Ambient Beings: On Gauss PDF, Troll Thread, and Artificial Textual Ecologies

I want this essay to satisfy two basic requirements as I develop the contours of a new theory of poetics—one that articulates a way of constructing and thinking about text that I hope will broaden the sense of the possible in poetry. First, it must take into account the unreality or post-reality of artificiality, simulation, and the internet—in short, our experience of the digital. Second, it must tackle the hyperreality of ecology, non-human agency, and the lived material effects of planetary capitalism. Both unreality and hyperreality must now be thought together, actively employed in the same breath as a new, composite means of constructing art that models how worlds hang together and survive.

Such an approach sees networked digital multiplicities—artificial intelligence, deep fakes, social media, internet echo chambers, memes, YouTube videos, etc., and all the links to and between them—as offering an ecological model for art and writing. The digital connects heterogeneous worlds through networks that lead to new, emergent forms. The strange artifacts created by AI or by the recursive communal operations of meme-making are not isolated dreams: their hermetic quality stems directly from the public, global workspace of the internet. Communities that are involuted to the point of simulation are yoked to other privacies, other virtual worlds within the world wide web. Often it is because of the web that these communities exist in the first place. In this sense, an ecology is a networked system of internal worlds leading to the creation of more internal worlds.

My theory is centered in the postulate that all beings, from subatomic particles to planetary systems, are experiential or phenomenal in nature. Beings are worlds that come together to form larger worlds. I use the term “ambience,” elaborated below, as a means of simultaneously discussing both this physical hypothesis and experimental textual artifacts. To start here is as much pre-ecological as it ecological. Further, it is ecology-making, a means of constructing beings so that they might form systems that lead to biologies, economies, geologies, anatomies, and other systems. But at all scales, death is as pervasive as the proliferation of life forms. Grief exposes modulations of attention, and I use my own experience of it to speculate on how, in this system, texts move and move through lives, including my own.

Writing can use the digital to model the ecological—and more broadly, the digital and ecological can be thought together to treat world-modeling as an aesthetic process. To think through the beginnings of what this would look like for poetry, I have focused on texts published on the online publishing projects Gauss PDF (2010–2022) and Troll Thread (2010–present), other books published by writers associated with these platforms, and the writings of a few relevant theorists. In the background, there are many other writers and thinkers. For better or worse, I have tried to avoid getting tangled up in citations and contextualization. Though it often strikes an academic tone in order to arrive at certain formulations, this essay is really meant for poets, writers, and readers subsisting both within and especially beyond the academy. Partially a new theoretical stance, partially an outline of technical strategies, and partially an exhibition of autobiographical relation to impersonal or extra-personal thinking, I hope this essay will open new directions for other writers to explore in both poetry and prose.

Ambient Constructivism

I define an ambience as a set of experiential phenomena that acts as a world. More specifically, an ambience is a perspectival world that results from being embedded within an environment composed of other agents, whose structuring presence partially determines the form that ambience takes. However, an ambience is not the “perception” of these other entities—it is the form a perspectival world takes as a result of environmental pressures. And although it is a set of phenomena, this ambience, unlike affect, does not require cognition in order to exist. While some ambiences may achieve enough structure to be considered alive, this is not always the case. An ambience is experiential, yet it does not need to be “paid attention to.” Functionally, it can be a medium without a message.

In its simplest form, the information content of an ambience is present all at once, and continually re-presented throughout the duration of the ambience. Put another way, although an ambience may rely upon the continual influx of new phenomena in order to exist, these new phenomena are essentially a predictive extrapolation of some underlying form, mechanism, procedure, or source code that itself is the core “information” to be gained from the ambience by an external observer. It may take time for the observer to sort through and process this information, however—any engagement with an ambience can unfold dynamically over the course of a “reading” into contextual meaning. Even so, there is an essential boring, droning, soothing, static, hissing, crushing, or calm quality to ambiences. Furthermore, an observer may simply choose not to engage in actively recognizing and interpreting the ambience. Ambience then falls back from melody to furniture music.

Ambiences embody compositional strategies that may be hidden or exposed, arcane or algorithmic. One textual example of an ambience is Snug by Eddie Hopely (Troll Thread, 2013), which can be read as the textual version of a laser light show, proceeding as an endless description of the colors associated with a “favorite sweatshirt.” [1] Another example is Alejandro Ventura’s Speculative 2014 Witney Biennial Exhibition Catalogue (TT, 2014), which attributes the same artwork (the words “It is raining” framed in a square) to 103 different artists. [2] A third is Amelia Dale’s Tractosaur (TT, 2015) in which all words in a text are gradually replaced with the word “tractosaur,” alongside repeated images of the titular creature (a T-Rex’s head crudely photoshopped onto a tractor). Tom Comitta’s novel Nature Book (Coffee House Press, 2023) is, like their earlier text Airport Novella (TT, 2017), a literary “supercut,” here composed of phrases taken from over 300 novels and collaged to create panoramic environmental descriptions without any human characters. [3] Astrid Lorange’s Pussy pussy what what or Au lait day Au lait day (Gauss PDF, 2010) uses the repetition of “pussy pussy,” Steinian syntax, and controlled sestets to create its own lyrical world. [4] Sean Tatol’s Long S (GPDF, 2020) deconstructs what appear to be Loeb Library texts to create a kind of ancient glitch world—aestheticized textual ruins. [5] Trisha Low’s Confessions [of a variety.] (GPDF, 2010) consists of a rigorous catalogue of wounds, scars, and irregularities on the author’s skin, followed by transcripts of confessions with Catholic priests in which Low follows a prescribed monologue and records the priests’ reaction. [6] What these digital texts have in common is that they proceed by some method—be it conceptual, lyrical, pastiche, documentary, hybrid technique, or something unclassifiable—to create a consistent unity to the text, a feeling of that text’s ambient world.

Fundamentally, an ambience strives to continue. This is the basic requirement for becoming a world at all: continuance beyond individual moments. In order for any world to exist past a single flash, it must contain within it (or be contained by) some means of perpetuation, some principle suggesting unity across moments in time, like a melody or a style—not necessarily a “narrative” yet, but perhaps on its way. At the scale of organisms, such absorptive continuity can be seen in the metabolizing of information into memory, in the reclaiming of difference at the level of substrate into sameness at the level of structure/process; food becomes self, light joins the perennial tissue of sight.

But these ambient worlds are not necessarily the worlds of organisms. For most beings, the tendency to continue need not be intentional. In fact, an organism is best described as a complex of ambiences that leads to the emergence of a new stable set of ambient phenomena, the organism’s umvelt, or the total world of its experience. A human may thus be described as a series of ambiences arranged in a more purposeful network of sequences enabling cognition. Seen in one instant as a plurality—and always decomposable to such—this cognitive agent nevertheless can be read over time as a unified ambience. An ambience made of ambiences plugging into an ambience.

In what follows, I outline a theory of ambient poetics as a program for the construction of artificial, textual beings that co-constitute each other through interactions at multiple scales. By ambient poetics I mean textual artifacts that serve as worlds, in the manner described above, for observers who move through them using readerly practices including skimming, non-linear sampling, link clicking, scrolling, struggling page by page, or even just looking at them. I conclude that this program of ambient poetics is ultimately cosmopoetic in nature, a means of modeling how beings come together to form worlds—including the worlds we inhabit. The conceptual and lyrical techniques outlined here are thus ways of grappling with what living and non-living systems are, can be, and what we want them to become.

