Adrian Piper is a conceptual artist and analytic philosopher based in Berlin. My first interview with her appeared in the New York Times in the summer of 2018, during her retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016” was the largest show the museum had ever produced for a living artist. For that interview, I wanted to provide information that other coverage had missed, including key details—in her own words—on her extensive career in philosophy. The piece has remained very dear to me. I often reread it when I’m seeking clarity, guidance, or when I just wonder: What might Adrian say? In 2020, it’s been on my mind time and time again. So, I am grateful to have another opportunity to speak with her, and I am even more proud that she is the first subject to be featured in our new editorial venture. This interview was conducted from June–July 2020.
I saw via an update on your website that you reached a personal best with your memorization of the Yoga Sutra in November 2019. How has that been going?
I’m in transition between being able to rattle them off mechanically and absentmindedly from the surface of my mind, and the deeper levels at which I can remain present to absorb their sound and meaning in the moment of chanting them, and allow their full significance to open my mind further. That is a deep dive.
When you left the United States and academia in the spring of 2005—during an extremely harrowing time in your life, as detailed in your travel memoir Escape to Berlin (2018)—you were just beginning to offer philosophy courses based on your lifelong study of yoga and ancient Indian philosophy, including Vedic principles of insight and peace. Could you talk about what that meant prior to parting the ivory tower?
In addition to the protective and supportive function of those courses, which I described in “Philosophy En Route to Reality: A Bumpy Ride,” creating them was a way of consolidating and structuring all of the knowledge of the Vedic tradition I had gained through my own practice and studies over the preceding forty years. It was a wonderful, inspiring process just to have to organize all that experience in a transmissible form, and to think long and hard about the best method for communicating the material to American college students in such a way as to make it land in the right place in their minds. Given the ways in which that tradition has been distorted by its American reception (I discuss this in a short essay at the APRA website, here), the solutions to those challenges were not obvious. There was a moment in my first semester of teaching Vedanta Ethics and Epistemology when it became necessary to demonstrate Headstand to the class. At that point I knew I was in uncharted territory. It was such a solace and a gift to be able to be totally absorbed in the challenges of this teaching process, given what was going on all around me. My preoccupation with teaching the texts functioned as a kind of spiritual armor that I really needed at that point. I would wish for anyone undergoing similar pressures that they find that place in their mind that can be a sanctuary and refuge from all of it. From that place, the “ivory tower” looks more like a prison.
On what can one depend on in this time of deluge? What kind of spiritual armor helps?
Here is a simple five-point plan distilled from the principles of nonviolent resistance I learned in the early Civil Rights Movement (a short explanation of their background can be found here):
(1) Know yourself: Learn to live without self-deception of any kind. Always acknowledge your bad motives up front, never make excuses for your failures, never rationalize your faults. Always look your flaws straight in the face and take responsibility for their consequences, never blame other people when things go wrong for you. Always find out what you did to contribute to that, and don’t flinch from owning it. Be compassionate with your failings, but never self-indulgent. Self-deception is the most poisonous obstacle to remaining anchored in reality, and if you can’t do that now, you’re dead meat.
(2) Act honorably: If you practice (1) doggedly, the pain of confronting your imperfections will nudge you toward actions that don’t cause you that kind of pain—actions that are honorable even if they are not perfect. Because they are anchored in self-knowledge, they will strengthen your foundation in reality.
(3) Honor your mortality: Once you’ve planted yourself firmly on that path, come to terms with the reality that you are going to die, that your time is limited; and resolve to make the best use of it you can. That means making honorable conduct your top priority and being prepared to sacrifice whatever is necessary, including personal advantage, in order to protect it. You should be prepared to die at any moment without regret, remorse, or self-reproach, knowing that you did your best.
(4) Seek its meaning: It also means having, adopting, or developing a metaphysical belief system that enables you to live with and understand the meaning of your mortality. Here there are many options, both religious and non-religious. The only one that doesn’t work at all is materialism, because it can’t explain what happens to consciousness after the body dies without violating the law of the conservation of energy. But any metaphysics that can is fine.
(5) Defend your values: When living and acting honorably becomes more important to you than staying alive at any cost, you are ready to fight effectively for what you believe in, because then you can’t be bought, bribed, or bullied into betraying yourself, your cause, or your comrades.
In this recent op-ed by Tiffanie Drayton, she frames her escape from the US in terms of being an American refugee. I wondered if that term resonates with you.
