Professor and Department Chair of European Languages and Studies, UC Irvine; Editor, Telos
David Pan is Professor and Department Chair of European Languages and Studies at the University of California, Irvine and Editor of Telos. He holds a B.A. in English and German from Stanford University and an M.A. and Ph.D in Germanic Languages and Literatures from Columbia University. He taught previously at Washington University in St. Louis, Stanford University, and Penn State University before coming to UC Irvine in 2006. He was the Executive Director of the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute from 2012-2019, and he worked as an editorial associate and book review editor at Telos before assuming the editorship. He also worked for two years as a management consultant at McKinsey and Co. in Los Angeles.
His research has focused on the problem of aesthetic experience as a mediator of human history. As opposed on the one hand to materialist approaches that look to biology, technology or economics and on the other hand to idealist approaches that concentrate on philosophy and religion as drivers of history, his work attempts to understand how history develops through a process of recollection and interpretation that depends on judgment and takes the reception of works of art as its model.
He first investigates the dynamics of aesthetic experience in Primitive Renaissance: Rethinking German Expressionism (University of Nebraska Press, 2001), which describes the ways in which German expressionist writers and artists were inspired by art forms from so-called “primitive” cultures in Africa, the South Seas, and the Americas. This book establishes the outlines of a primitivist aesthetic that understands the modernist European return to myth and the primitive neither as a regression nor a purely imperialist gesture, but rather as part of broader trends in which artists and writers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Wassily Kandinsky, and Carl Einstein were driven by a sense that social structures based on rational discourse and scientific analysis might be unable to replace adequately the myths and rituals of traditional culture. Through this analysis, the book considers how myth and ritual develop, not just as direct expressions of psychological, economic, or political pressures, but according to patterns of aesthetic reception in which recipients respond to such pressures with value judgments.
Sacrifice in the Modern World: On the Particularity and Generality of Nazi Myth (Northwestern University Press, 2012) further develops these insights into the aesthetic mechanisms that mediate human history by looking at the ways in which myths and rituals of sacrifice are built upon aesthetic structures that are still defining for human history in the modern world. This book argues that, while a model of sacrifice lies at the foundation of every culture and serves to develop a human relationship to violence, every particular model of sacrifice functions differently and marks the society of which it is a part. Within this framework, the book characterizes Nazi myth as the merging of a heroic notion of sacrifice that it shares with many other cultures with a denial of sacrifice that creates a particular kind of dehumanized victim. Developing ideas by Kant, Nietzsche, Adorno, Bataille, Girard, and Burkert, the book argues that it is only by clearing our way through the Nazi denial of the aesthetic character of sacrifice that we can understand the durability of sacrificial structures that establish the fundamental values by which we live our lives.
He has further developed this aesthetics of sacrifice in essays that treat major works of German literature in terms of a basic opposition between 1) a traditionalist insistence on the subordination of the individual to community ideals through sacrifice, exemplified in Heinrich von Kleist, Franz Kafka, and Bertolt Brecht and 2) an Enlightenment defense of the individual, evident in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wilhelm von Humboldt and Ernst Jünger, leading to a mobilization of violence for the sake of the individual. These readings of German literary history attempt to lay out the types of political and ethical decisions that arise out of aesthetic structures in the German tradition.
His current research attempts to merge the understanding of history as the outgrowth of aesthetic experience with a political theory that would see such aesthetic mechanisms as the basis for political stability and change. Here, he turns to the work of Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin in order to link the former’s theory of the decision as the basis of political events to the latter’s theorization of history as the result of epochal shifts in the interpretation of the past. To the extent that political decisions are the result of interpretational shifts, they are also subject to the dynamics of aesthetic experience in which interpretation of the past enables judgments about the present.