Internet Ambience

The concept of ambience is made available to me through digitally mediated culture. I develop my brute, rudimentary model of ambiences making worlds through my engagement with cognitive–aesthetic artifacts in the digital domain. In other words, I use artforms to think about the making of lifeforms.

As I explore the Tumblr pages for online publishing projects Gauss PDF (GPDF) and Troll Thread (TT), I encounter many different aesthetic experiences, most of them text-based, but some also employing image, video, and sound. From the main catalogue on each website I can click on a title, which takes me to a landing page or directly into the piece itself, usually in the form of a PDF opened in my Chrome browser. Each title published by Gauss PDF and Troll Thread is self-contained in this way, existing in its own tab on my computer or phone. Yet it’s easy to get from one to the other: just click on your back arrow and scroll to the next piece you’re interested in. This time, you could right-click on the piece and choose “open in new tab” and watch as tabs bud at the top-right of your screen, growing more condensed as you choose more titles for future reading. Even in this familiar way, each contains a whole world within it.

Every title published by Gauss PDF and Troll Thread offers a sustained aesthetic experience that almost always goes beyond simply offering a coherent “style,” as each title is further propelled by some underlying concept, method, or technology. A portion of these texts can be classified as “conceptual” or “post-conceptual.” By conceptual I mean, roughly, works that are generated by a clearly defined, almost algorithmic method of composition—usually involving either appropriated text or self-documentation. Post-conceptual approximately refers to works in which the motivating “idea” is no longer so clearly articulable, which may be due to greater hybridity, interweaving of methods, a more general lyricism, or a partial return to self-expression or performativity. Historically speaking, GPDF and TT represent a particular response to the advent of digital techniques for generating, aggregating, and disseminating text, and can be seen as emerging from a sequence of avant-garde writing that includes the first wave of Conceptualism in the 1960s, the Language Poetry of the 70s and 80s, and the resurgence of Conceptual Writing in the 2000s. Care should be taken to be taken, however, to ultimately distinguish these projects from the Kenneth Goldsmith-led brand of conceptualism, which in the 2010s came to be regarded as a morally bankrupt, sharply racist mode of artworld spectacle—while GPDF and TT continued their much more savvy and radical work online.

It’s possible to sink some serious time into these websites, to live in them, in a way that is fundamentally different from the usual website for a poetry press. Gauss PDF and Troll Thread differ from the conditions of standard presses because they exist in essentially the same space as their books. Upon entering the GPDF or TT website you have free and direct access to all titles, which you browse, open, and navigate away from, all within the space of the website: the press is a website is an archive is a series of titles linked on a screen. This differs from the normal arrangement, where a press’s website acts as a zone of commerce for its titles and a database for its backlist, but where each physical book is separate from its website. Once in the world, traditional physical books make little reference to the websites that facilitate their dispersal. When you close a physical book, it does not transfer you back to the press or its website, and there is no way to navigate from one physical book to another easily, apart from putting down the book, getting on your phone, ordering another book, and waiting for it to arrive via media mail.

Meanwhile, the fully digital press centralizes this otherwise dispersed series of logistics. Gauss PDF is https://www.gauss-pdf.com/ and Troll Thread is https://trollthread.tumblr.com, while Ugly Duckling Presse (for instance) is not https://uglyducklingpresse.org. When it comes to TT and GPDF, the website is different from the book in level, but not in kind.

My goal here isn’t to postulate a general aesthetic for Gauss PDF or Troll Thread, partly because these collective entities are too multifarious in their parts to do so. As J. Gordon Faylor (the editor of GPDF) mentions in an interview with Tan Lin, there are plenty of individual titles in the Gauss PDF catalogue that do not share a common aesthetic stance, apart from a certain spirit of experimentation. [7] But what GPDF and TT enable, as textual experiences themselves, is a readerly toggling between different texts that act as subsets of the space of that toggling itself.

While the texts do not call out to each other in any premeditated way, the emergent space of the site collects them within itself; it is made of them. As I navigate the site I begin to pick up on an ambient vibe that is decomposable into the individual vibes of the texts themselves.

Melgard and Sylvester: Frame, Procedure, Organism

Chris Sylvester’s conceptual text Lawn Book was published in 2017 on Troll Thread, which Sylvester also coedits alongside Holly Melgard, Joey Yearous-Algozin, and Divya Victor. In addition to being a book of sublime terror and useful lawn-care advice, Lawn Book demonstrates how the conceptual techniques of textual appropriation, reframing, and procedural modification can be used to create non-human worlds in text.

Lawn Book can be said to be composed of two sections, though there is no visual separation between them. The first section collates found text from a lawn care forum, beginning each new entry with the anaphoric “I am afraid.” [8] In classic Troll Thread fashion, the text becomes lineated through its narrow margins, large font, and ample line spacing. In other words, it looks like a poem through a rather straightforward bit of formatting on InDesign: highlight everything (ctrl + a) and drag in the margins, increase font size, set line-spacing to 2.0. Having the look of a poem in this case, then, is more about formatting than form.

Lawn Book represents standard practices of the TT collective, including data dump and computer-enabled shortcuts. While earlier strains of conceptualism often emphasized the painstaking, meticulous, and slow procedures of their construction, someone like Sylvester simply copies and pastes and quickly blows up the poem to a size where you are “in it,” so that you are instantly absorbed in the poem. In an interview between Tan Lin and Troll Thread, he describes his early work as “ever-present one-off piles of garbage or junk that I pumped out of textpad or excel or MSWord or whatever, typically screen-capped, cropped, and posted as quickly as possible (often simply to avoid detection by my supervisors).” [9] His approach becomes a poetic appropriation of corporate information processing: “At that time I was working at a market research firm as a spreadsheet drone and decided to use many of the processes and platforms I should have been using for work in order to make poetry (or whatever).” [10] In Lawn Book, these processes and technologies get re-routed from corporate profiteering to organismic propagation.

Lawn Book begins:

I am afraid. With only two rainfalls
in late May (16th, and 26th) and
one in June (2nd of the month),
we’ve had now (today is 13 June)
more than ten hot (record high
temperatures for this time of year),
dry, low-humidity days. And no rain
possible until Saturday night, when
they’re forecasting a 20% chance
of some precipitation. We’re in
fairly tight straits now, and ought to
be watering. But it’s going to get
worse, all week long, and if it does
not rain on Saturday night, then far
more worse. I am afraid. Most of
the soil in my lawn will be wet 6-8
inches on much less than 1 inch of
water. The areas that don’t get
water that far down I plan to treat
with the shampoo method. [11]

Each page is narrowed to a grassblade of text, with large font and short and airy lines, as if you were holding a piece of grass close to the eye. Despite its banal content, the poem is surprisingly lyrical, psychological, and dynamically paced. At the same time, the book’s 442 pages can be quickly flipped through or scrolled down as the eye moves over the text, like a hand brushing the tips of 442 grass blades. Just as a lawn cannot be cared for one stem at a time but must be engaged with as a multiplicity, Sylvester’s method treats the poem as a vast swath of text not to be engaged with one word at a time, but rather manipulated, formatted, and skimmed en masse.

