dogma, because human society seems prone to generating at least one or two cranks per fifty participants.


Now you can probably sense in my response to you, here, a subtle shift in my rhetoric, which thus far in our exchange has proceeded with limited (let’s call it) wit. I’m attempting a bit of humor in the above, via irony, maybe even (though I hope not) sarcasm. Why? Well, one of my major beefs with talk about the classroom is that there’s a tendency to treat it as a place of Holy Communion. In a long (long) piece Kass and I coauthored (“Reforming Creative Writing Pedagogy: History as Knowledge, Knowledge as Activism,” for electronic book review), we attempted to develop an approach for combating what we viewed (and were hardly the first to view) as a certain species of anti-intellectualism in the creative writing classroom in particular. We tried to provide a constructive approach to the basic problems, as we’d encountered them, and we tried in doing so to survey a wide range of relevant literature. This was seven years ago.


Today I’m struck — as I’m similarly struck whenever I have a glance at my doctoral dissertation (1989) —at how inordinately straight-faced we appear at times to be. That is, at how sincere our rhetoric. We worked hard in that piece to lay it on the line, generously and candidly and — to my way of thinking, today — with perhaps an excess of anxiety as to our imagined readership.


(Actually, I’m using the word sincere in a somewhat fast-and-loose fashion, as a simple marker of stylistics. Lionel Trilling argued long ago for the benefits of sincerity — being true to oneself in order to be true to others — over and against what he saw as the Romantic-modern emphasis on authenticity, which requires, as Trilling had it, merely and profoundly that one perform the part of sincerity in order to “be” sincere. In which light I might better use a term such as earnest or overweening or heartfelt or even ardent.)


So when you ask about the classroom, and about my classroom practices, I’m tempted to begin by observing, somewhat slyly, that there is no generic classroom. There’s a tendency to behave as though first-year and second-year college students are pretty much the same, regardless of campus or region or what have you. To which I would observe that institutional differences can and usually do create substantively different learning environs, and if we’re talking about teaching, then we’re talking about learning, and learning is not simply about cognitive potential.


(I’ll restrain myself here from launching into a critique of books like Harvard Schmarvard: Getting Beyond the Ivy League to the College That is Best for You [2003], by Jay Mathews, which would console everyone with the news that potential for success is a matter more of individual motivation and abilities than university/college rank. For starters, to say that it makes little difference which of 250 postsecondary institutions one attends is already to dismiss out of hand the third- and fourth-tiers of such institutions, those with relatively meager endowments and resources. But there are many, many other problems with such views, which only reassure the people who are most in need of corresponding enlightenment: taxpayers whose taxes and trust funds — or lack thereof — support their children’s higher learning; taxpayers who don’t understand how a degree from an elite liberal arts college now correlates with the highest mid-career salaries in the nation; taxpayers who don’t understand professoriate wage differences even between places like Illinois State University (where I teach) and major land-grant institutions like University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a mere forty-five minutes away, where full profs earn on the average tens of thousands of dollars per year more for their publish-or-perish efforts; taxpayers who don’t, as you suggest, understand why literature is important, not least because the value of this stuff called literature, with its attendant and stubbornly relevant humanist notions [e.g., the examined life], has been obscured by bottom-line volatilities, the withered state of public dialogue, and the depletion of what Curtis White calls the social imagination.)


If we’re talking about learning, then, and if we’re talking about how twenty-year old, predominantly non-English majors learn in non-literature composition classes at a third-tier institution (in the Midwest) — a sizable number of which non-English majors are first-generation college students and hail from the lower-economic classes — one’s pedagogical approach might be understood, first, as directed to said, uhm, consumers? Great kids, many of them, sure. But many of them, it’s fair to say, near done-in educationally by surrounding cultural and economic realities, not to say family circumstances.


