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Recently, I went to the Adrian Piper show at MoMA. When you are partway through the show you run into the Humming Room. To see the rest of the show, you must pass through the Humming Room. To pass through the room, you must hum. This is announced in a large sign plus there’s a guard standing in the center of the room as enforcement.

There were two women standing close to me in front of the room, and one of them muttered to the other: “I’m not doing that!” I got through the room, but I’m not disclosing whether I hummed or not.

Piper has said she has been inspired by Kant. It’s notable that a leading 21st century conceptual artist has been inspired by an 18th century enlightenment philosopher. But if you grasp an essential difference between the temperaments of Kant and Hegel, it becomes more understandable.

Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason

In the popular mind, a “critique” is a downer. You might hear “people say” that you should emphasize the positive and not harp on the negative. Finding fault, with anything except your opponent, is suspect in team-oriented cultures. I believe that most readers approve of positive book reviews and are turned off by negative reviews, turned off at the review. There’s a strong emphasis in journalism on providing the public with positive book reviews, which underwrites mediocre reviewing skills.

The title of Kant’s central book has the aura of bad karma. But for Kant and other enlightenment thinkers, a “critique” is tremendously liberating, since nothing should be accepted, in their view, if it has not passed muster with gray-eyed reason. That trite phrase You gotta believe! would smell like the decaying refuse of outworn ideologies to them.

If you critique something, you know its limits; you realize what pertains to it and what does not. It’s like drawing the outline of a thing. It privileges draftsmanship, having a great line, over color, like some people preferring drawings or B&W films over paintings and technicolor.

Kant critiqued thinking. He tried to draw out what reasoning could not do without. He drew the conclusion that reason could not be matched to the outside world as a transparency. Thinking always brings into the world something of its own requirements which contours what it sees. You can’t know the “thing-in-itself” but can only know it through the silhouette of the mind. To perceive a thing is to liplock it to your mind. There is no fix around that if you are going to be rational.

Hegel in his Logic, made short work of this. He didn’t so much subject Kant’s view to an exhaustive rebuttal but dismissed it briskly and posited an alternative. For thousands of years, humankind has assumed that the mind could grasp things. It was only the “moderns” in recent times who had averred that this was a problem and he suggested they were decadent.

It’s true that the mind always brought something of itself to the awareness of things. But what it brought was the imprint of the cosmos that is present in all entities. Thought in its highest forms was the universal code and it was all pervading. He even called nature “unconscious mind”.

This is quite a leap and you either accept that there’s a universal code, accessed by higher forms of abstract reasoning, or you don’t, much like either loving a poem or not. It’s a matter of temperament.

It reminds me of the difference between Mahler and Bruckner symphonies. Mahler pulls apart the emotions in his symphonies, understanding by assembling a dissection. Bruckner in his, wants to synthesize a unifying wave. Both composers use both techniques, but the emphasis is different.

 

The Welcome Sign

 

In the Adrian Piper exhibit at MoMA, my eye was caught by a door off to the side which had a “Welcome” sign. I walked over, the only one I could see who did. I wanted to discover if there was anything of interest behind the door. My hand grasped the doorknob. The door was firmly locked. The “Welcome” wasn’t for me. I was reminded of this later when I tried to get past the guard in the Humming Room. I was being made aware of how I was being treated, made aware of the social pressure to conform, the fear of being embarrassed, my capacity to follow orders.

Piper was channeling Kant. I was being made aware of my limits, both the limits imposed on me and those limits we impose on ourselves. The “outline” of myself was being made to appear before me, as if in a black mirror. It felt like removing my own spine and taking a look at it.

I was also being made aware of my capacity for skepticism in the face of authority and maybe being made aware of a determination to fight back. Maybe I really wanted to give that Humming Room guard’s mouth a taste of my fist…

Kant and Hegel present alternative visions. You can hum Kant or Hegel. Emphasizing the thought of one will tend to degrade the thought of the other. What to do? The Humming Room is all around us.