Caring for a lawn becomes formatting a text. You can read the book front to back, but scrolling also allows you to jump around, scroll too far, scamper across it like a dog in the yard. The book, a scalar lawn, is a textured multiplicity made of individual lives.

The collective voice of the poem’s anonymous, fretful lawn owners, then, could just as well correspond to the anxious collectivity of organisms that the lawn owners care for—i.e., grass itself. In other words, a seemingly endless lawncare–forum–world can be re-framed as the ambient equivalent of what it’s like to be a lawn. Or, perhaps more accurately, the text is a kind of halfway point, a sort of human–lawn chimera. Lawn Book has taken human experience and reformatted it, so that it now models a new being, a new world, this human–grass sensorium whose textual phenomena can stand in for both human and grass experience. Ambience draws attention to form, medium, and process to mediate between human readers and non-human beings. The formal and tonal qualities of the text—its anaphora, short lines, large font, multiple first-persons, exaggerated anxiety, its obsession with numbers and measurements, with fractions of inches, rainfall, season, and soil dampness—reduce experience to a few dimensions that isometrically model the internal self-relations and external entanglements of grass as well as humans.

The second half of the poem is composed of text seemingly culled from several different sources, most of which I have been unable to identify, besides an ending quotation from Paradise Lost. This second section begins with pages and pages describing the executions of an “I” who is continually beheaded and slain for being “trash,” and who sometimes comes back to life or escapes to be killed again—sometimes alone, sometimes in groups—in every conceivable manner. [12] These “I”s are beheaded as often as blades of grass are mown. This section then moves into a Nouveau-Roman-like set of descriptions by a narrator with their ear to the mud elaborating various machines and industrial chemicals. Sylvester’s ambient narrative then moves into the depiction of something like abiogenesis (the origin of life from non-living matter), and ends with a re-lineated quote from Paradise Lost.

The funny “I am afraid” of the first section, which evoked the neuroses of suburban lawn culture as well as the self-seriousness of niche forums, gives way to genuine cosmic terror in the second section. The text moves from the fretful and neurotic human stewardship of the natural to the natural world itself, to the irruption of life and death as matters of fact. Although these are all descriptions of human death, they can also be read as the visceral correlations of the half-death undergone by grass as it is mown, decapitatingly manicured to serve human standards of beauty. More broadly, this second section moves deeper into the muddy, visceral world of soil, a world of decomposition, pollution, birth, and metamorphosis, a world familiar to grass—residing, as it does, half in the underworld of soil and half in the light of human horticulture—but also familiar to the human body, which ultimately will take to the soil upon death. Together, these two sections represent the movement between air and soil, life and death, cultivation and wilderness. They also show how two ambiences (the first and second halves of Lawn Book) can combine to form a larger, unified ambience, in the same way that these opposing concepts combine to form coherent worlds.

Holly Melgard’s poem “Child Labor” engages in the same sort of textual re-purposing as Lawn Book, only more explicitly. Melgard is also an editor at Troll Thread. In this poem (published in her 2021 book from Roof, Fetal Position), she reframes pornographic descriptions as fetal consciousness. She describes the poem as “[p]ornographic descriptions of what it feels like to be inside of a woman cut-up and re-ordered to form a composite narration of vaginal childbirth from the fetal point of view”. [13] The poem loosely borrows the quotational form of Alice Notley’s Descent of Alette:

“What it felt like when I was inside of her” “The way she felt when I was inside of her” “—I mean,” “I never thought the stories were true until it happened to me.” “What it felt like to cum into her” “and when I came out of her” [14]

Notley invented this form to create a decisively female epic. “Child Labor” repurposes that form for an epic of the female reproductive system. In appearance, the poem also suggests a kind of Zagat review for being born, a composite of voices used to convey an ambient summary of experience. Furthermore, by transforming sexual acts into fetal consciousness, “Child Labor” mirrors a real world causal structure: heteronormative sex makes a baby; pornography becomes embryography. The poem is a work of art in the mode of biological reproduction. It reproduces organically, rather than mechanistically—bringing a new, unique being to life through the actions of older beings; creating one text out of another. The poet, the fetus, and the mother all labor to transform a past state into a future form. Thus, in its basic textual mechanism and its relentlessly visceral description, “Child Labor” does not just depict human reproduction, it embodies it. Its conceptual structure maps onto biological process.

Because the source of the language is so clear, reading “Child Labor” involves a kind of superimposition or double-focus. The reader can toggle between seeing these phrases as pornography and seeing them as dispatches from prenatal consciousness. Perhaps most often the reader perceives both modes at once. One symbolic milieu is framed as another; this double-focus represents the point at which the given is transformed into the new, where the human is transformed beyond itself, and through which an organism perpetuates its body and its offspring beyond the present in a kind of ambient reproduction.

There is a loose procedure here—find phrases in erotic texts that could also refer to the experience of being born—that allows for freedom of choice and unpredictability within that constraint. Procedurally reframing an outside as an inside, creating coherence through selection, condensing a multi-perspectival space (e.g., the canon of literary works selected to represent a certain genre; or, say, the nexus of creatures and materials forming an ecological niche) into a single perspective—these are all fundamental activities both of organisms and of Melgard’s and Sylvester’s texts. Their loosely procedural appropriation mirrors the simultaneously constrained and spontaneous actions of even the simplest organism.

I tend to think of re-framing as the conceptual technique par excellence, though its uses extend beyond works that self-identify as “conceptual,” with all the baggage that implies. Taking pre- existing material and re-defining it, even transforming it, brings a new kind of attention to that material. It also foregrounds the sort of poetic awareness that engages with that material and is constituted by it. Re-framing is essentially metabolic, a process by which material from the past is transformed into a world in the present—a world inhabited by the creature that metabolizes it. We come, then, to a double correlative: the text not only maps onto 1) its content in the form of referents, images, ideas, and feelings, but also onto 2) the procedural being whose activity “produces” the text: what in some cases can be called a “speaker,” but in many cases is something else, some ambient phenomenality, some creature or being among infinite others, a lawn or a fetus.

According to this double correlative, a text represents a world and also the being whose world it is—more specifically, a being whose internal self-relations and environmental entanglements are isometrically modeled by the text’s overall ambience. The unity of this being is metaphorically embodied by the text’s vibe.


Peli Grietzer is the author of the GPDF title Amerikkkka (2014) as well as a series of essays elaborating a new mathematized theory of literature. According to Grietzer’s “Theory of Vibe,” “The meaning of a literary work…lies at least partly in an aesthetic ‘vibe’ or a ‘style’ that we can sense when we consider all the myriad objects and phenomena that make up the imaginative landscape of the work as a kind of curated set.” [15] For Grietzer, vibe is the “curated set” of possible experiences a text can provide while still being identifiable as that text. In other words, “vibe” identifies “style” as the totality of configurations a text could enter, though in actuality it only chooses a limited number of these configurations. Vibe is a kind of emergent unity or gestalt that we get a handle on through engagement with a text, no matter whether that engagement is sustained over a long period of time, or happens in a flash at first reading.

