- Sacrifice in the Modern World: On the Particularity and Generality of Nazi Myth by David Pan
David Pan’s new monograph is an insightful and compelling contribution to cultural theory. Pan’s focus is sacrifice—a violence directed against humans which is culturally meaningful, in that sacrifice structures the individual’s relationship to a moral collective, to nature, and to violence. As the subtitle indicates, Pan constructs a general theory of sacrifice while working toward a case study of the Nazi example. Pan rejects the view of National Socialism as characterized by an embrace of the irrational and mythic, in opposition to a secular, liberal, rationalist “West.” For Pan, sacrifice is a universal element of human culture and hence a constitutive element of any particular society; at the same time, distinct “theories of sacrifice” characterize different cultures. Pan’s examination of Nazi violence, which distinguishes between self-sacrifice and, in the case of the Holocaust, non-sacrificial violence against the other, thus resituates arguments about Nazi particularity.
Chapter 1 develops an aesthetic theory of sacrifice, beginning with Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s concept of aesthetic truth and exploring how sacrificial myth produces a “binding” construction of morality (a vision of collective ideals) through mimesis. Pan critiques Adorno’s later aesthetic theory, which he argues vitiates the power of mimesis by positing nature as harmony rather than violence; Pan instead recuperates the Kantian notion of the sublime to argue that sacrifice, as aesthetic experience of the absolute, constructs collective moralities.
Pan’s second chapter rejects the view of Nazism as a revival of the mythic, arguing that Nazi theorists and their liberal counterparts shared an antimythic stance; the former emphasized the importance of myth, not in order to revive it, but to suppress its free aesthetic development. Pan then contrasts Alfred Baeumler with Carl Einstein and Ernst Bloch, arguing that the latter recognized myth’s aesthetic character, and thus cannot be presumptively classed as protofascist.
Critiquing Georges Bataille and René Girard, Chapter 3 argues that sacrifice is not an outward manifestation of an underlying structure of violence, but an aesthetic event that conditions subjectivities in variable ways. Citing Walter Burkert, Pan suggests that narratives of sacrifice serve as symbolic representations of previous acts of violence, and thus create communal values in the absence of actual violence. [End Page 226] Pan’s fourth chapter completes the theory of sacrifice, while as a case study of Nazi culture it raises interesting questions. Pan draws upon the work of Hannah Arendt and Giorgio Agamben to connect notions of Bildung in J.G. Fichte and Wilhelm von Humboldt to the rhetoric and theory of totalitarianism, as found in the speeches of Hitler and the writings of Baeumler. He describes a “German model” of sacrifice, which posed the collective as the emancipatory fulfillment of the individual within a national (völkisch) framework, and provided a structure for establishing the distinction between those fit for sacrifice to a world-historical development (i.e. racially pure Germans) and those who were not, and therefore had to be eliminated. Pan adopts Agamben’s concept of homo sacer, an archaic Roman law designation for someone who, having committed a crime, could be killed without consequences for the killer, yet who could not be ritually sacrificed. Whereas Agamben sees this “reduction to bare life” as a feature of political sovereignty (and thus the Nazi treatment of Jews as paradigmatic), Pan identifies it as a particular cultural feature of Nazism’s construction of Jews as biologically “incapable of sacrifice.”
Pan’s work contributes to the investigation of popular support for National Socialism, though more as theoretical analysis than cultural study. Those seeking the latter may question assumptions about the relationship between acts of sacrifice and the reception by the “collective,” in the absence of analysis of specific, varied communities or the modes in which sacrifices are culturally represented, experienced, and challenged (Pan supplies “the genealogy of Nazi morality”). He highlights the idea of pedagogy, through Humboldt...