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Subjectivity and the Terrorist: An Exchange with David Pan

David Pan’s essay “The Sovereignty of the Individual in Ernst Jünger’s The Worker appeared in Telos 144 in the fall of 2008. Elke Van der Steen asks him some questions.

Elke Van der Steen: The form of subjectivity Jünger proposed, one that is free of the relativism of culture and the assumption of universal reason, and which is embedded in a human relationship to violence, can be relevantly applied to current situations of terrorism. Two particular ideas discussed in greater length in your essay seem particularly applicable. The first has to do with the preservation of the individual’s sovereignty by linking private experiences with violence to group affirmation, and the second involves the paradoxical disdain for the dissemination of a universal reason and culture, while embarking on a national mobilization of violence.

In Jünger’s model of sovereignty the individual’s private experience with violence affirms personal sovereignty and also links the individual to the Gestalt of the nation, which consequently justifies the individual’s existence through a sort of historical immortality. “The nation becomes the Gestalt through which the individual attains meaning in a sacrifice that ultimately still preserves the individual in the affirmation of the nation.” The call to a mobilization of violence is a familiar cry in this time of suicide bombers and bin Laden telecasts. Like Jünger, others are shifting the “focus on the individual struggle for life and death as the key experience that in itself demonstrates the sovereignty of the individual yet also links the individual to a totality through the relationship to a world of elemental and violent forces.” The positing of humans in a violent world is not shocking; rather, it is the perception of the experience of violence as a ladder from mundane normalcy to mystical existence which is appalling.

At one point in the essay, you explain Jünger’s praise for the individual who can “blow himself up with pleasure and can even see in this act a confirmation of order.” You say that “[a]lthough the individual is being mobilized as part of a national project, there is paradoxically no other authority outside the individual which the individual is to be subordinated. Instead, the individual accepts the possibility of death as part of the individual’s preservation with a Gestalt that is the essence of that individual’s existence.”

How does this relate to the mobilization of violence for terrorism whose Gestalt is not linked to the liberation of the individual and the preservation of the sovereign worker in the face of the great eraser that is bourgeois culture, but which promotes the subordination of the individual to cultural ideals through personal sacrifice?

David Pan: This is an excellent question but a very difficult one, as it goes to the core of the problem with any critique of sacrifice. Because every culture faces moments that require the subordination of the individual to cultural ideals through some kind of personal sacrifice, it is not possible to simply dismiss all discourses of sacrifice as dangerous and violent. The idea of sacrifice includes a variety of essential social practices that begin with typical rules of polite behavior, requiring individuals to restrain their own wishes out of respect for others. But they also extend to the sacrifices that soldiers make in going to war to support the ideals of their country. There are certainly few who would dispute the legitimacy of the sacrifices that American soldiers made in fighting against Japan and Germany during World War II, even though these sacrifices required the subordination of the individual to cultural ideals. But if such subordination cannot be criticized as such, indeed must at times be applauded as a constraint on egotistical desires, it is still possible to differentiate forms of sacrifice. The key question becomes the character of those ideals to which the individual is to be subordinated. In the case of Jünger’s model, the subordination of the individual is supposed to result in a net gain for the individual in terms of the affirmation of the sovereignty of the individual in the face of violence, on the one hand, and through the merging with the nation and its development, on the other hand. In the first case, Jünger seems to be establishing an affirmation of individual sovereignty according to a Hegelian dynamic that one also finds in Georges Bataille’s idea of sacrifice and violence. In the second case, Jünger’s model seems to be an example of an ethnic nationalist justification for sacrifice. By merging the two rationales together, Jünger sets up a particularly dangerous approach. Not only does Jünger emphasize how sacrificial death carries with it a kind of revelatory rush for the individual, but this intoxicating experience becomes the basis of a collective affirmation of the nation.

Second, to decide to commit violence on the “other” requires the application of one’s own judgments to that “other.” In addition, while the moment of violence may be genuine in the eyes of the solider whose life is at that moment at stake, his orders do not come from a place of similar peril and therefore purity, according to Jünger’s own definition. While an act of violence may be pure because of its human intensity, the motivations and the consequences of that action are often steeped with ambiguities and fallacies and are often more corrupt than the realms of “negation, pity and literature” which Jünger so vehemently condemns.

Van der Steen: So, can an act of violence, committed by the member(s) of one group upon the member(s) of another group really be free of cultural judgment and innocent of universal value? Is there really a true sense of liberation in violence, or is the glorification of the action and the insistence in the moment a scheme to dwarf the present problems and distract from future consequences?

Pan: There are two issues here because being “free of cultural judgment” is not the same as being “innocent of universal value.” The first question is whether violence can be truly anomic and chaotic, free of any kind of cultural orientation. Here I would venture to say that human violence will always be embedded within some kind of cultural framework that provides the motivating rationale. Jünger’s affirmation of individual sovereignty as the goal of the individual’s facing of violence is simultaneously the continuation of an Enlightenment-based emphasis on the individual as the primary and privileged unit of society. The second question is whether violence will always imply a universal system of values that is attempting to establish itself against an opponent. On this point, it would be important to note that only certain ideologies, such as Christianity and liberalism, see themselves as universal and therefore encourage its defenders to engage in spreading that ideology to others, sometimes even with violence. Other ideologies such as Nazism do not understand themselves as universal and engage in violence against others, not in order to spread their ideology to those others, but simply in order to conquer, exploit, and enslave them. Within these two possibilities, the “glorification of the action and the insistence in the moment” does not seem in the case of Jünger to be a “scheme” to minimize problems or distract from consequences. He seems to be genuinely committed to glorifying the inner experience of struggle and pain, regardless of the consequences both for the individual and for others. At the same time, however, this stance definitely has an Enlightenment pedigree that Horkheimer and Adorno have traced to the Marquis de Sade and Friedrich Nietzsche. So the short answer would be that Jünger’s insistence on the moment and personal experience of violence does not place him outside a cultural context but rather within an Enlightenment trajectory of a glorification of the individual. His innovation, setting him apart from the universalist approach of de Sade, Nietzsche, and Bataille, is to explicitly link this glorification with a German nationalist project.

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