I want to emphasize Grietzer’s observation that style or vibe represents the possibility of a text continuing in the same way. This is discussed in “Theory of Vibe” through consideration of an “autoencoder, [which] is a neural network process tasked with learning from scratch, through a kind of trial and error, how to make facsimiles of worldly things.” [16] Grietzer’s article was published in 2017, and since then such neural networks have become more familiar to mainstream readers through DALL·E, ChatGPT, and the Bing chatbot. The usefulness of these machine-learning-powered applications is their ability to predictively construe artifacts based on prompts that reference pre-existing phenomena. In other words, they make new things based on old vibes.

At the same time, Grietzer’s autoencoder engages in a “cognitive mapping of its training set, a kind of gestalt fluency that ambiently models it like a niche or a lifeworld.” [17] In other words, the predictive generation of neural nets is not just an expedient tool for computer users. It models what it’s like to be a being in a world. Grietzer sees his vibing autoencoder as an artificial means of getting at what we mean by lifeworlds, a shortcut to the emergent unity of our environments. This theory is experimental, performative, and aesthetic in bent. It offers a way to enact the construction of umwelts through literary texts, filling in the gap between aesthetic representations and the worlds of living things.

One essential component of vibe is its endless iterability—the sense that once you or the LLM (Large Language Model, a type of AI) “gets it,” “it” could go on forever. There is a feeling that, once the poet gets the ball rolling, you the reader could actually continue their voice on your own. You come to know what to expect from a poet. That’s why it’s possible for a poet to surprise you with a change in style, or to satisfy a fanbase (or awards committee) with more of the same. Deep learning could be interpreted as an externalization of that impulse for more of the same, for what is sometimes referred to as “self-imitation.” Here, we can distinguish vibe and ambience from affect. Affect might be defined as a type of relation centered on mood, emotion, and transmission of intensity, while vibe/ambience represent a mode of being—not so much something that is felt as the thing itself that feels, the constancy at the heart of perpetuation. Vibes are like organisms in their potential for continuing forever, even though in reality it is continually thwarted. The poet stops writing. Fashions change. Vibes shift. The organism ages or is killed. It is only as a pocket within this larger timeline of development, dissolution, or mortality, that an intimation of endlessness, or indeed immortality, can be gleaned.

Riffing on this idea through the seemingly endless iterability of John Ashbery’s writing, Brian Ng’s Fragment: after John Ashbery (GPDF, 2020) was produced by training a neural network on Ashbery’s writing. [18] This is the point at which style becomes ambient: rather than as means by which new information is introduced, replication becomes style itself. Not replication in the postmodern sense of an image’s copy, as in Warhol’s prints, but replication of a vibe. Rather than a focus on literal fidelity and reproducing surface qualities, this new form of replication latches onto vibe, style, gestalt—in the same way that sexual reproduction in the human species does not produce clones—the point at which individuals become a species.

We can also mark an aesthetic shift here. The postmodern was obsessed with the dialogue between original and copy, with surface, procedure, the affect of coldness, chance, iterability, and the act of re-appropriation. Writers and theorists in our current moment have developed an interest in the (semi)automated mimesis of neural networks, in derivative originals, deep learning, exaggerated affect, glitchy extremes, statistical mediocrity, and style as ambience. While conceptualism could be caricatured as a becoming-algorithm of the human writer (or at least the desire to do so) through the use of rigidly procedural techniques, the advent of machine learning pushes writers towards a becoming-network, towards the attempt to embody the black box of deep learning. Culture, rather than nature, is still the object of mimesis (as in postmodernism and conceptualism), but that object is now fed through a byzantine and impenetrable series of operations that create a web of artifacts which eerily begin to suggest their own worlds, their own natures, which may or may not mirror our own.

In a recent article, Grietzer generalizes his theory to argue that “the aesthetic unity or ‘vibe’ of an artistic work can model the causal-material structure of a lifeworld.” [19] For him, a poem is an unparaphraseable, “ineffable,” and “sacred mystery” that mediates between two conflicting understandings of the world: our manifest human world and the abstracted viewpoint of scientific theory. The poem’s ability to compress and represent environmental patterns means that it bypasses rational thinking to represent patterns in the actual world. It merges the manifest and the scientific. “The world approximately has a structure that this work of art has perfectly,” writes Grietzer, which for him grants the work of art its special privilege. [20] In light of our discussion so far, we might say that this world-suggesting quality is because the vibe or ambience is a world unto itself, while also acting as an element in a larger world it helps compose and is also composed by.

A vibe—as a compressed, selective image of the world—is an ambience. An ambience is an aesthetic model of a worldly being. Worldly, meaning both that it forms part of a world, and that it is its own world—the two senses are inextricably linked. Like such a being, an ambience is simply the causal junction of other ambiences. Rather than having insides and outsides, it is a meeting point. The perspectival world of an ambience is nothing more than what the totality of surrounding ambiences “look like” from that junction—a vibe. Vibes have a bearing on our “complex theoretical and moral thoughts about the ways of worlds,” [21] just because they are how worlds come to be at all: worlds are systems of images of those systems; systems of ambiences, ie., systems of vibes. It is not so much that a poem says something about our world, but that it exhibits the very tissue of world-composition itself. Furthermore, any one poem, ambience, or vibe is incomplete on its own: only by interacting with other poems, ambiences, or vibes— whether within the text or simply through the metatextual contexts of a culture—does a model of a world-system actually begin to form. On its own, a vibe is just a vibe. But once it exists in contrast with other vibes, then we can begin to think through what it means to be a world. This conclusion is not necessarily what Grietzer argues, but it is going to help get us where we are going.

Nadia John’s Document-Centered Formalism

Nadia John’s book The din of soot & glint of ver-de-gris (GPDF, 2020) collects the myriad forms of text that can be found on the internet, and probably invents some new ones along the way. With its use of disjunctive collage, John’s aesthetic could be described as Language Poetry written by a digital native. It is Language Poetry as vibe collecting. The din of soot & glint of ver-de-gris, as well as John’s earlier texts, She ws a very rare gal, i think and don’t you love my gardening styles (both GPDF, 2015) exhibit how the internet affects the material conditions of writing disjunctive poetry. More specifically, they reveal that disjunction, polyvocality, and material disruption of language are redoubled by the digital. The resulting document-centered formalism revels in the constructedness of digital text in its capacity to harness a multiplicity of perspectives. Full of glitches, typos, unusual punctuation, shifts in spacing, cut-up language, and phrasing that could be bot-generated, John’s poetry aestheticizes the creation of text through the use of a computer, particularly through the act of typing. John writes at the beginning of She was a very rare gal, i think, “The composer I think is not, the computer but the composer I think is the ventriloquist.” [22] This not computer-generated text, but text generated by a person using a computer to ventriloquize the many types of language encountered through the use of computers.

In one sense, The din of soot & glint of ver-de-gris is a curatorial object, as the poet/computer- ventriloquist accumulates vibes through repetition, slips and shifts. For instance, “Live   across the street.           My friend lives across the block” has the feel and nostalgia of childhood, while in much larger type, “magnetic and / mattical” sounds as if it could come from a Peter Inman or David Melnick poem. [23] Other lines seem drawn from works of art criticism, such as “and is extinguished in a bright and empty glimmer that / leaves one wondering, much like Gauguin did long ago.” [24] Some lines employ a telegraphic/imagistic style, as in “branch twig / Still alert Alive animal woods.” [25] Throughout, John oscillates between different fonts, often dramatically switching size as well, sometimes even within the space of one word. Generous amounts of white space separate lines and strophes.

