Haiku and the Third Table
I would like to take as an object the entire object of haiku, considering haiku as a genre — not a collection of objects but an indeterminate, withheld object that no matter how many times it is examined in all of the sensual properties and perspectives of all the poems arising as forms of haiku, the object “haiku” — sensed as an essential aesthetic — is an object that cannot be defined by any declarative statement, such as in the form of “My mother liked drinking hard cider.”
Graham Harman, in proposing Object-Oriented Ontology (2018) suggests there is a “third table.” Two of the tables we are familiar with these days. The “two tables” refers to the conundrum suggested by Sir Arthur Eddington. In 1919, Arthur boated to an island during a complete solar eclipse, measured how light bent around the sun and made Einstein instantly famous. He also said in his 1927 Gifford Lecture (to paraphrase): “First, the table of everyday experience: it is comparatively permanent, it is coloured, and above all it is substantial. Second, the table of science: it is mostly emptiness with numerous, sparsely scattered electric charges rushing about with great speed.” Harman argues that neither of these tables is primary, that there is a third table. The first table is that of sensual experience. Yet if we follow this empiricism definitively, this table, made only of sensual qualities, could not exist as the same table in different rooms, lighting conditions, or seasons. There is something about the table that we immediately recognize as essential to its being an “I” (not a conscious I, but an I as an identity), apart from its sensual qualities. There is something more to the reality of the table than its sensual qualities. Likewise, as the pre-Socratics opined (about water, air, fire, etc., as indivisibilities of our cosmos), we can take the attitude that the sensual table doesn’t really exist, it is an illusion. As we plumb the depths of its structure to the flavors of quarks and Planck length, only then can we begin to discern its true nature. But if this were so, how is it that such an examination could predict the emergent properties of “table” and this particular table, from (random) infinitesimals? The problem is that of emergence.
From the postmodern perspective (the flip side of table two), we can say there is no sensual table with qualities, because our perceptions are themselves completely relative and language too is relative; in fact, there are no objects at all, only subjects, performances (certainly, of texts); all is in flux, indeterminate, and indeed there are no “authors,” whatever they are. The problem here is twofold; one, you can take a table around the world, and find that, unsurprisingly, humans will generally relate to it as a table. That aside, here the problem isn’t emergence, it’s change. For example, my son, a musician, might turn this table upside-down and take a photo of it in a composition that becomes an album cover. He also might play it (nice sound, that top) on a track within his album. The problem of relativism is that there is no excess of possibility given by the immanent relationships. The unknown possibility — the hidden “excess” of an object — is not predicted by its relations, the so-called “actor-network theory” (of Latour and others).
So what is the third table, if it’s neither the infinitesimal quanta, nor the relations of actors and actions and social relations? Let us say that there is something of the reality of the table we can’t partake of completely — yet our indirect notions, like our indirect speech, serve to indicate this table whose noumenal essence we cannot know exactly. We do this best through indirect speech, and especially metaphor.
The “wine dark sea” is definitely not the “sea wine dark.” Note that metaphors are not reversible, as “Drinking hard cider was something my mother liked” certainly is. What is the sea, in this case? What does Homer’s metaphor, indirect as it is, indicate as to the true nature of the sea? Importantly, in whatever way we might answer, no declarative set of statements can possibly reveal more of the nature of the object indicated by the metaphor than the metaphor itself indicates. Additionally, this particular metaphor may be some 3,000 years old, and though it has traveled through languages and cultures, through various relative relations throughout history, something essential of its nature or reality pertains: the metaphor works — through time, language and cultures. We cannot know how this metaphor was originally received, yet like a table placed in rooms through seasons, we recognize its essential poetry instantly.
So too with eyes. Now we are in a position to consider haiku as an object:
non binary below blue ocean eyes
I find this poem beautiful.
Regarding the present discussion, like a table, this work (like any haiku) is a familiar object composed of a short grouping of words put together cogently enough for the reader to take a seat and consider. Yet there is a metaphoric quality to the poetry that does not allow it to rest on the surface of sensual impressions, this first table. The second table (of science) is atomizing: let’s examine the particles, the parts of speech, the way or sense and weave of each word, the rhythms and the words together; consult linguistics textbooks, and cognitive science. As this is done, the object itself becomes superficial and it’s our search for a greater depth of scientific or empirical knowledge that takes precedence, as an act of “undermining” the object.
