Blog,  Research Ruminations

Dr. Panagia: Research in Politics and Aesthetic Theory

Interviewer: Alyssa Schmidt

Editor: Selena Perez

In this article, Alyssa Schmidt interviews Professor Davide Panagia from the UCLA Political Science Department. Professor Panagia teaches Political Theory, with a focus on courses in contemporary political theory, aesthetics and politics, affect theory, political theory and cinema, political theory and algorithmic cultures, and theories of textual interpretation. This interview features Professor Panagia’s research in aesthetics and politics and how his research process informed his recent publications.


Alyssa: “aesthetics and politics” is a very broad topic; how do you narrow down your research to ensure effective contributions to this area of study?

Dr. Panagia: The topic almost didn’t exist when I was doing my doctorate. It wasn’t an area that people studied, and there is a whole series of historical reasons why that is the case; partly because of what we saw the week that we read Benjamin’s Mechanical Reproduction essay. After the war, people thought, Oh, we can’t worry about things like aesthetics because it’s really dangerous for politics and for democracy, and so we’re only going to work on institutions and institution building. So, when I was working on this material as a PhD student, and even before that as an undergraduate when I started to formulate some ideas, what I realized is that, a) I was really interested in cultural objects and cultural artifacts and b) I was really interested in how it is that all of these philosophers and people came up with the idea that people actually make meanings from these things. I was really interested in the question of how humans make things meaningful, especially things that have absolutely no reason to be meaningful. For example, a diamond is literally a rock, right? It’s a shiny rock, but it’s a rock and yet somehow we’ve invested value in it such that it has an economic value that’s great. People can say “oh, it’s so rare,” but why do we care that it’s rare? Just to give you a very crude example. So I was just very interested in this human ability; this is what humanist research and social science research, and the version that I do, is focused on. One of the things that humans do really well is generate values. We come up with systems of value all the time: how to rank this, and the top 10 of that, and all of these sorts of things. And they’re all based on judgments. So, what I realized is that, as I started studying political theory more and more, this question of how we make judgments and where judgments come from and how we implement, institute, apply judgments to the way we organize our lives was really interesting. What I also realized is that in the literature of political theory, traditionally, these questions weren’t being asked from a culturalist perspective. And so I started taking classes and learning from them and realized that there is this sort of fundamental question that is really important to politics, which is how it is that judgments of value that aren’t just ethical values, but that are embedded with questions of taste, perception, and all of these sorts of matters have influence in the way that we think about politics. And then I discovered the writings of one of the figures I work on a lot, this French philosopher who is still alive, Jacques Rancière, who is actually somebody who works almost explicitly in design, and his whole body of research is around this question of politics and aesthetics. So I learned a lot from his work and even collaborated with him in the past, and have written about him. His writings were very influential and led me to a whole series of other areas that he may not be involved in, but you know, I could think about these things in relation to his own work.


Alyssa: Walk us through your process for planning new publications. Where do you begin?

Dr. Panagia: At the very, very beginning it is very much like our class and why it is that I give the “keywords assignments” as I do. I’m not a linear thinker, I don’t have an A to B, B to C kind of thing. I’m much more of an impressionistic thinker. I’ll give you an example; so, right now, I’m interested in exploring how it is that certain kinds of problems of African Americans in the 20th century were being articulated and expressed in the emergence of blues and jazz. What I’m not interested in doing is looking at the content of the songs themselves, right? I’m interested in the music itself, and I have some musical training, so I can do that. The most important part, to answer your question, is you have to train: either yourself independently or through some kind of program to understand and get a sense of the history of whatever it is, the topic that you are interested in exploring– what has been said about it, where does it fit in, why have people talked about and spoken about it the way that they do, etc. So that’s the first and most important part of any kind of research in the university: to kind of understand how that problem has been dealt with in the past, what were the mistakes that people made, and why did those get viewed as mistakes, what are people doing now, and why are they doing it in the way that they are doing it. The same thing with this question, you know, it seemed to me that there was something interesting about the way in which some African American writers talk about bodies dropping in terms of dying. And certain kinds of musical notations and these traditions of music that drop notes. There’s no real connection between these two things, but the way in which I do my work, I started to sense that there was a relationship that could be made to shed light on both of these two sorts of things. Kind of like this question of aesthetics and politics. I don’t believe that things are essentially connected to one another and so you kind of have to pursue things the way other people have pursued them. I’m much more inclined to say, this catches my attention and it feels like it is in the realm of this thing or topic that also catches my attention. What I’m interested in is building that relationship, which I think is the work of politics in general, that political theory to me is exciting because it’s about how it is that people generate the work of politics of being together and relating to one another or against one another or apart from one another, etc. So those are the sorts of ways in which I start to develop an idea and then things start to fall into place and maybe this direction doesn’t work, so you put it aside, but you never get rid of it completely because you might have to return to it and you go forth from there.


Alyssa: What inspires you to work on niche topics? Do you research first and then form your claim/topic, or vice-versa?