Each line of text, however seemingly meaningless or trivial, is crystallized through these multiple degrees of contrast. As a result, each line seems emblematic of something, of a moment, or a way of speaking/writing, or a coterie, a discourse, a method—or plainly, a vibe. Seen from a bird’s eye view, the text becomes an ecology of ambiences (each of which resists direct attribution while still expressing its own coherence), a global workspace for vibes.

Thinking through these observations, we can begin to compile a list of strategies that respond to how the internet affects the material conditions of writing disjunctive poetry:

1.  You can copy and paste rather than having to re-write by hand.
2.  You can jump through multiple texts easily, switching between tabs, hopping from window to window, rather than having to keep books piled on the desk or get up and find new ones on the shelf.
3.  Typing makes typos meaningful: 
“Ordiaary so extradorianily, ordinary” (3); “the defiineming moviemmoive of the period” (155)
4.  Subcultures become visible and findable on the screen.
4a.  Subcultures and niche communities become reducible to text and image that can exist on your screen, in the same space as your poem and other texts; you don’t have physically go out and find them.
5.  The social has become radically open. In order to listen to a conversation you don’t have to go out and make friends: you can just sit down and read it online.
6.  It is easy to get many voices on one page. It is almost more intuitivenotto have a single lyrical speaker.

In employing these strategies and responding to these conditions, The din of soot & glint of ver-de- gris builds on John’s previous work in don’t you love my gardening styles and She ws a very rare gal, i think. These earlier texts are published as Google Docs, which produces a disorienting “under construction” or “backend” effect—after all, a Google Doc is a space for collaboration and works- in-progress rather than published books. Opening one of these texts, the reader is immediately greeted with the standard pop-up at the top right that says: “You are currently signed in as *************@gmail.com. / Change Account / OK” and another momentary dark bar at the bottom left that says “You’re suggesting.” [26] The same phrase also appears next to your green cursor, which stands blinking, ready to begin typing. Everything takes a few seconds to load, at least on my computer, and each time I open one of these texts I feel a twinge of social anxiety, afraid I could accidentally edit the document and ruin it for everyone. Entering the doc, I am in the space of the poem’s composition, right there with the possibility of text’s addition, subtraction, or modification. I become keenly aware of how the text has been put together—its form, yes, but even more so its medium, the various levels of technology that led to its construction.

Like The din of soot & glint of ver-de-gris, these earlier texts also toggle between fonts—perhaps more radically, changing color and clustering around different parts of the page. Using Google Docs’ well-worn, free system fonts that are familiar to all computer users, John draws attention to the actual process of typing this poem. That’s because system fonts are what people use to compose texts in draft form, while paid (usually Adobe-licensed) fonts don’t come into play until the book is set by the typographer. System fonts, then, are the closest digital record of the gesture of typing itself. They are familiar to computer users as visual cues associated with writing rather than reading. John’s texts use system fonts so you can see how they are made. The manner of their construction is part of their poetry. Just as students used to count poetic feet, evaluate a poet’s use of a particular meter, and compare rhymes, now we find pleasurable aesthetic discernment in the formatting choices and other technological considerations that go into a poem’s composition.

Additionally, The din of soot & glint of ver-de-gris’s 303 pages are interspersed with numerous images, including photos of pen-and-paper sketches. In the context of John’s gestural, constructivist poetics, the inclusion of these images mimics the form of a blog post, Tumblr page, or even a personal word doc used to collect interesting images, notes-to-self, and other odds and ends. There is even an image that seems to be a screen-capture of Joey Yearous-Algozin’s Air the Trees (GPDF, 2013), which is, as Ted Dodson describes, “a Word file erasure of Larry Eigner’s book of the same name, leaving behind only Microsoft’s proprietary squiggles underlining grammar and spelling suggestions of the now-absent text.” [27] The text thus references its place within the GPDF archive, acknowledging itself as a node within the evolving superstructure of the site’s composite aesthetic. At the same time, the image is a kind of hyperlink to the barebones statement made Yearous-Algozin’s piece, a visual articulation of document-centered formalism.

I think of the techniques outlined here as a toolbox for the creation and juxtaposition of ambiences that at the same emphasizes the made-ness of these ambiences. This formalism is about being constructed in real time. It is about using the digital to represent ongoing bubblings forth of ambient perspectives.

Death & Soothing Art

My brother died unexpectedly in 2021 at the age of eighteen. I had just started a new teaching job where I was working overtime, and I used up all my bereavement leave and PTO in the two weeks I spent at home helping to make funeral and burial arrangements, making sure everyone was eating, visiting my brother’s grave, and whatever else we did during that time that made returning to my old life in New York City unimaginable. When I did go back in New York, I wanted to tell everyone I met—cashiers and students and the slimmest acquaintances—what had happened, but mostly I didn’t do that. Out in the world, it felt like everyone was sleepwalking, mindlessly skating over the reality of death that underwrote everything I saw and thought about. My relationship with art was complicated. Most books felt frivolous or off-topic; some were too nihilistic. Music was out of the question for a long time.

I ended up spending a lot of time perusing the Gauss PDF archive. This process created a smooth, silvery surface on my mind, the textual equivalent of listening to ambient music. It was as if frames had been put around the structures of everyday (digital) life to set them in relief, aestheticize them, make them pleasant, expose them for a kind of glazed contemplation. This art didn’t numb my feelings, not exactly—though even numbness has a feeling, and is not necessarily an evil, like the contrast of one patch of skin losing sensation while the surrounding area remains in pain. There are many emotions and varieties of experience captured in the works on GPDF; it is neither cold, nor overly abstract, nor depoliticized (accusations commonly leveled against some conceptual works)—at least, not in its entirety. Each piece does, like poetry always does, bring form to the fore. And as I jumped between works, immersed in the way texts appeared, what it felt like to scroll through them, for their type to slide up or down the screen, blur and re-load, change font and size—these screenward qualities became their central focus. Using the site like this wasn’t numbing, but it was soothing.

The tension between attention and absent-mindedness, the stimulating and the soothing, is theorized in Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004, The Joy of Cooking: [Airport Novel Musical Poem Painting Film Photo Hallucination Landscape]. Lin’s approach in this book can be summed up in the first few sentences of an early passage titled “5:27  35°”: “What are the forms of non-reading and what are the non-forms a reading might take? Poetry = wallpaper. Novel = design object. Text as ambient soundtrack?” [28] An elaboration of these opening lines can be found in video form here. Lin’s book, then, is a tongue-in-cheek attempt to theorize and exhibit what an ambient text-object might be.

In articulating this theory, Lin riffs on and parodies the concepts of “ubiquitous computing” (or “ubicomp”) and “calm technology,” as envisioned by Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown in their essay “The Coming Age of Calm Technology.” [29] Calm technology refers to the hoped-for integration of computers into our daily lives in a manner that would relax and connect us.

Computers would engage human perception by slipping out of focus and into the peripheries, interfacing with us at the threshold of attention, acting with us and on us at an almost subconscious level. “Technologies encalm us as they empower our peripheries,” write Weiser and Brown. [30] Interfaces (and, as Lin might say, non-interfaces) would act as attention-shaping devices incorporated throughout our built environments. Computing technology would engage us in a manner that complemented our emotional/cognitive processing of environmental information. This line of thought builds on a long history of corporate and military–industrial attempts to regulate, modulate, and control human behavior through design, notably through the invention of Muzak—otherwise known as elevator music—the precursor to ambient music as we know it today.

