The Work of Interpretation

David Pan, European Languages and Studies, UC Irvine

This project will bring together theories of interpretation with theories of work in order to explain both the kind of work that interpretation represents and the causal power of interpretation for material activity. By analyzing the specific way in which work, representation, and ethics are depicted in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister novels, this project will attempt to explain the way in which the interpretive work of the humanities does not stand aloof from the kind of productive labor associated with the natural and social sciences but rather sets the interpretive and value-oriented framework within which the work of these other activities is situated.

David Pan received his Ph.D. in 1995 from Columbia University and has since taught at Washington University (St. Louis), Stanford University, and Penn State University before coming to UC Irvine in 2006. His Primitive Renaissance: Rethinking German Expressionism (University of Nebraska Press, 2001) 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.

His research has continued to focus on issues of aesthetics and tradition. His Sacrifice in the Modern World (Northwestern UP, 2012) 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 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 and Franz Kafka, 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.

His next project moves back toward the 18th century in order to develop a theoretical framework that can help explain the functioning of tradition in the modern world. While Enlightenment thinkers promoted reason against tradition as the best authority for guiding human understanding and attempted to establish a universal culture based on rational argument and philosophical reflection, anti-Enlightenment thought in Germany rejected this stance and turned to religious frameworks and traditions as the foundation of human society. Future work in this project will consider anti-Enlightenment thought in Germany, concentrating on the work of Johann Gottfried Herder, Friedrich Jacobi, and Johann Georg Hamann, but also analyzing later developers of this tradition such as Arnold Gehlen and Carl Schmitt, in order to investigate its particular understanding of the role of traditions in determining the structure of human consciousness.