The first and future table
THE FIRST AND FUTURE TABLE
The first table was not built; it was chosen. Neither the product of artisanal skills nor the result of a primeval carpenter’s chopping and carving, the first table was designated – singled out – from its environment through an act of language. The material from which the first table was made was as raw and unrefined as the rest of the land surrounding it. Whether a portion of ground, a fallen tree trunk or a rock, the first table was created poetically by bestowing a name on it.
Most human names, from Emmanuel (‘God with us’) to Friedrich (‘Lord of peace’), from Isaac (‘He laughs’) to Lucy (‘Light’), individuate a person and assign them a role. The same happened with the first table: by choosing it, by calling it out from the rest of the landscape, the table was given a name articulating a wish. As they pointed at it, as they gave the name ‘Table’ to a portion of rock, the first people accorded the rock with a specific function.
What was that function for which those people had chosen it? If we consider this question from the perspective of the present, the answer would be: to act as a work surface. As you sit at a table with your laptop or pay at the counter for your coffee, nothing in today’s world serves a function other than work. As noted by German philosophers Martin Heidegger and Ernst Jünger, contemporary western societies appear to have embraced a totalitarian form of ‘technic nihilism’, according to which nothing is allowed to legitimately exist unless it can be translated into the language of economic production, and thus put to work; if something isn’t already a commodity, its use must be as a tool for the production of commodities; even eating only serves to give us the fuel for work.
Yet the table’s current function couldn’t be more different from the function of the first tables. If we think back to the societies that existed centuries before Christ – particularly to the ‘Apollinean’ world of the Greeks as described by philosopher Oswald Spengler, and to what anthropologist Marshall Sahlins called the ‘original affluent society’ of the hunter-gatherers – work was not classified as an activity worthy of a dedicated space, neither in a person’s life nor in the landscape. In these societies, those types of work which required a surface for their execution, could be performed anywhere, without the need to ‘choose’, that is, to poetically create a space dedicated to them.
Taking into account this outlook of the distant past, we should perhaps rather think of an activity that warrants poetic designation and deserves the honour of having its own special space. In today’s parlance we could define these kinds of activities as ‘magic’ or ‘religion’; however, if we consider these from the perspective of the first table-creators – and particularly from the point of view of people belonging to ancient Mediterranean cultures – these words become inadequate and irrelevant. Only retrospectively can we say the first table was ‘chosen’ to perform a religious or magical function, since the world in which it first appeared had not yet separated religion and magic from the rest of human experience. Even when the first tables hosted similar activities to those for which we use tables today – such as sharing meals – these activities were not understood as ‘un-magical’ or ‘un-religious’.
By dedicating a poetically created space to them, these activities were reinforced in their magic, religious and, ultimately, ‘excessive’ character. The table that hosted the banquet was the same as that which hosted the sacrifice, since every meal was introduced by a libation to the gods and every sacrifice would develop into a communal meal. The kitchen table therefore revealed itself excessively as an altar; the altar also did by becoming a communal table.
Both the table and the altar exceeded themselves. The word ‘excess’ is key to understanding the fundamental function performed by the table-altar. To exceed, from the Latin ex-cedere ‘to go out’, implies that the first table-altar was to function as a place of transit, as a doorway or threshold enabling movement through and beyond it. Indeed the first table-altar thus functioned as a door, as a place of passage, and the door-like proportions of many contemporary tables – and the relationship of these proportions to the human body – remain an unconscious memory of this primeval function. In the past by poetically choosing the table as a special portion of matter, it was thought a door could be opened onto a dimension beyond matter – a dimension which allowed direct interaction between humans and the gods.
This transit between dimensions informed the first table’s further transformation, from an altar into a sarcophagus. Since time immemorial burial places hosted sacrifices to both the dead and to the superhuman entities that were thought to accompany one’s soul into the afterlife. Human bodies were originally interred in the ground. Gradually this practice was succeeded by the sarcophagus which sat on top of the earth. A ‘chosen’ portion of ground was supplanted by a purposefully constructed object, a box-like receptacle often made of clay or stone, that was to contain the body within it, and to let the soul pass through its door. In the sarcophagus, the door, the altar and the table were united.