It does, yes. Drayton refers to the United Nations definition of refugees as “people who flee their homes because of war, persecution, or violence.” The OED defines persecution as “A particular course or period of systematic violent oppression; esp. one directed against the members of a particular religious or political group, race, etc.; infliction of punishment directed against those holding a particular belief; persistent annoyance or injury; harassment.” Incidents of persecution, i.e. the course of systematic punishment, harassment, and violence inflicted over my fifteen years at Wellesley College, are described in overview in Escape to Berlin: A Travel Memoir. The formal charges that constituted my lawsuit against the College list and document thirteen of those incidents in detail. The violent incidents include the vandalizing of my home; two burglaries within two weeks (on the second break-in, nothing was taken) soon after my release from the hospital; the repeated puncturing of my tires before my weekly commute home from the College; and the College’s explicit rejection, in writing, of my four doctors’ warnings of a “rapid deterioration” in my liver disease should necessary medical accommodations be refused. I fled my home because of these incidents of persecution and violence. So I am a refugee according to the UN definition.
But I would want to distinguish sharply between being a refugee and being a victim. The latter term doesn’t resonate with me at all. I am a refugee from American racism, but I am not a victim of American racism, because my refugee status is the result of my conscious choices; and I accept their consequences without reservation. If I had been willing to pass for “white,” if I had accepted and internalized the American caste system, if I had not publicly rejected it, ridiculed it, and mocked people whose self-esteem depended on it, I would not have elicited the persecution and violence I experienced there. So I would not have had to leave the U.S. in order to escape it. I knew at the time that I was defying powerful forces, but I did those things anyway. Had I known in advance the vindictive rage I would call forth, I still would have done them. And had I not left the U.S. when I did, I would not now be alive to do this interview. But that’s fine. It was the price of finding out what really lies behind the smiley-face mask of American “Have-a-nice-day!” civility, in the supposedly cultivated circles in which I was traveling. It’s always better to come to terms with the reality, no matter how ugly it is. So I have never had even a moment’s regret for any of those choices.
I only wish I’d seen the writing on the wall sooner and gotten out sooner. Fifteen years after my escape, I still celebrate it every day, and grieve for those who want to get out but can’t. Thanks to the bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic by your nutcase president, the member states of the European Union have closed all of their borders to American travelers. This is a tragedy in the making, particularly for the vast majority of Americans—of all colors—who have roots in Europe.
In 2009, you established the APRA Foundation Berlin Multi-Disciplinary Fellowship, which, as you noted in our last interview, promotes “multidisciplinarity as a counterbalance to socially imposed uniformity and unidimensional creative development.” Has this fellowship transformed your thinking about multidisciplinary tactics, and if so, how?
It was more the other way around, that realizing how important multidisciplinarity was to my own survival led me to want to nurture it in other people. It’s been very satisfying to find out how other such trespassers survive, and to help them flourish. They are the pathfinders for an emerging global culture that demands the flexibility and resources necessary for crossing social boundaries on a daily basis, and contributing productively to whatever subcultures in which they presently find their habitat. Refugees, take note.
The foundation also supports a dissertation fellowship for philosophy Ph.D. students. Do the two fellowships have to have any connections in theory or practice?
No. They are completely independent. Whereas the Multi-Disciplinary Fellowship furthers the simultaneous development of divergent modes of creative production, the Philosophy Dissertation Fellowship furthers a higher and more comprehensive degree of specialization in one particular field. It requires a prior course of study in philosophy that is not presently offered in full in the vast majority of accredited philosophy departments, because it includes two logic courses plus coursework in Indian, Chinese, Arabic, and Jewish philosophy—in addition to the standard fare. So it may be awhile before we can fund any fellows for this one.
In our previous interview you mentioned you were at work on a piece that offers an “alternative to the sick and outmoded system of ‘racial’ classification we have inherited from 19th-century pseudoscience”: The Pixel Grayscale System of Human Classification. Might you be able to share any updates on it?
The impact of introducing the idea turned out to be enough for me conceptually. I got bored with the process of actually producing the work, so I’ve abandoned it.
What are you working on now?
Only The Shadow knows! ;D For over a year, I have been working on a site-specific piece oriented toward the German context. Unfortunately, it really does have to remain a secret until it opens, for strategic reasons.
What are your thoughts on two recent developments in Germany: Berlin’s new anti-discrimination law and the Green party’s call to delete the word Rasse from the Constitution?
Of course there is always a gap between what the law prescribes and what happens in practice. But changes in practice always begin with acts of self-determination, in which we conceptualize what we want the practices to be, formulate and enact principles that encode them, and implement those principles in practice, over an extended period of time, as best we can, given necessarily limited resources, competing priorities, and all-too-human failures of will, nerve, or conscience. The key is always identifying what practices we want to implement badly enough to actually expend the time, energy, and resources necessary to realize them. These recent developments in German jurisprudence show us what transformative principles German society, as mediated by its politicians, is deliberately choosing to actualize and integrate. The project of reformulating Article 3, Paragraph (3) of the Grundgesetz so as to eliminate a concept that everyone knows is a bogus and racist relic of the Nazi era is not only about achieving justice; it’s also about bringing the document into closer accord with the facts. Being able to face the facts is part of being a grownup.
