Joe Amato’s Once an Engineer

Shorter Joe Amato’s Once an Engineer (Amazon): Yeah it snows a lot in Syracuse. Fuck you.

I used to take pride in the fact that I was from New York State, because in New York State is New York City. Recalling this point of pride, I wonder if people from NYC find reading about their hometown as strange as I find reading about mine, Syracuse, NY (well, actually Liverpool, but no one’s about to write about that). After all, New Yorkers get to see/hear/read their city in so many places. I expect it stops being special, if it ever was.

Of course, Joe does not write about Syracuse to make it special. Nor does he write about so that I can see myself. His upbringing, while so close to mine in many ways (Italian-American, grew up on the North side of the city, went to Heid’s–we could conceivably be related: there are some Amato’s in my family, which extends to sixth cousins depending on the event), is also utterly foreign to me. By the time I reached the age Joe is in the memoir, Syracuse had become more suburban than urban. I do remember downtown when there were department stores. But before long you had to go to Penn-Can mall and later Great Northern Mall and then Carousel Center to go to what the Chappell’s and Sibley’s of the world would become. Now downtown is “revitalized”, and in Armory Square one can drink the latest microbrews, eat sushi, get $100 haircuts, and buy $300 jeans. I can’t say that I am against any of those things, but they are not part of the Salt City of which Joe writes. I expect my mother would recognize that city, even if she would not recognize Joe’s manner of describing it.

It’s fascinating to read something by an Italian-American about being Italian-American that is not 1) an immigrant story, 2) about the mob, or 3) both. Immigration is there in the background. Someone was an immigrant. The mob is there too, but very fuzzy and perhaps a figment of imagination. Such texts traffic in the distinctions between the old world and the new, and even in the first half of the 20th century when they were the norm they seem a bit out of date as technology effaced such distinctions (or at least the distinctions as they were understood at the time).

Rather, Once an Engineer is about a world both coming apart and coming together, about the specializations that make communication between groups impossible even as technologies afford greater opportunities for communication. While Joe alludes to certain class issues (for example, becoming an engineer affords a middle class future), the divisions that most concern him have to do with the problems of communicating oneself to a group that 1) knows nothing of your jargon and 2) may not want to know. This problem may manifest over a professional dinner when one person tells a joke deemed offensive by someone else or may be part and parcel of one’s world at work, where the distinction between union and non-union is not so great as the distinction between those who speak one way and those who speak another.

For one, to be a mechanic or an engineer is to inhabit a world divided, or thought to be divided, into two discrete domains of experience: texts and things. Engineers are hardly literary types, but they customarily see the world more in terms of text; mechanics work more in terms of things; technicians would appear in some sense to straddle this divide; whereas managers would seem to make of these texts and things a matter of methods that will presumably relate, somehow–or made to relate–to the organizational human. For managers, texts and things are transcended by organizational motive–by business imperatives. For engineers and mechanics and technicians, the motive is in texts and things. For all of the workers, the social contribution, good or bad or in between, is often lost in the shuffle.

This passage not only draws the reader’s attention to the problem just mentioned, but also to its solution in the world of business: management, a practice in which all difference is effaced in the name of efficiency and profit. The engineer can only be an engineer when he operates outside of these constraints, and perhaps this is the motivation behind the books closing statement, a personal statement written to gain acceptance into graduate school–to study literature, or, not coincidentally given the year at this point (~1984) what English Departments were increasingly calling texts (in fact, the English Department at Syracuse University is called English and Textual Studies, or at least was [I may be making this part up, but that seems right]).

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Joe winds up as a scholar of literature and a poet (see his Amazon author page here. The need to render texts and things useful is a problematic endeavor, and one he resists throughout his story. The work he does as an engineer (or, one expects, as a poet or critic) becomes useful only to the extent that it becomes other than what it was. And for all the differences between jargons, between engineers and mechanics, the most troubling difference seems to exist where those who want to solve problems meet those who demand those solutions be legible according to organizational if not capitalistic principles. Something is lost in this difference, in which the latter side always seems to win. And it does not seem to me that what is lost is some romantic connection to one’s labor, or a pastoralism once present and now forever lost. Rather, what is lost is a potential utility consumed in the actual utility, a possibility not yet reached at the point when the manager says, “Good enough. Now build it. We need to start doing.”

To be sitting at one’s desk with a blueprint, thing of processes and products, of how things work, together; to be out in the field, with things, perusing and exploring, with a mind to seeking out the best representation that might embody a new dispersion of things into the world, a dispersion that itself enacts actual shifts in density, phase, viscosity, flow–these activities require, as much as anything else, a concerted effort of imagination. Theories of text, practice with things; theories of things, practice with text–theory and practice both, what I’ll later understand in more scholastic confines as praxis. there is training, of course–on the job. Yet the sort of education required here is anything but rote. Without imagination, without curiosity, without the persistent application of inquiring thought to people and things, often with the aid of text–without these, there’s not a chance you’ll be truly good at this kind of work, your work. No Way

And even if you are truly good at it–in a world of control grown so remote and so sophisticated, on a planet of social collectives grown so interconnected and at odds–it’s far from self-evident whether such work does any real good.

This passage, from near the end of the text, returns the reader to Joe’s father, who as a furniture restorer corked in such a way that he could create. More, he could create without the need for a theory and without regard for the utility of his creation. The creation, the creating, was the utility it seems, just as it was for Joe’s grandmother who could cook but not explain her methods to another, who could not communicate what labor is.

I would like to point out a thousand things about Once an Engineer, from its comedy to its capture of local dialect, but I’ll refrain. I’ll refrain because in the end these things cannot be communicated, least of all in a review. They are not private languages, as in certain notions of the postmodern. They are not merely idiosyncratic. They are something else, something that only exists in their happening, something no text can quite convey. I will leave it to Joe’s text to try to convey where it knows it cannot.

Hence: Yeah it snows a lot in Syracuse. Fuck you.

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2 Responses to “Joe Amato’s Once an Engineer”

  1. Kass Fleisher Says:

    Great read of this "text," perhaps the most useful insight being that "the most troubling difference seems to exist where those who want to solve problems meet those who demand those solutions be legible according to organizational if not capitalistic principles." This expands Joe's discussion of class to the implications of class within the institutional/organizational. In so many ways this book is a demonstration of the intersectionality of class and ethnicity; both affect the means by which an engineer problem-solves *and* the language he's going to bring to that solution *which* then affects how the institution's representatives hear that solution. For me, one of the tragedies of the book is the implied sequel: how the narrator's problem-solving will in future be viewed by academia. How does an English Department prefer to solve the problem of a poem? Very nearly the way the corporation wants to solve the problem of metering usage. Fucking sad, man. Fucking brutal.

  2. Benjamion J Robertson Says:

    i really like the language of design, where it's about solving problems. but, like any language, it can be co-opted, appropriated and then turned into a narrow practice. the only problems worth solving are the ones they say are worth solving, and too frequently all problems become the same problem and are supposed to be solved by the same method. in academia it becomes, "when all you have is some derrida, everything looks like a transcendental signifier."

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