This brief exploration of the table’s origins has led us very far from the contemporary world. Today, life’s possibilities and, more specifically, our interaction with objects such as tables are entirely defined by the rules of social culture and economics, and are devoid of any inherent reality or worth. It now appears difficult to advocate a return of the table to its primeval function as an area of divine contact. The gods of antiquity are long dead, and our world is in the hands of a new, cruel race of digital, financial Titans. Indeed, our grey worktables still function as the place where we are directly in touch with the spiritual dimension of our time, that of technic nihilism.
Still, is it possible to imagine a different, truly excessive use of tables? To answer yes would require a vision surpassing that which we can imagine from the current paradigm of our society: a vision beyond the squalid idea of a world which is entirely translatable into data, ready to be fed to predictive algorithms and to the incessant flow of the information-economy, where – to paraphrase Marx – ‘all that is solid melts into’ the language of social norms and financial planning. If we are to again imagine that tables allow us to transcend the most superficial aspects of economic reality, we need, first, to be able to imagine a space beyond and before the all-encompassing language of society and finance, and to be able to locate it in relation to our here and now. To plan for a future which is more than an incremental change from the present, philosophy might be just what designers need.
The third-century philosopher Plotinus offers a glimmer of hope. The main points of his philosophy complement my argument about the origins of the table and its fundamental function as a place of passage – his thinking may even help us regain the vision we need to use the table in this way. According to Plotinus, reality can be understood as a hierarchy composed of four essential layers and forces. At the bottom he places Matter, the entirely formless receptacle of all possible forms. Matter barely exists; it never exists ‘in itself’. It awaits a form to structure it in order to fully exist. Above Matter, the World Soul animates reality with a spark of its energy, thus bringing to life all the individual creatures that populate the world. Above the World Soul exists the realm that contains the true essences of everything that we can possibly think or talk about; when these descend into the realm of Matter, they transform it into the things of our day-to-day reality. Finally, at the top of the hierarchy, lies the One. The One is above all that exists; it is beyond existence and thus beyond thought or language. The One is the fundamental ‘yes’ to existence which precedes and enhances it. Though later Christian philosophers reinterpreted Plotinus’s One as ‘God’, it cannot be really defined as such, or for that matter as anything else. Instead the One is the fundamental principle of unity, order, harmony and beauty which endows reality with its own proper sense.
And while everything beneath it in the hierarchy emanates from the One, they also amorously long for it, like lovers long for unity with one another. Similarly, thought and language demonstrate longing for that which exceeds them. This longing corresponds to the Greek notion of eros as a desire for perfection. The primeval table dramatises this erotic transit in Plotinus’s scheme; it is a gateway to a dimension which exceeds all matter, thought and language, where our longing for a realm that exists before language can unfold. And since the essence of the One is that ‘yes’ – the unconditional affirmation that everything that exists does so legitimately, regardless of its supposed social or economic value – then looking into a table is, for us, like looking into the most revealing of mirrors. A table, that is, an erotic altar-table, can be for us today, the surface in which we are able to see ourselves before our social identity, before the language both which we use and which uses us, before our position as wage-slaves in the service of total capital.
In an age, such as ours, in which the very possibility of our existence – let alone of endowing our existence with meaning – is threatened by the nihilism of neoliberal and ultra-reactionary politics, the table offers another possible vision of the world. One in which meaning is at the same time indestructible and unspeakable, in which the anxiety to rush forward at all costs is overtaken by the longing for the beauty of a universal harmony which includes all that exists, regardless of their identity or economic value. Most histories of design start with the industrial revolution, or at a stretch with the craftsmanship of medieval times. Contemporary designers often look to these moments for inspiration but why start here? What, for example, could be the table-altar of the future? Not being a designer, I am unable to contemplate how such a table could be materialised in today’s world. Perhaps you can take the description of an altar-table as a design brief.