Sunday, May 2, 2010

On being teleological

Teleology–noun. Philosophy.
1. the doctrine that final causes exist.
2. the study of the evidences of design or purpose in nature.
3. the belief that purpose and design are a part of or are apparent in nature.
4. (in vitalist philosophy) the doctrine that phenomena are guided not only by mechanical forces but that they also move toward certain goals of self-realization.

I first came across the word "teleological" last semester in my aesthetics
philosophy class of DEATH, and it was one of the few words, besides Logos, that really warmed my soul whenever I read it, after I first figured out what it meant (as opposed to deconstructivism, which still just makes my soul feel like a tired, sad little raisin every time I see it).

In case the above definition doesn't do it for you, here's the Lindsey watered-down version: when you describe anything as teleological, you are recognizing that it has a purpose, and that it is en route to achieving its final destiny. You say something is teleological when you believe you see it mid-journey, whizzing towards some ultimate (hopeful) awesomeness. You go hiking in the woods and see the world's most amazing sunset and are moved to exclaim, "What a teleological phenomenon!" because you feel that this sunset is not only following its regularly scheduled scientific retirement into night, but it is also kindly fulfilling its God-given mini-purpose of letting you know that He loves you, specifically, in that moment (and also letting you know that He loves beauty and His whole earth, too).

The reason I was thinking about teleology today is because I fully embrace the idea that nature, people, time itself, and everything that surrounds me has a final purpose in the grand scheme of things. Up until this week, I myself was teleologically barrelling towards my finals and the successful close of my first year of grad school. All my thoughts, time, and most of my emotions were wrapped up in securing myself some good grades and in really doing the world a solid by giving it 29 pages worth of my bebe thoughts about Frederic Edwin Church's 1865 painting, Aurora Borealis, left.

And now, there is no endpoint. I feel a little empty. A little deconstructed even (NOOOOO!!!!). I came home Thursday after 1.5 hours of sleep in the past 48, having just handed in my last paper, and what did I do? I cracked open a textbook. I hadn't really gotten to peruse it this semester, and I was mocked considerably when caught.

Just call me Hermione. On finals week crack.

So, the big question is, am I teleological anymore, now that the gauntlet has been successful run? I sincerely hope so. I can't stand the thought of sitting still, or just meandering around aimlessly. I have an internship, yes, and I will learn a lot therein... but nothing quite gives you the same sense of heady direction as
a semester's curriculum to be learned (except maybe the act of dating someone... haha :).

As I pondered this favorite word of mine, snapshots of select modern artworks began to crop up in my mind's eye. This seems perfectly reasonable, in retrospect: no longer commissioned by kings or the privileged class, no longer able to act as the world's source for visual stimulus (that role has been usurped by youtube and modern advertisements), modern art, as opposed to the art of centuries past, simply screams out, in its very un-understandableness (un-understandability?) for you to help define its end point, its purpose. I AM A MONOCHROMATIC CANVAS WITH SLASHES IN IT! DEFINE ME!
(Google Image search Lucio Fontana for more of that sort...)

I can think of no better, more... calming adjective for this work, Condensation Cube, 1963-2008, than teleological:

It was one of my favorites to visit when I worked at the Hirshhorn. What you see is pretty much what I saw: a clear plastic cube that comes up to the middle of your thigh, it has about an inch and a half of supremely clear distilled water in the bottom and an ever-varied pattern of condensation droplets streaking the sides, which changes depending on the time of day and the season (although in my experience, these streaks were almost always grouped into the corner of the cube that was nearest the window. Methinks this photographer cheated to get this all-over condensation look). Despite its simplicity, it is a work that really stops people in their tracks, and I think that is because they sense immediately that it is making bare its own destiny, its own journey. Behold! I am a never-ending variation on the theme of water condensation!

As you look at it, you are caught up in the simple patterns, imagining what it would look like if the whole thing were covered in drops. Or you stare closely at it, trying to see if you can spot any drops rolling down the sides. Or you are wondering what would happen and what the cube would ultimately look like if you gave it a giant shove down the escalator... :) By making itself so plain, by revealing over and over again the trick that will continue to be its reason for creation and also its reason for continual adoration by visitors and curators, Condensation Cube, 1963-2008 is a really (dare I say it?) beautiful example of the simple idea of teleology, as it always is, in action.


Lauren Kay said...

I think you should use teleological in every day conversation. And yes, you do sound like Hermione. And that's why we love her. And I remember doing similar things while in school, maybe not right after I got so little sleep, but maybe the next day. :)

Judy Anne said...

Teleological is an interesting word. Thanks for sharing it with me. I like to think I am a teleological being, always the sum of what I have been and the starting place of where I am going and what I am becoming. My mind and heart changes frequently depending on the perceived stresses to my calmness. In one day I went from hating a day (Mother's day) to loving it again, not that the celebration changed, but my perception of my role of that day changed. Thanks for advancing my life.