Understanding Adrian Piper’s Probing Body of Work

Adrian Piper. Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features. 1981. Pencil on paper. 10 × 8 in. (25.4 × 20.3 cm). The Eileen Harris Norton Collection © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin

New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) is showing a retrospective of the work of Berlin-based, American-born philosopher and artist Adrian Piper. “A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016” is the museum’s largest exhibition of works by a living artist in its history. Piper’s video, installation, drawings, photography, and performances transformed the field of conceptual art — a field in which the concepts behind the art are more important than its physical objects  — by making space for subjectivity, context, and reflection. Her work confronts themes and theories of race, gender, privilege, space, and time with rigor and humor, inviting strict attention and engagement from its audience.

A number of esteemed critics have written up the show: Stories from Jillian Steinhauer, Antwaun Sargent, Jessica Lanay, and an exploratory profile by Thomas Chatterton Williams are all necessary reading. Earlier this month, the New York Times published an extended interview with Piper in order to “fill in the gaps” of existing coverage and consider her artistic practice and work in philosophy cohesively. Not only does the interview lend insight into Piper’s practice and its underpinnings, but in it, she offers a roadmap, a way of morally weighing the conversations and reckonings on race, gender, and power that are currently underway.

L.O.B.: You also demonstrate how philosophical controversies that lit up the 18th century are still burning strong today — as so many protest movements are also showing us, including Black Lives Matter. What strategies, if any, could that movement take away from your writings?

A.P.: My work in philosophy does not presume to tell anyone what to do. It addresses the foundations of ethics — metaethics — rather than normative ethics. So it does not prescribe any particular strategies for action to anyone. These can be meaningfully formulated only by those who are directly involved in and therefore maximally well informed about the circumstances under which action is required.

However, perhaps my work can offer a way of understanding what is at stake in the Black Lives Matter movement that may be of use. The basic argument of “Rationality and the Structure of the Self is organized around the distinction between egocentric and transpersonal rationality. Transpersonal rationality consists in hard-wired cognitive dispositions that define us as human beings: to consistency, coherence, impartiality, impersonality, intellectual discrimination, foresight, deliberation, self-reflection and self-control. Egocentric rationality consists in placing these dispositions in the service of satisfying our personal desires and advancing our self-interest.

It is easy to conceive the Black Lives Matter movement as merely advancing the self-interest of African-Americans in surviving and flourishing within a society whose self-interest is systemically opposed to this. This reduces the impetus for protest to a conflict of interests between those who join or support this movement and those who resist it — as though all that were at stake were whether or not police are justified in being so terrified of an African-American teenager that shooting him in the back is a defensible preventive measure. To conceive the issue merely in these terms turns it into a contest as to whose interests are to prevail — those who see trigger-happy police as protecting their interests or those who see them as sabotaging theirs. This view of the situation lends itself to the conclusion that the United States is still fighting the same race war it was in 1860.

There is a lot of truth to this view. But it ignores the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement is not fighting merely to protect and advance the interests of African-Americans. It is fighting to cultivate a fundamental level of humanity in all Americans. The transpersonally rational dispositions I’ve listed constitute the ancient foundation of the historically recent idea of a universal human right that extends basic freedoms, responsibilities, rights and resources to every human being, regardless of their interests — not merely to those whom the police are personally inclined to protect. That African-Americans have survived and flourished for 400 years by resisting an environment devoted to dehumanizing them demonstrates quite conclusively how highly their capacities for transpersonal rationality are developed. The statement that black lives matter is a reminder to those whose perpetuation of that environment has effectively dehumanized them to develop those capacities just as highly; i.e. that their own humanity also matters.

L.O.B.: You’ve said that an epistemic skepticism drives your work. Could you elaborate?

A.P.: As an attitude rather than a philosophical position, epistemic skepticism consists in always second-guessing your own judgments — about yourself, other people and situations; always monitoring those judgments to make sure you’re seeing clearly, have the facts right, aren’t making any unfounded inferences or deceiving yourself, etc. Women are particularly skilled at this because their judgment, credibility and authority start to come under attack during puberty, as part of the process of gender socialization. They are made to feel uncertain about themselves, their place in society and their right to their own opinions. If that socialization doesn’t work, they can’t be made to obey, to defer and to depend on others to make important decisions for them. Obviously this is a horrible, misogynistic practice, now known as “gaslighting” after the 1944 George Cukor film. But the benefit is precisely this self-critical attitude — of careful review of and reflection on the adequacy of one’s own thought processes.

This attitude actually does put into concrete practice the philosophical position of epistemic skepticism that has a very long and honorable history going back to Descartes and even further back to Socrates. It has had a very beneficial effect on my work in philosophy because my judgment, my credibility and my authority to make philosophical pronouncements started coming under attack from the moment I entered the professional part of the discipline. The challenges, slights and attempts at intimidation were unremitting. In part, I have the self-confidence my parents gave me to thank for surviving them. But there is no doubt in my mind that this female reflex of self-doubt and self-criticism also had a lot to do with it. I don’t deceive myself into believing that all of my philosophical views are right. But thanks to that reflex, they are well grounded.

Adrian Piper’s MoMA exhibition runs through this Sunday, July 22.

Read the interview