Dr. Panagia: I’ve always done niche topics and most of them are topics that other people haven’t really worked on and I think that that’s just, I don’t know whether that’s a neurological issue or a personality issue, but it’s just that I’m a tinkerer. And I like to tinker with things. All of the things that I do are oriented around trying to figure out how it is that things work. And not just in a technical sense; you know in the technical sense, there’s a system in place here that this relates to that and how does it work that way? And why does it work and why did it come to work in the way that it does? So I’m the farthest thing from someone like Plato who thinks of an idea like justice: justice exists, and we have to think about justice. I’m much more of a pragmatist in this art. Like this is happening here and it’s happening here as well and how is it that these two things are happening the way that they are and what makes them happen in this way? So, I don’t formulate the thesis. The thesis comes. And this is I think standard to many of us, and it’s stuff that you discover if you go to graduate school. It’s one of the big revelations you don’t realize as much as an undergraduate, although I think we’re teaching it more and more, that introductions come after. They are the last thing that you write. Why? Because all of the research tends to be experimental, so yes: you have an idea and you want to test it out, does it make sense to think about blues in relationship to lynching (which is what I am thinking about now)? Having a clear thesis and saying this is what I want to do, it doesn’t kind of work that way until you start doing the research and start saying, oh, there isn’t a connection here, that’s not gonna work, or yeah, that’s gonna work, but I’m only gonna be able to go this far. That takes a lot of practice, obviously, but it’s not unlike crafting a song– you gotta combine words with chords and with melodies and things like that, and this might work and that as a thing might not work and maybe it’ll take you a year and maybe it’ll take five minutes. The way that I see it is that the final product hopefully will be something that’s polished that you can follow along and have some insight that the researcher has produced an insight that, even if it was something that is confirming something else that existed in the world already, that you’re nonetheless providing a new way of thinking about it. But to get to that final point there are lots of hidden misses and it’s a combination of a research direction or possible sort of curiosity. And curiosity is key.


Alyssa: How do you approach researching/finding specific evidence for your claims?

Dr. Panagia: It depends on the topic that I’m researching, so mostly it is readerly work. Reading what others have written, trying to put that work in relation to other works that were written in the same period, whether it’s contemporary or historical and trying to understand why it is that. For instance, let me give you an idea, there’s this book, How the Scots Invented the Modern World. It really tells a story of how basically a lot of modern ideas we have of commerce and exchange and that sort of stuff originate from this moment in Scotland where you have Hume and Smith and all these other figures. But it doesn’t make sense; I’ve never been able to understand how it is that… It’s not like Scotland is this big commercial capital of the world. It’s not like Edinborough was a trade route, so how did these guys come up with this idea? Well, you start reading and saying: okay, Hume has this idea, what is he responding to? Is he responding to anything? He’s picking up on a set of threads that have been developed elsewhere and he’s like: well, the other thing that’s happening is that we’re living in a world in which the printing press is becoming much more available, so that means that these works are circulating a lot easier; people don’t have to reproduce them by hand in order to make a second copy. So let’s look at the circulation patterns and the movements of these things and these people are writing letters to each other, right? There’s a mail system in place now, so you can actually go see it online. There’s a fabulous project called, “Republic of Letters.” It’s a digital project. You can type in any enlightenment thinker’s name and it shows you all the letters that we know that they’ve sent. It starts to look like the mapping of a mind, of a neural network. It’s very, very cool. Of course, it isn’t a neural network, but you start to see it’s not just commercial things. These people were interested in exchanging ideas. So they were thinking about what it means to exchange ideas rather than, you know, what it means to think about something out there, and it’s just you talking to the heavens. So they’re exchanging ideas, thinking about exchange– it starts to look like it’s much more communicative, that it’s about inter-relationships and not just about your relationship with the heavens. It’s kind of cool, but you have to put things in their historical contexts. Why is it that people are doing these things and how can you account for these sorts of things? And much of that, at least for the kind of work that we do in the humanities, is still mostly literary because we’re still very much in the world of the book.


Alyssa: How do you decide what format to present your work in, book or essay? Does this ever change during the research process?

Dr. Panagia: Constantly. I haven’t really talked to colleagues about this, but I feel like it becomes more and more difficult (at least for me it has become more and more difficult) to be able to write a self-contained essay in the academic format. And I don’t know why. Maybe because how I work and how I develop the methods, this sort of impressionistic method that I have, doesn’t lend itself to the linearity of the literary essay or the containedness. But it’s becoming harder and I’m really trying very hard in my work to go back to writing essays because, as it stands, I’ll start writing something and I’ll realize it’s a book and not an essay because I accidentally talk about this and then I need to talk about that, and you can’t do that in 9,000 words or 10,000 words, which is a standard academic article length. So it’s never settled. What I’ve actually started to do in the past few years, even before COVID, is not write essays, but write talks, which are less onerous and then I start to see whether in this talk there is something contained enough that it can be an essay, or if it’s too general and needs to be something more. The answer to that is, like anything else, you have to experiment with it and see how much you want to do with it. The reality is, you get bored of a topic. All of these questions I’m giving you answers that are totally honest answers, but they all sort of presuppose that the first answer to any of these questions is I have a passion for it and I’m interested in it. I’m curious about it. Otherwise, it’s just the worst thing you can do. This is what I tell undergraduates who want to go to graduate school: you want to go to graduate school? Can you imagine a world in which you do something else and be happy? If the answer to that is yes, then you don’t need to go to grad school because this is a very challenging profession for many reasons. And it’s not that you need to be smart and you need to be lucky. It’s challenging you because we never stop getting evaluated on the level of our intellectual abilities. You guys, as I did as an undergraduate, thought. But if you decide to go to grad school and become a professor, you’re always going to be graded. Every talk is a dissertation defense, every promotion is a career review where you’re being graded on the success of your research project. So, you better have a passion for it because when you encounter the limits of that or the criticisms of that, they are personal. You have to be really committed to the idea or you just have to be a psychopath in the sense that you are committed to the idea not because you are right, because you should accept the fact that you could be wrong, but because the topic, material, dissertation, and field are compelling to you other than work.