What do I do in such a classroom? Well, for one, I try to avoid coming off like a corporate widget. This requires, in my case, considerable exploitation of four-letter enunciations, which are always potentially risky. (At the start of nearly every semester, and despite my cautioning students that I just can’t help myself when it comes to uttering off-color remarks, someone rats me out to the Dean. Thus far my institution has been kind enough to overlook my fucking offenses.) I think, too, that terms such as “student-centered” and especially “service” (in all of the latter’s glorious manifestations) have been completely co-opted by status-quo concerns, and are best avoided at this point. I still attempt, if with no small amount of irony, to discuss with my students on a regular basis the pedagogical assumptions guiding a given course — including my newfound (if retro) “instructor-centered” approach to teaching, whereby, for instance, I comment on papers with the sole aim of satisfying MY needs as a thinker (“read my remarks or not, it’s up to you”). Thanks in part to widespread use of the Web as a research tool, I’ve given up entirely on research papers (this in lower-level writing courses), and now ask for essays (“examples provided”). I don’t permit revision of shorter papers, and tend to deemphasize revision generally, on the grounds that it’s become an excuse for those with word processors to behave as though everything is a draft — and I don’t have unlimited time for drafts (“so keep your pock-ridden processes to yourself, please”). I do some peer evaluation, but make it abundantly clear that it’s my opine that will matter finally, grade-wise. (Having been raked over the coals during my last tenure denial for permitting students some small say in raising — never lowering — their peers’ grades, this is pure survival strategy on my part. Let’s recall I’ve been demoted to NTT [nontenure-track] status.)


Most of my students seem to appreciate the instructional irony implicit in some of the above, even if they look at me askance at times. But as I say to them, I’m only half-joking — which means I’m half-serious. It’s up to them — and up to you, Chris — to decide what this means, exactly. I like to keep students guessing, which maintains the potential for surprise, but I most definitely will not have them guessing as to what I expect from them in terms of workload and how their individual contributions will be evaluated. Generally, if a poetry student or a tech writing student leaves a given class session less certain of what they think poetry or tech writing IS, I take that as a sign of success.


In short, I’ve shifted my rhetorical stance, which constitutes a shift in pedagogy, as a means of addressing (resisting) what I see as dire cultural-social-educational gradients. Meanwhile, I’ve incorporated more sound-performance work into all of my courses — if you can’t read prose or poetry aloud with appropriate emphasis, chances are you aren’t reading it correctly (the latter the clearest example of my return to Old School pedagogy, which — when you think of it — foregrounds the student body) — and I take every opportunity to upset my own curricular plans. Four or five times a semester I’ll walk into a classroom with a newspaper or magazine in hand — The New York Times or The New Yorker or The Onion or Rain Taxi or whatever — and flip through it, talking through a particular article while reading a portion aloud to the class. This might go on for a half-hour, or forty-five minutes, depending on whether I get responses, and the nature of those responses. Sure, students are confused at first, but usually they figure out what I’m up to. This is my way of bringing what’s outside the classroom inside the classroom, in which regard I hope to [cough] lead by example. Though here again, of course I’m not always able to manage the latter, as my language, again, is truly deplorable. Chalk it up, as I tell my students, to my days supervising construction.


I generally get rave reviews as an instructor — the hell with false modesty — but there are always those you can’t reach. Some pedagogues (knuckleheads) will insist that you must reach everyone. Yes, I try, but let’s face it: if everyone is happy with you, you’re probably doing something wrong. And instructors are people too, which means that there are, from the get-go, variegated affinities between instructors and students. I’m not a harsh grader — I try to challenge my students intellectually. I emphasize ideas. I’m a real stickler for attendance (my primary nod to process, and to those grades of C and lower). I ask for confrontation, for competing ideas, except on those occasions when I’m doling out advice about grad school, or whatever, which I tend to regard as axiomatic (“please don’t bother disagreeing with me about this — feel free however to ignore what I’m about to say”).


