Artifice and Representation in Ambient Literature

One question that comes up frequently in discussions of ambient literature is how it is connected to other forms and other traditions that have interrogated the place of writing and performance in the world. In particular, I want to pick up previous threads that have discussed ambient literature’s connections to poetry and certain versions of the idea of the artifice as it functions in ambient literature. In many ways, these issue dovetail with a few of the seminars around ambient literature that have been held, particularly as they gesture toward ambient literature’s connections to the history of the book and understandings of reading in general.

For me, these ideas coalesced in a recent (re)reading of Charles Bernstein’s (1992) A Poetics. Published in 1992 (with many sections of the book finding their origins as far back as 1985), A Poetics is a collection of essays on the avant garde traditions of poetry (and, somewhat surprisingly, an essay on video games, which, originally published in 1989, provides a strikingly still relevant analysis) that remains relevant to both contemporary considerations of poetry and, I would offer here, new forms of electronic literature like ambient literature as well.

Besides being a poet, Bernstein is probably best known as the co-editor of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (1978–1981), the small magazine that served as a lodestone for discussions around what was known as language centered writing. In several oblique ways, the seeds planted by this cluster of writing and thinking about writing serves as a rough sketch of how to think about ambient literature in a serious way. To put it a bit roughly, the work that language writing did to think about how the referentiality of writing was embedded within a wider world serves to ground a discussion of ambient literature which as a very idea is predicated by writing’s relation to the world. This sense of writing’s (and reading’s) engagement with the world is something discussed by Bernstein in his poem/essay “Artifice of Absorption” which serves as ballast for A Poetics.

In the essay/poem, Bernstein (1992) forefronts the importance of the active engagement of readers with poetry, saying that

a “poem” may be understood as

writing specifically designed to absorb, or inflate

with, proactive—rather than reactive—styles of

reading. (p. 9)

This idea of that different types of writing require different kinds of reading isn’t in itself startling, but what makes Bernstein’s consideration of it interesting is his linking of this kind of proactive reading to the material and semantic form of the poem itself. Citing Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s On Poetic Artifice, he goes on to say that

artifice in a poem is primarily marked

by the quality of the poem’s language that makes it

both continuous & discontinuous with the world of

experience. (p. 10)

While it deserves greater discussion than is possible here, the idea of the artifice as employed by Bernstein serves to demarcate the actual (I might even go so far as to say “real”) surface of the poem that serves to both demarcate the poem from the world (in a functional sense) and simultaneously demonstrate its non-representative integration into the world. The artifice of the poem is the appearance which makes the poem what it is. Henry Sussman (2004) opens the concept up a little further, saying that

“[t]he artifice of poetry is the supplement, the unknown quantity beyond the themes and devices, and one of the crucial endeavors of language poetry will be to dramatize this artifice, in the theatrical space furnished by the blank page.” (p. 1202)

What is most intriguing about Bernstein’s discussion of the artifice of the poem is the way in which the idea of the artifice is able to offer a way to talk about the real irreality that is given by a work of art and the way that a work instantiates a reality beyond that which is present. It gives us a way to think about works of literature which are both startling and absorbing, works which are ingrained in the world and yet stand alone.

This idea of writing’s relationship to the world is something Bernstein delves into further in a discussion of Susan Howe’s reading of Emily Dickinson, as he goes on to say that

 [t]he poem

enacts an “impossible” preference not to represent

the world or look at it as if it were a

representation—that is, something on can

look out onto—but dwell in, on, be of. (p. 25)  

The conditions of this “‘impossible’ preference” are similar to those described by Kit Robinson (1978) in the very first issue of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine: “What is here is here in relation” (p. 8).

All of this is, of course, to start to situate the idea of ambient literature that is being developed in this project, in its ontological function, as something that can be described in terms akin to those used by Bernstein and others who have worked in the area of language-centered writing. For understanding ambient literature, sorting out the connection between the representative function of language and the world within which it is situated is a primary concern. After all, with the idea of ambient literature being predicated on the contextual encounter of a reader with a literary work, how the literary text itself is represented and represents such a context seems of vital importance.

More that just this, however, Bernstein’s text also starts to offer a way into understanding how the system of reference, through its activation by the artifice of a work, comes to be encountered by the reader. Looking forward, the question of absorption offered by Bernstein, while set aside here, promises to be fruitful.

—Michael Marcinkowski



Bernstein, C. (1992). A Poetics. Harvard University Press.

Sussman, H. (2004). Prolegomena to any Present and Future Language Poetry. MLN Bulletin, 118(5), 1193–1212.

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