Lin’s poetics in Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004 is an attempt think through the affective states produced by a new technological moment in the development of planetary capitalism. It is a book of poems that shifts from an older focus on form to a contemporary focus on medium. Scanned pages, copyright language, thumbnails, barcodes, and various other paratextual elements make their way into book and as the book, reformulating the book’s legibility. Clear, theoretical prose alternates with pleasing bits of text like, “fk 3 / fo 45,” which are simultaneously legible and unreadable. [31] Legible in that I can parse these characters and terms; unreadable in that there I can go no further into this text, I cannot “reread it,” or engage in a “close reading” or “deep reading.” And in some sense that which cannot be reread, cannot be read at all. It is simply there, surrounding me, constructing me, a soothingly ambient world.

I see Gauss PDF and Troll Thread as operating, at least partially, along similar lines—both in their overall structure and in the tenor of some of their individual works. They are spaces to wander around in. In their use of the generic form of the Tumblr page, they fall back into the innocuous, the familiar, the lo-fi, the calm, and finally the peripheral. This form of networked media—multidimensional, emergent, lively, and stimulating, but also curiously flat, cold, and light-based—creates a soothing euphoria that has equally to do with its structure and process as it does with its content.

One takeaway is that there’s a quality to certain works of art that calm precisely because they are unreadable—not because they are too dense, but because they seek to evade conscious processing. They are like a droning or tinkling noise filtered out by our minds at an unconscious level. Furthermore, by being willing to engage with texts like this, as entities that go beyond the conscious unity of the experiencing subject, we begin to see texts as attention-shaping artifacts that interact with the entangled, networked world of the human brain. Texts climb through many nerves, neurons, and nodes on their way “up” to the reader’s consciousness. In this sense, art is attention shaping precisely to the extent that it denies your conscious attention, and targets instead your subconscious processes. To be soothed in this way, to find some peace in grief or reverberating clarity and simplification in death, involves a kind of spilling out of the previously walled-up, grief-stricken mind—the revolving thoughts, terrifying emotions, physical sensations of illness, of alienness, all of which turn into a cocoon that keeps you separated from the rest of the world as if you’re peering through a gauzy web—all this becomes porous as you, an ambient reader, allow yourself to be controlled, modulated, carefully sustained in environmental equilibrium. You are in a strange zone that treads the line between spiritual practice, bourgeois complicity, technological fetishization, artistic innovation, and self-care.

By thinking of text as shaping our attention, we begin to understand ourselves as constructed and reconstructed by text. We see our minds as decomposable and recomposable. The composition of texts thus engages with the composition of selves, or what Francisco Varela calls the “meshwork of virtual selves” or “regional selves” that make up the human organism: “1) a minimal or cellular unity, 2) a bodily self in its immunological foundations, 3) a cognitive perceptuo-motor self associated to animal behavior, 4) a socio-linguistic “I” of subjectivity, and 5) the collective social multi-individual totality.” [32] This discussion leads me to a series of equivalences: attention-shaping = attention-making = subject-constructing = being-instantiating = world-creating.

Here is a second answer to (my experience of) grief, one that comes with a task rather than a serene feeling of stasis. In order to understand the reality or unreality of a self or selves and begin to think what it might mean to die, we would have to situate death both within a naturalized meshwork of countless other beings that make up the world, and within the ineffable stratospheres of language, dreams, spirituality, and art. We’d have to go beyond the poetic visions of any one individual imagination and instead move through the infinite beings and meanings of worlds, constructing harmonic models of the systems that beings co-create. That is why we do not yet know what death is. There are so many lives we must inhabit before we do.

My experience mourning my brother has led me to think obsessively about these issues. That experience partially grounds my own stakes in the ideas discussed throughout this essay. Caring about another, not wanting to lose them, and experiencing grief all inform the tenderness I ultimately see as pervading the background of my approach. That is my individual experience. At the same time, I am advocating a means of writing that goes beyond the individual to model systems of agents whose individual perspectives can be toggled through by the text. With care for those agents, and awareness of their suffering and the role death plays in their sustenance and demise, we can imagine real, artificial, or virtual worlds that shape our lives collectively.

Artifical Everything: Pætsch and Faylor

John Pætsch is a poet and philosopher who published several inventive texts on the GPDF website before his most recent book was released in a physical edition by Hiding Press (which is edited by other GPDF-associated writers). This book, Ctasy —of shapes off shore, is a form of text-based artificial biology. The ambient, polyvocal fluidity of the text is composed by appropriating multiple texts (as the book’s end matter listing “Certain Sources” makes clear)—as well as using slang, colloquial spellings (in particular, the word “boi”), commonplace imagery (such as ATMS), technical vocabulary, and original writing. [33] Ctsay takes the stuff of human life and deforms/re- forms that life into something different yet continuous with it, as if the tissue of the human had been unwoven then re-woven, re-patterned. The book’s protagonists are nonhuman beings made out of human materials. Pætsch creates a texture that is strange and complex yet also constant throughout: an ambience.

To sample that ambience, we might as well begin at the beginning of Ctasy:


that that diaphanous ethereal coastline, within sight of paved Ctasy, class life in virtual anonymity, a finger to the law, was just the product of a geological anomaly, a vast cleft in the underwater continental shelf that lets open-ocean swells reach the coast without losing any size or power—what case we crack drops us down a face so horrifying we believe it never ebbs… What 

worse: being locked out of foreclosed time or ebbing out along unraveling time?” sd that. [34]

This passage is composed of self-interruption, oceanic imagery, geological processes, scientific concepts, philosophical terminology, hypotaxis, shifting speakers, and a kind of tidal scene- setting, in which environments are glimpsed or intimated but do not remain stable for long. Pætsch creates an ambient, watery text where we tune into the bodies of marine protagonists—such as the titular Ctasy—who say things like “what case we crack drops us down a face so horrifying we believe it never ebbs.” A world we can tune into because it is made from our world, yet is different enough to make us feel strange, transformed from the inside. Like a runaway AI or artificial ecology, Ctasy endlessly spools out interactions between its internal agents (“characters”) while resonating, however weirdly, with the human world it is made from.

Throughout Ctasy, Pætsch combines various registers and quotations to synthesize a series of textures that form ever-larger tissues of mega-textures. For instance, sampling one passage we find the phrases, “epochal metamorphosis,” “bathing off-site,” “They wheel us in from off-shore, not having fed us 3 days, to wheel us off at the next platform,” “by the great force of this sorcerie, and the violence of so many confections…” [35] Each of these, taken individually, suggests its own world, its own source text it could have been plucked from. Emulsified in the book’s hybrid prose-verse form, these various ambiences also form a conglomerate ambience, artificial ecology, or world structure that seems as if it could continue forever. Thus, at the level of phrase, line, sentence, paragraph, and cycle/chapter/canto, the book employs ambiences that can decompose into smaller units and combine into larger ones.