One more thing: these days I make it a point to explain to my students that I’m a Writer-Who-Teaches, as opposed to a Teacher-Who-Writes. (It’s a distinction I borrow, I think, from D. G. Myers’s excellent The Elephants Teach.) Teaching, I say, is a job, and I take my job very seriously because, you know, someone is paying me to do it. I talk about how the idea of a job has been devalued in the US because we’ve managed, at considerable (ultimately monetary!) expense, to sever the bond between work ethic and wage. Wage today is too often merely a means to an end, which end has nothing to do with the work one does, whereas in the working-class communities in which I was raised, an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay was a working assumption. So, I let my students know that, were it up to me, I’d be home writing, not teaching. And this isn’t because teaching isn’t valuable work — it is — but because it’s how I’m built. I love literature and writing so much that I’d rather be doing it, and making it, than teaching it. The risk, of course, is that some might misconstrue my motives, and conclude that I really don’t give a shit about my teaching (i.e., their learning). But if they think it through — and I’m there to help them do so (and I’m there, believe me) — they’ll understand how important writing and reading (and the arts) are to me. And over time they just might conclude that they’re better off with someone who commits his “spare time” to same — teaching abilities being equal, sure — than with someone whose spare time consists of, oh I don’t know, talking about teaching. Maybe, in fact, my being a self-professed Writer-Who-Teaches means, by definition, that my job will never be, as they say, “just a job.”


Should people read more? Sure. They should think more. I can still recall that news spot I saw a few years back, where this woman was pointing to her forehead, the area above the bridge of her nose, and saying that she didn’t like the wrinkles she got from thinking, and was hoping to eliminate same with Botox.


Copy that.


CP: Although your points about generosity are well-made, I don’t think that anyone would argue for limitless generosity (e.g. one that suffers obvious canards), and as such, there’s a clear distinction to be made between literary disagreement and the idea that putting guns to heads is a good method of settling disputes (in other words, I do not think that the former acts as a gateway to the latter). But from a psychological perspective — and I view this as an issue separate from, but related to, generosity — there is something in me that wants to better understand what makes certain opinions (even those hostile to my own) seductive to some. For me, it’s an ethical test to examine your antithesis and try to understand what makes that viewpoint attractive (and it has an argumentative use, if for no other reason than that it makes you better able to anticipate [and thus, counter] the claims of your opponent).


But before I give that dead horse another (generous) kick, let me take a moment to ask about a theme I’ve seen emerging from this discussion. We’ve spent time talking about the social functions of poetry, and in Track 3 of Industrial Poetics, you discuss exactly that, and ask what confluence of factors make a community cohere in the first place.


Now, for as much as the notion of community is bandied about in creative circles (from the student seduced by the promise of “the writing life” on sale at his local MFA program to a poet who’s plied her trade long enough to know that community is about more than who’s in the room), I’d say everyone has an interest in community, how it forms, what sustains it, and toward what ends it stakes its existence. Because people, as you note in Track 3, are addicted to one another.


Your commentary on social function is framed by a passage you lift from Shoshana Zuboff : “the knowledge associated with doing cannot be reduced to talking or writing about doing.” (IP, 132). You go on to point out that the activity described in Zuboff’s quotation (e.g. talking and writing about talking and writing) is the very definition of theory, which is a useful and necessary enterprise, and one that should be of interest to all writers. Putting the larger issue of theory aside for a moment, I’d like to take up the notion of doing, namely as it relates to creative production, the formation of community and other social activities like political action.


The trope of the industrial comes to bear here, precisely because it focuses on the physical, material aspects of creative production. And while writing is doubtlessly a political act (and the act of writing is itself physical), I have the sense that the rise of virtual environments has coincided with the decline of direct (read: physical) action, whether that action is political, creative or social.


I think we can all agree that digital technologies have facilitated exchange and access in a way that is historically unprecedented, and that there are few artists whose efforts have not been furthered by their involvement in the virtual world. Whereas twenty years ago a writer might have been in correspondence with five other artists, now he is in contact with twenty-five. But one of the obvious effects of increased reach is attenuation; that is, there is a danger that people thus extended are all the more reluctant to commit their physical presence to anything. I notice this frequently when I attend readings, lectures, or any gathering whose success hinges on physical participation: ever fewer people.