Alyssa: Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming publication, “Sentimental Empiricism: Politics, Philosophy, and Criticism in Postwar France”? Did you use any new techniques in terms of researching or writing?

Dr. Panagia: That’s an interesting one because that book started out as a talk and then I realized, oh there’s something going on here. And then, I’ve been working on this, I didn’t realize I was working on this, but this is what is actually going on. So I’ll answer the second part of the question first. To avoid going completely stir-crazy during COVID, I worked on this project. What’s interesting about this project is two things: 1) that I didn’t have access to a library other than a digital library. So it’s the first project that is almost all digital in terms of the research that I was able to gather. A few things I was able to get materially because they weren’t online, but I didn’t go to a library at all and 99.9% of it is done with online materials. I do want to say that that changes the work, right? And for the way that I do the research, it is innovative because it is much more amenable to that kind of network impressionistic approach. You can go over here and then you can go over here and then you can go over here, etc. It works a lot faster that way. So, it’s not that I willingly tried a new technique, but it is very much the case that given the circumstances, this opportunity was possible and even the way that I read on a digital page is different from the way I read on a physical page. A colleague of mine who read an earlier draft of some of the chapters was like, this is a very different type of writing. Well, I wrote it over COVID, so it was in burst, and I was reading mostly in the mode of scanning. I mean some of the things that I talk about are deep kinds of reading, but the other stuff, there is much more scanning and surveying of the digital page than there is of a presence in my other writings. Weirdly, because of the circumstances, and I notice now after my colleague pointed it out to me, there is a kind of stylistic difference from how I [usually do things]. Well, it’s not dramatic, but I can see why they would say that. So the book actually is a book that I didn’t plan to write, but I realized that I wanted to write it once I started working on it as a book because it tells a different story about a particular moment in the postwar period in North America, of the reception of French political theory that was really, really significant. To give you an example, that’s when people started reading Foucault in North America, translated. The reception of it was completely different from what I argue the project of it was as it was being formulated in the period. What I decided to do was actually look at the period in which the people who would be these significant figures, the Foucaults and all the other people that I talk about, when they were being educated themselves and why it is that they would then write the kinds of things that they became famous for and what was their period of intellectual formation. Again, this Humean notion: impressions matter and they stick. So, intellectual formation as a moment of impressions sticking and turning into habits of thinking and so what I realized is that it’s a very different story from the traditional story that we get when we study these authors. Now we read Foucault and assume he has something to say about politics but when I was studying it, Foucault was not a political thinker. He was this weird sort of historian, philosopher, but he had nothing to say about justice or freedom or those sorts of things. And the same for all the other people that I read abou., And it’s really interesting because within the French context, literary practices of reading were state practices. So all of these people that were interested in “what is an author?”, it’s like, no, this is a critique of the state. Political thinkers in North America didn’t see this as a problem, because they don’t understand the relationship between church and state and France in the pre-war and postwar period and so you can’t understand these ideas without that framework. It’s not to say that my way of thinking about it is definitive, but what I do want to say is that we have to sort of rethink how it is that we are understanding these works. Not to get the right answer of what they mean, but to understand the type of political questions they were asking and the types of political interventions they were making. That wasn’t explicitly political, but that was through the selection of certain writings of certain authors in a syllabus. You know, why did they start reading this? Well, it’s quite simple: because they are challenging the authority of the state by introducing new authors.


Alyssa: Do you have any advice for undergraduates conducting their own research in the hopes of publication?

Dr. Panagia: Practice writing. The best way to practice writing is by reading a lot. There is no world in which we don’t learn the things we learn other than through imitation. And just like the scientist practices experiments by reproducing previous experiments to confirm that they are the way that they are, we learn to write well by reading well, which is why I teach reading in my classroom. It’s really hard at a university like UCLA, when you have such large classrooms to teach writing. Because you know, typically, writing in that regard means very close attention and a lot of one-on-one time, which we don’t have available here. There is also a problem of diversity because a lot of students who come to campus haven’t had access to that kind of approach to reading and it’s part of this diversity/education gap. So yes, it exists in STEM, but it also exists in capacity to build competent readers. So that’s why I model close reading.