Ctasy, —of shapes off shore builds on the kind of AI-inspired world-building employed in J. Gordon Faylor’s 2016 novel Registration Caspar, published by Ugly Duckling Presse (Faylor is also the editor Gauss PDF). Pætsch hints at this affinity towards the end of the book, writing, “That’s just Caspar, fresh off the rack to—at his own pace!—execute his program,” which is a reference to the narrator of Faylor’s novel. Registration Caspar loosely, vaguely, almost impenetrably describes the last hours of “Caspar, a non-gendered entity” who is something like an embodied AI working the gig economy in a simulacrum of the Bay Area called “Ceaurgle.” In its method of composition as well as its resulting texture, Registration Caspar can be seen as a dense, novelistic precursor to Pætsch’s poem.

I’ll sample Faylor from the beginning of his novel as well:

Two weeks spent in thick clothing. Preexecution protocol.

When agreed to, lien implementation followed rendering, scarecrow angiography was due attendance, plugs, a misgiving remove, spill coils instantaneously sad or inconsiderable tempers binding affliction-deflection rates to illustrated credits, the tried contra Xingren doxylamine ring wearing away, and intervention available to the central register forbidden, scattered cots. [36]

The text periodically devolves into monetary amounts and fragments: “$40.00. / Ruins and ecology. Adenectopia. / $15.00.” [37] Other times it is interspersed with temperatures and times: “They walked to Praxilight and wagged charms and ways at just that. / 79.30° / 3:45 p.m.” [38] The result is a voice that is only barely human, and more often recognizable as that of a Large Language Model or a chatbot.

Faylor wrote the novel using what he calls “endogenous writing,” which is summarized by Jessica Sequira in her review of the book:

Faylor told me that many of his sentences developed gradually and endogenously (i.e. expanding from within), emerging from a practice central to his work in recent years, the palimpsestic treatment of spambot texts. He would find some hideously garbled and clearly automated spam or robotext, then try to ‘re-write’ it from scratch, changing most of the language, and—more importantly—trying to structure it like a narrative to lend it the aura of coherent prose. [39]

I view Registration Caspar as a satirical attempt to become a neural network. This approach involves writing within artifacts of the human world to create textures that are explicitly framed as non-human. It could be called post-conceptual. Earlier, prototypical conceptual poetry was based around algorithmic procedures, often carried out manually by their human practitioners, and the development of conceptual techniques throughout the 20th century coincided inevitably with the development of computers. Conceptual writing (at least as stereotyped in this manner) can be seen as a desire to become an algorithmic machine, to become a basic computer.

Meanwhile, 21st-century poets find themselves in a very different technological situation, where the legible algorithms and codes of the 20th century give way to deep learning, neural networks, and the opaque algorithms of social media—a new ineffable, hypersaturation of information and affects. We no longer know how our machines—our artificial intelligences—work, and we can no longer predict their output.

So, the contemporary image of the machine is neither the engine, circuit, nor computer—it is the text-based artificial intelligence. That is, the substrate of the mechanical image has become text, rather than silicon or iron. The new learning, generative, creative, and even living machine has one foot in our world and one foot in the infinite splendor and nightmare of simulacra. This is, again, captured in a major shift in technique, from deterministic conceptual techniques to unpredictable post-conceptual techniques that loosen their tethering to the actual. The opaque writing methods of Faylor and Pætsch reflect this. There is a difference here, too, with the chance techniques of writers like John Cage and Jackson Mac Low, which nonetheless employ a determinate procedure, and the kind of writing I am discussing, whose methods and procedures themselves are veiled, hybrid, inarticulable, unformalizable.

Registration Caspar is a kind of satire of artificial intelligence that riffs on the text output of spambots and neural nets, asking, in effect, what is it like to be one of these bots, existing in a world made from the textual output of our world, yet different? It muddies the waters of our already muddled thinking about the “artificial intelligence” of Large Language Models like Bing and GPT-4, networks trained purely on textual inputs, yet prompted to reason about the world those texts describe. Text-based machine learning collapses, scrambles, and reconfigures the distinction between text and world. Furthermore, the off-kilter artificiality of Caspar can be read as a strangely life-affirming approach to the text-based creation of non-human sentiences and worlds, riffing on technocapitalist AI development while also swerving away from it towards a mode that is stranger and potentially more liberating. That is to say: we can learn a lot about the possibilities of text through text-based machine learning, even as we cringe at where that learning is going and strive instead to create other worlds through text. Registration Caspar contains both this disgust and possibility within it.

While I don’t know how John Pætsch composed Ctasy, —of shapes off-shore, I see it as taking place in the same extended universe as Faylor’s novel—not only in terms of the kinds of “characters” that drive the ‘plot,’ but also in terms of the procedures and ambient methodologies that sustain these creatures by feeding them texts. By including Caspar in Ctasy, Pætsch suggests a similar approach to text-making, entity-making, and cosmos-making. Ctasy applies a generative, text- based, artificial method to the biological realm. Like Faylor’s method, Pætsch’s writing in Ctasy is endogenously artificial, in that it starts within its sources and works its way outward, mutating original material until new beings and new worlds are formed, reframing the actual and emphasizing the contingency of what we normally regard as given.

Pætsch’s book represents just one strategy for constructing multi-scale ambiences. Just as actual phenomena emerge in myriad ways—from symmetry breaking in protein molecules to coordinated actions by organized labor—poets can create texts whose parts and wholes relate to each other through many formal, typographical, and methodical processes. And while I have focused on poets who use (post-)conceptual techniques, there is a broader array of techniques available to poets, including those associated with the traditional lyric, that can be used to this effect. Ultimately, all writing can be classed as procedural, since by operating within the full possibility space of textual signification it gravitates towards this or that attractor state, this or that grammar or syntax or stance, as a means of stably metabolizing what it takes to be its world. All writing has its procedure. All text maintains the ambience of this or that being.

Neural networks suggest new ways of writing not just with such networks, but also as them, if we incorporate their logic into our own writing processes. We can learn from LLMs without necessarily adopting them. The alternatively unhinged and banal qualities of AI-generated art prepare us to imagine how it might go if the given elements of our lives were developed in new, “unnatural,” “artificial” directions. Ultimately, I think that we are living through a period in which artificiality is extending into every imaginable facet of our existence on Earth. Everything is artificial now: constructible, revisable, replicable. Anything can be re-made in its next iteration. All concatenating levels of creatures and beings are involved in this newly discovered project of world configuration, since all have a stake in it.

Ambient Poetics as a Program for Multi-Scale Artificial Beings; or, Cosmopoetics

We can speak now of the possibility of a poetics-of-poetics that is modeled by Gauss PDF and Troll Thread. This expansive, second-order approach deploys styles, forms, techniques, and points of view as much as it deploys words and imagery. A poetics-of-poetics is neither parody nor pastiche, but can best be understood as a form of constructivism that emphasizes the unity of a style or approach, which in turn comes into being as part of a supersystem of other styles.

While a first-order poetics (or style, technique, approach, etc.) is seen as an in-itself world of felt contrasts that arises through its relation to other styles, we can see GPDF and TT as second- order containers, as emergent and observant worlds in which various poetics can converse, modeling the push-and-pull of inspiration, negation, and reinvention that make the creation of new types of poetry possible in the first place. Clicking through these sites, we move in and out of ambient lifeworlds that attain their peculiar vibrancy through their implied co-schematizing, contrasting relations, and hyperlinked connection with the other texts on the site.