Thomas Hylland Eriksen writes that in an information-packed, stimulus-rich environment, the scarcest commodity of all is the attention of others. I would add to this: the presence of others. I note this physical reticence in other areas of public life. Take politics for example: whereas once people would actually seek to protest or physically intervene in the political process (put their bodies upon the gears, as Savio had it), now the only thing that brings more than a couple of hundred people together is a sporting event. During a period which has been witness to some of the most egregious abuses of power in our nation’s history, it seems that people would rather opine on their blogs than commit their physical presence to any direct political action. Blogs and other electronic media being productive and useful, of course, but ultimately they are things that are easy to dismiss, precisely because they lack a robust material dimension.


Maybe this is a function of age more than anything. Mine was the last generation for whom the presence of personal computers was not a basic fact of life. And certainly, marshalling bodies — whether for a reading, a protest or to form a labor union — has never been an easy task. But I have a sneaking suspicion that a community loses something more than numbers when we think that typing a short email acts as a substitute for physical presence.


You wrote in Track 3 that if “you work 8 to 5 with someone for five or ten years helping to manufacture something that people want or need, you really do get to know what makes your coworker tick.” (IP, 154). Speaking personally, I’ve had a number of gratifying and fruitful interactions with people online, many of whose work and efforts I’ve come to admire greatly. However, for me, community has less to do with effort and more to do with sustained effort. And for better or worse, these online relationships, like the virtual world itself, seem transient in a way that physicality is not. For me, physical interaction — real face time, the palpable presence of other humans — is an essential criterion for community, one for which there is no surrogate. Like many people, I use virtual technologies as a form of personal outreach, but it is physical presence that acts as the anchor for any community in which I’d want to participate. Not to recapitulate, given that you’ve said much on the subject in Industrial Poetics, but what are your thoughts on the notion of physical presence as it relates to community and other social aspects of creativity?


JA: First, regarding this age thing: you and I are roughly a half a generation apart. The generation I see in my (undergrad) classes these days is roughly a generation and a half younger than me. This means, or should mean, that personal computers and related technologies and practices (iPods, texting, etc.) are for this cohort (with due allowance for economic class factors and the like) merely extensions of the built environment, like dishwashers and blow-dryers. Tools, in short. And for all of the fretting over the demise of reading and the rise of electracy — Gregory Ulmer’s term for the literacy associated with digital media (a literacy that Ulmer himself has championed in intriguing ways) — we might be reaching the point at which associated shifts in consciousness (if indeed this is what they are) are already hard upon us. So perhaps the kind of exchange we’re busy having here, thanks to email — that atrociously old-fashioned communications medium that has nonetheless permitted us to continue to dialogue even as I’ve returned from the Front Range of the Rockies to Central Illinois flatland — has to stop deferring to an implicit future beyond the one unfolding presently, in plain sight.


At any rate — and much as I clearly love, like most pontificators of posterity, to dust off my crystal ball every now and again — I’d observe that we should be in a pretty good position now to see how new media are altering the social (and literary) landscape. And which brings us to your question, and your sense that physical community is taking a beating of sorts thanks to the ever-more-insinuating virtual; and further, that whatever else we might think of the Web, the lack of a “robust material dimension” (as you so aptly put it) is working to undermine associated collective ventures. (Way back in 1993 Howard Rheingold wondered, at the conclusion of The Virtual Community, whether the Net [‘twas the Net then] would be more democratic or more panoptic a decade hence. OK, so: which is it?)


Well, yes, sure, the student of social behavior in me wants to say. Just look at the incentives for not showing up in the flesh. Face-to-face interaction is always potentially compromised by physical foibles (ranging from natural reticence to body odor). Why not reduce the risk of, among other things, exposure? Also, look at the potential energy savings. Better simply to play the control game and sit on one’s haunches where it’s nice and warm, or nice and air-conditioned, glaring into the interface, no? Let’s be sure to note, too, that one can pass online — as black, or white, or straight, or queer, or what have you — which, depending on the situation, might be viewed as advantageous or execrable. (I always feel compelled in such musings to consider, as well, the ways in which able-bodied beings tend to take for granted ease of mobility. I suppose this means that, for the disabled, virtual appearances can offer an added advantage.)