On the other hand, we can move in a totalizing, holistic direction: take a postmodern exploration into overarching generic social relations and flux, examining the sensibility of “non binary” (and all the “b” words present); the implications of “below” and “blue” and “ocean eyes,” and given the current societal context, transgender and postcolonial perspectives as well. Now the object becomes deeper than we can ever get at, as there are a near-infinite number of relations to consider; and you as a reader are as well confined by your own history, class, gender, age, etc. — ad infinitum. The object itself becomes obscured by multifarious contexts, disallowing any possibility for even indirect object essentiality, or object (rather than subject) change. In fact, there is no object! This is an act of “overmining” the object.
So, atomization (undermining) leads to an overly superficial object, as its uniqueness is dispensed with, and the possibility of emergence is voided. On the flip side, examining relations and relative relatedness holistically, the object (and perceiver) becomes but a subject. And subject to contexts that deepen the object (overmining), leads to invisibility or even ostensible nonexistence. In consequence, the poem as an object is nearly erased by relative contextual pre- and post-amble, losing any “excess” — that is, potentiality for transmutation and transportation (change) that resides in metaphor, and in aesthetic persuasion, resonance, response. An excommunication of the object: context supersedes content, towards 100% — where you stop nobody knows.
The “third table” is not anthropomorphic, a bold claim made by Harman. I understand this as a general statement that — with any object—its reality is not dependent on human consciousness or perception. This may work for a table (in Harman’s ontology a table has relations with Jupiter and the Thames, whether humans are around or not) — but not for art, which can’t exist (Harman states) without people. It’s surprising to learn that several prominent formalist art critics have disagreed with this latter statement. The point here though is that there’s an aspect to the reality of an object that isn’t dependent on consciousness. However, when it’s an art object, like a poem, the relationship concern is human. Then, why the insistence on objects having a reality apart from human consciousness? Because up to this point, modern philosophy has insisted on maintaining a strict dialectic between mind and world — really, mind versus world. For Harman, the full reality of objects resides apart from or autonomous from mind — this proposition has been termed “weird realism.”
We might ask — are there autonomous objects inferred by the haiku poem? Is the haiku poem an emergent object, a reality, a world?
Particularly, haiku presents a formal foregrounding of gap and disjunctive effect—and this is not an idle conjecture: from Bashō’s “eye-opening” school on into the intercultural postmodern, the question of mind and world being “leaps,” or conversely, “mixing” as integral to haiku metaphor has been in play, regarding the roots of haiku poetics.
Is there anything in these poems below that is not metaphor? Where resides the object before your eyes; outside, inside?
solo red light a dream falls out of color
soothsayer the goat’s eyes
nigh twilight milk light trickling springs within
These are exquisite haiku — what is your experience?
For those of philosophical bent, this last decade marks an interesting move in philosophy away from both postmodern relativism and empirical determinism, and towards a love (philos-) of knowledge, rather than knowledge itself: a philosophia with roots in art and aesthetics. I’d recommend Harman’s book, especially “Chapter 2: Aesthetics is the Root of All Philosophy.” While Object-Oriented Ontology is in an early, formative stage, for those who have avoided postmodern Continental philosophy since its takeover of academe from the ’80s, rapprochement may be at hand. Or table.
Let me know if this perspective on haiku is useful. Your comments are welcome.
Roberta Beary (Heliosparrow, 8 June 2020)
Peter Jastermsky (Heliosparrow, 5 June 2020)
Gregory Longenecker (Heliosparrow, 5 June 2020)
Victor Ortiz (Heliosparrow, 29 April 2020)
Tiffany Shaw-Diaz (Heliosparrow, 31 March 2020)
2018. Harman, Graham, Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (Penguin). Blurb: “Graham Harman is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at SCI-Arc, Los Angeles. A key figure in the contemporary speculative realism movement in philosophy and [known] for his development of the field of object-oriented ontology, he was named by Art Review magazine as one of the 100 most influential figures in international art.”
Two video lectures:
On Graham Harman’s “The Third Table” Weird Studies, Episode 8 · April 4th, 2018
Cf.: ‘en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Actor–network theory’.
Richard Gilbert, professor of English Literature at Kumamoto University in Japan, is the author of Poetry as Consciousness: Haiku Forests, Space of Mind, and an Ethics of Freedom (illustrated by Sabine Miller, Kebunsha Co. Ltd., 2018, ISBN 978-4-86330-189-4), The Disjunctive Dragonfly (Red Moon Press, 2008, rev. 2013), and Poems of Consciousness (Red Moon Press, 2008), among others. He is also director of the Kon Nichi Translation Group, whose most recent book is the tour de force Haiku as Life: A Kaneko Tohta Omnnibus (Red Moon Press, 2019). In January 2020, he announced the creation of Heliosparrow Poetry Journal, an evolution of the Haiku Sanctuary forum.