This interplay of multiple textual ambiences models how beings come together to form worlds. By “being,” I mean any causal junction, decision, emergent unity, networked entity, or fundamental constituent—however fleeting, immortal, or mutable—that can be evoked by text. Creating texts in this way lets us imagine ourselves into the ways that lives come into existence and play a role in the co-creation and substantiation of other lives. This is what I am calling cosmopoetics: the aesthetic representation or modeling of systems of beings that form worlds, including our own world. Thinking cosmopoetically, we come to see that it’s not a question of whether experience arises here or there, but what kinds of experiencing beings are given rise to at every turn in the existence of a system, and what their perspectival worlds are like. These beings don’t just include animal minds or artificial intelligences, but also the substrates of those entities: the organ systems, cells, and proteins, or tokens, bits, and hard drives. Also: plants, weather systems, tectonic plates, gravitational waves, bacteria, divine intercessors, virtual interlocutors, etc., etc., etc.

This constructivist theory of artificial beings suggests a particular function of poetry: a poem enables us to live within an image of the universe that exceeds what is manifestly given by our senses, helping us to feel ourselves as participants in collectives and multiplicities that include class, race, species, planet, forms of matter, and artificial assemblages. Ambient cosmopoetics as a program for the construction of artificial beings, formulated in this way, dramatically ramps up what is accessible to us of our given world. Of course, this given world is mutable and revisable, both in terms of what we know (what seemed true can turn out false, and vice-versa) and in terms of its actual structure (systems that exist today may be gone tomorrow). This givenness is only tentatively given.

A cosmopoetic program is constructivist in the sense that it views styles, poetics, speakers, points of view, and ambiences as made rather than essential or pre-determined. It is also constructivist because within this made-ness, poetry can create and re-create further forms: other points of view, styles, agents, or worlds,. The key to this approach is that it views all ambiences as possessing some autonomy, while it also suggests that no being, not even the poet, possesses complete autonomy. All things are agents of their actions as well as the objects of construction. Through such a poetics, we can imaginatively inhabit our lives as political subjects in a planetary economic space, and as ecological beings embedded in complex systems of reliance and parasitism—as well as much else besides. That is because writing and reading through an artificial cosmopoetics allows us to think, see, and feel up through the human, into larger scales and arenas, and back down through the human to smaller realms; it even allows us (to attempt at least) to circumvent the human entirely.

In my use of the term “cosmopoetics,” I am indebted to philosopher Yuk Hui’s concept of cosmotechnics: “the unification of the cosmos and the moral through technical activities, whether craft-making or art-making.” [40] Hui argues that technology influences the kind of world we are able to perceive and inhabit and modify, and that as a result the types of technologies we set out to create determine what kinds of world we’ll end up living in. Similarly, cosmopoetics is the aesthetic modeling of worlds. Following Hui’s cosmotechnics, cosmopoetics appropriates the affects and tendencies created by new technologies to open up new means of representing worlds. Cosmopoetics seeks out the world-creating potentials in technology that explicitly brush along, chafe against, or flow through the actual—asking what kinds of technology can exist, what beings can come to flourish or suffer, what kinds of collectivity can result, and what harmonious, ecstatic, or terrible experiences may arise. It is thus a means of envisioning present worlds, near futures, incredibly distant cosmic states, or even alternate realms.

Cosmopoetics is the art of imagining worlds and lives by venturing into the very depths and heights of cosmic structure. This approach is inherently open to political appropriation of all stripes, and however you approach it, some politics will emerge. It allows for materialist, religious, revolutionary, posthuman, or reactionary appropriation, because at its heart it treats an aesthetics of text and language as an artificial program, an imaginative and constructed envisioning of what a world can be—and such envisioning can take many forms. How we use this poetic technology is up to us. Art is not something you plug into that automatically makes you good, free, or revolutionary. It is a cognitive tool for structuring your imaginative life and the imaginative lives of those around you, directly feeding into how you then act upon, with, or against the systems you perceive as existing.

Ambient poetics, as a program for multi-scale artificial beings, is cosmopoetics. One way to build up a multi- scale system of ambiences would be to create a very course-grained model of an organism’s body. You would start with a base text generated, say, with found language, to act as the molecular level of the organism. This text could then be “zoomed out” to another level of unity—e.g., the cell— where much of the original text is lost to scale, but what remains makes its own sense of order out of those original elements. Here, a procedural device would be employed to transform the original text. Through compression, selection, and modification, a new unity is made from given materials. And so on; we could keep going up through the simplified elements of the organism we want to suggest. At each level, we could employ a different procedure, varying from the algorithmic to the more unpredictable and expressive. All of the techniques we have surveyed here in Sylvester, Melgard, John, Pætsch, Faylor, and others—and all of the other means known to poets—would be up for grabs. Each poetic procedure used would suggest a key facet of what makes that ‘level’ of the organism unified.

For instance, at the scale of the cell, we could focus on the charge differential created by the cell membrane (specifically, by proton pumps) as exemplary of cellular unity. An ambient model of this membrane differential could be a text block that is continually interjected with found phrases containing a specific word (e.g., “charge,” “notification,” or “afraid”), thus disrupting the grammatical equilibrium of the text and creating a “syntactic charge.” Next, a network of cells could be created through a string of multiple such text blocks, each compressed into a single word. Word order in a line of poetry would thus model connections in the network. And so the cell transforms from a bustling multiplicity at one scale to a unit within a network at a larger scale. While this method emphasizes a kind of whittling-down at each level—the systematic use of compression to create new worlds—we could equally employ a more irruptive method, where letters, words, and other units are added to each layer of text until finally the creature’s mind flames forth in all its complexity and nuance.

These are methods for building up a body as a world of worlds. At first glance, I might seem to advocating a self-contained poetics, a kind of terrarium-self made of text. But as we examine this system of systems closer, we see it spilling out on all sides, bound only by fuzzy boundaries. For instance, where does the “base text” come from? If appropriated from another source, then we should view our organism as part of a larger textual ecosystem. If the base text is original material, then the creature is formed from its writer and the many cultural and material systems that writer inhabits. Overall, this text—like an organism—is a world made of worlds that sustains itself through its inextricable connection with other beings.

Additionally, depending on how the artist believes worlds are constituted, or would like them to be, the poem could go differently. A body might be more meaningfully carved up in other ways, or not carved up at all. The writer could adjust their scope to focus instead on planetary systems of labor, manufacturing, and supply chains, in which case text-creation techniques would be chosen to model that type of world. Spiritual realms, non-existent cities, atmospheric systems, galaxy clusters, the four humors, viral transmission, microbiomes, love affairs, you name it— every conceivable configuration of things can be modeled in this poetry. The richness and diversity of poetic approaches, continually expanded by poets, allow for infinite ways of feeling into the ambiences that form a world. Ambient poetics, as a program for artificial beings and thus cosmopoetics, is a poetics-of-poetics, a mediating field through which we can better understand the worlds we inhabit and imagine alternative environments for ourselves and the many beings with which we are intertwined.

For a complete list of corresponding footnotes, please see this list.

Brandan Griffin is a poet who lives in Kansas City, MO. He is the author of Four Concretures (Theaphora Ed., 2024), Impastoral (Omnidawn, 2022), and Holy Typing O 500. He is 1/2 of New Material Books, a bookstore and publisher in KC.