Can you imagine this occurring in the context of American politics? Can you imagine either major party in the U.S. proposing either one of these measures? The very idea of striking the word “race” from Article XV (the 15th Amendment) of the American Constitution would be unthinkable and inappropriate because too much of American history, and the fabric of American identity and character, is woven into this bogus concept. Whereas eliminating the concept of “race” from the German Constitution is a strike against lingering racism in Germany, eliminating it from the American Constitution would be a reinforcement of the racist underpinnings that have structured and corrupted American history since its inception. But since racial discrimination is purportedly a thing of the past in the U.S., an anti-discrimination law is unnecessary, right? To me now, it scarcely seems possible that these sick and incoherent fantasies are still part of the deep foundation of American society in the twenty-first century. But they are.
By contrast, Germany is right now in the midst of a debate over the feasibility of a scientific study to determine the depth and prevalence of racism in its police forces. But the debate itself is merely a tactical one, as to whether such a study would best serve the aim of reducing racism in Germany. All sides take for granted that racial discrimination is one of Germany’s most pressing problems, and all sides are prepared to take the initiative of instituting precautionary measures in order to solve it. They don’t deny the existence of the problem, then wait until Germany’s major cities explode into riots, violence, mayhem, and murder. That distance, between the American political mindset and the German one, is one of the many reasons I moved here.
Do you think the great waves of protests worldwide now against police brutality and racism will cause changes in global culture, and if so, how?
No, I’m very sorry to say that I don’t see that happening. Just to be clear, the primary targets of these global protests are American police brutality and racism. I argue in Escape to Berlin that the U.S. goes through these violent convulsions at least once a generation; but that the structural conditions that cause them are too deeply embedded in American culture to be uprooted. Americans need their racism. Social media may magnify the reach of these events into other countries and cultures and provoke their reactions. But those other countries and cultures already know how America really ticks; and they themselves function differently. There are very few areas of life in which any country in its right mind would take its cue from what is going on in the United States as to how to solve its own problems. At best the United States provides a cautionary tale to other countries as to what not to do. From the outside looking in, its repetitive cycle of incessant police and civilian brutality against African Americans, and the predictable explosions of pain, rage and rebellion it regularly incites, is a tragic and sickening spectacle. These inevitably recurring events debase America’s standing in the world more than any mere diplomatic faux pas ever could. It is precisely because America’s status and reputation have been so damaged by these events that it has elicited these global waves of protests against its police brutality and racism. For the global protesters, the opportunities for self-advancement that constituted the “American Dream” are no longer worth the costs.
Do you think they will cause changes in the art world, and if so, how?
Again, I doubt it, as much as it breaks my heart to say so. These protests move people of conscience to join them, to do what they can to fight the conditions that engender them. But those people are always in the minority, and their best efforts are always necessarily limited. They fight anyway, in order to maintain their self-respect, defend themselves, and help others in whatever ways they can. These are the people for whom the very thought of being seen as complicit is unbearable. But confronted with the choice between actively fighting racism and profiting from its continued existence, most people choose the latter. American racism offers so many blessings to its beneficiaries. Think of all those Americans who believe they would be less than nothing, were they not “white.” As Eldridge Cleaver would have put it, they prefer to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. For those opportunists, the “American Dream” is alive and well.
I’m sure you’re aware of the current U.S. debate around taking down some statues and monuments. What’s appropriate: Keep them up, put them in a museum, or destroy them?
Erasing the past in order to solve the problems it presents is a very American approach, and it never works. Physical artifacts are the embodiments of the time, energy, and resources invested in creating them, so they express the values of the society that allocated those resources. We must never, ever forget that American society once paraded and celebrated those values—actually not all that long ago. Those statues and monuments are the most concrete reminders we have—of who we once were and who many of us still are. They bring us face-to-face with that repulsive part of ourselves that we all would prefer to forget. But if we forget it, we will repeat it. So we need to preserve these statues and monuments in their original historical contexts, in a manner that makes clear to every viewer how dangerous and destructive those contexts were and how obsolete they now are. Only a museum devoted to educating the public about the long history of American racism, and its reach into the present day, can do that successfully. That is where those statues and monuments belong—all of them.
What would you say to someone who claims they are “colorblind,” that they are unprejudiced, impartial, and therefore nonracist?
The only individuals I have ever heard or heard of who make such claims with a straight face are self-styled “whites.” So I am assuming that the speaker in this instance also falls into that category. I would ask such a person whether or not their claim to be “colorblind” also applies to the way they see themselves. If so, it implies that they do not believe they are “white” after all. Whether or not they accept this implication would be an interesting test of how accurate their self-description as “colorblind” actually is. If, on the other hand, their claim to be “colorblind” does not apply to the way they see themselves, I would ask for their justification for exempting themselves from their self-professed colorblind impartiality. And I would ask them to explain in what sense that self-exemption is consistent with their putative nonracism.