I don’t have a clear sense, myself, of whether poetry readings are more or less populated than they used to be, generally speaking. But I think the more important issue you raise turns on what value we place on being in the midst of other live, similarly equipped and variously attentive bipeds, and whether the expressive and communicative enhancements afforded by the online world ought to be viewed as just that — enhancements.


Are they enhancements? What is their phenomenological status?


It’s probably the state of the global economy just now (with the announcement two days ago that the feds will buy up bad mortgages to the tune of something like $700 billion), and the ongoing war(s) or occupations or whatever, and any number of other cataclysms that seem to be heading humanity’s way (I await with baited breath the latest asteroid reports), but I’m uncertain at the moment as to what I might say about all of this that has any lasting value. In fact it’s “lasting value” that would seem to be at stake in dealing with things virtual. As I tried to argue some years ago (in Bookend), I don’t think we can write off the online world, for all of its excesses and inanities, as peripheral to our state of being, collective or otherwise. When Laura Miller wrote “” a decade ago (see NYTBR 15 March 1998), she took notoriously dismissive aim at what she felt were unwarranted claims as to the future of hypertext, and by implication, the (waning) future of books. But the future of books (and for that matter, of hypertext) would be of little interest to me had this future only to do with books (and hypertext). Which is to say, if books did not speak in profound ways to who we are, who we think we are, and who (or what) we might ultimately become, I wouldn’t be a writer.


And if in fact the virtual is telling us something important about who we are, individually and collectively, then I would have to observe that it’s telling us that we “need” one another for many of the wrong reasons. We demand one another’s attention in order to sell our stuff. We demand one another’s attention in order to sell someone else’s stuff. We demand one another’s attention in order to get them to do something we want them to do. We demand one another’s attention in order to get them to do something someone else wants them to do. We demand one another’s attention to persuade them to think like we think. We demand one another’s attention to persuade them to think like someone else thinks.


Not that there’s anything wrong with (all of) that! As a former engineer, I’m often wowed by the sheer power of instrumental thought. And as a former male engineer, the last thing I’d want to do is come off as a Pollyanna, as too soulful for my own good.


But to find oneself in the presence of other living beings is never a purely instrumental experience. Neither is the virtual, of course — but it’s become the preferred path of instrumentality. You no longer need to knock on anyone’s door to sell your brushes. You no longer need to make eye contact (albeit it will doubtless prove interesting to see how, as bandwidth increases, things like eye contact make their pixelated return). There’s something about sharing space with other bodies that isn’t captured by any particular rhetorical stance (ergo, in Industrial Poetics, my eventual turn to magic, albeit I didn’t do enough to distinguish it from rhetoric, and probably should have recuperated the ritualistic more fully by taking Collingwood’s remarks on same and — ).


I’d hate to end our exchange on a somber, even precious note. But in the final movement of Bookend, I advance (in lines) the notion of a social “glue,” and in looking back, I wonder whether this didn’t serve as a conceptual stand-in for something vital that I felt was under assault, what with our burgeoning archives of data and our vast capacity to “informate” (Zuboff) — something we (for the moment) mortally-embodied beings have always shared, and shared with other species. A sense of loss?

Joe Amato

Joe Amato

Joe Amato is the author of eight books, most recently Pain Plus Thyme (Factory School, 2008), Industrial Poetics: Demo Tracks for a Mobile Culture (University of Iowa Press, 2006), and Under Virga (Chax Press, 2006). A licensed professional engineer in New York State, he spent seven years in industry working in various engineering capacities. He currently teaches writing and literature at Illinois State University. His memoir, Once an Engineer: A Song of the Salt City, will be released by SUNY Press in the fall.

Chris Pusateri

Chris Pusateri

Chris Pusateri is the author of two books of poetry, most recently Anon (BlazeVox, 2008). Work from his new manuscript, Common Time, appears or is forthcoming in Mandorla, Colorado Review, Fence, {1111}, Zoland Poetry and Action, Yes. A librarian by profession, he currently lives in London.

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