Thoughts On Theses: Riku Kusumoto

Riku Kusumoto is a political science major. He is writing a political theory thesis on Ernesto Laclau’s work on populism. His thesis advisor is Aliki Perroti and Seth Frank ’55 Professor of International Relations Pavel Machala.

Thoughts On Theses: Riku Kusumoto
Photo courtesy of Ziji Zhou '25.

Q: What is your thesis about?

A: To put it in one word, it’s about populism. If you go into specifics, I follow the thought of one Argentinian political theorist by the name of Ernesto Laclau, who argues against the more commonplace notion of populism as this kind of manipulative leadership — like Trump — model. And he argues that, well, that’s part of it, but he kind of equates it more to politics in general. And he argues that whenever we have politics, we also do have populism. I kind of tried to think with and against him, in the sense that I tried to follow his arguments but also challenge where his arguments are weak, in an attempt to actually reinforce his arguments [and] work out all the complexities that he couldn’t really fully address.

Q: What has the research process been for doing that?

A: It’s a political theory thesis, [so] most of my research is just reading. It’s just reading different texts over and over again, especially for Laclau, who is the main thinker. I probably read all his books twice or three times, to kind of get what he’s really getting at because there’s this issue of people not really understanding where he’s coming from, because he has a very different understanding of politics in general. Yeah, so most of my research has been reading and reading and reading.

Q: How did you get interested in studying Laclau in particular?

A: I’m a transfer student, and when I transferred in, we had a first-year seminar on populism with [Aliki Perroti and Seth Frank ’55] Professor [of International Relations Pavel] Machala, who is my current advisor. And he got me interested in the idea of populism not being the more commonplace thing that we [think of it as], but actually something other than that. And I started digging around and found that Laclau seems to [have] one of the strongest theoretically grounded arguments that is made against that commonplace notion. That’s how I found him and I started reading him and he’s difficult, but also something feels right about him. So I just went deeper and deeper.

Q: What has it been like working with Professor Machala?

A: It’s been great, at least for me. He always tells me that the thesis is my baby and not his. So he is really good at giving me my space to work on the thesis, without overly intervening to shape it in his way. But he’s also really good at asking the critical questions that push my thinking beyond the horizon. He really has the right questions when I’m stuck. We’re in a meeting, I start talking, and I’m like, ‘I just can’t get this part.’ He’s like, ‘What about this?’ And that really opens up a lot of different doors that I couldn’t open by myself. So it’s been a good partnership with him pushing my limits.

Q: On that note, you talked about the research and reading process, but how has the thinking and writing process been for you?

A: It’s been quite bumpy. I don’t know about other departments, but for political science, we have a first draft deadline in the beginning of January, where we try to write as much as possible and we get feedback on those first drafts. I actually was told to pretty much scrap the whole thing at that point. It wasn’t the idea; it was more about the writing and also how I organized my ideas. It was just not there. And both my readers told me to try to really rewrite everything and really rethink what I want to argue. So in that sense, it was bumpy, but I also do think if I hadn’t done that, I probably wouldn’t be where I am right now. By putting everything on paper once, I was able to finally see what I didn’t understand. So, it hasn’t been as smooth as I wished, but it’s been okay.

Q: Has your thesis already been submitted?

A: No, I actually have ten more days. I think it’s due on the 13th.

Q: How has this last stretch been?

A: I still have a chapter to write, which is my first chapter. It’s pretty much a summary of Laclau’s arguments. I already feel like I have enough research done to write it. I’m just hesitating because I have a few more concepts that I really want to grasp before I can go into writing. But once I do that, I think I’m fine. I’m really grateful to have a friend who offered to help me edit on Saturday. I want to get those 15 pages done by Saturday so we can work together. I’ve definitely noticed how my friends have been really essential in the process. They support me in different ways, just by hearing me out, having meals together, editing, reading my work, and giving me general feedback. When you’re writing, you feel like you know everything, but from an outside perspective, it might not make any sense at all. And I think having so many friends who are willing to take part in whatever form they can has been really one of the best feelings.

Q: What are some of the main extensions or variations on Laclau’s argument that you’ve made in your thesis?

A: It’s really one thing that I didn’t fully agree with when I first read it, and that’s kind of what I’m getting at. So he says, for populism, the people have to identify with the leader, which means that the leader is essential for a populist movement. That’s one argument he makes, but he also says that all politics is populism, which is a very bold claim. But the issue there is that, well, there’s politics without leaders. There’s Occupy Wall Street, there are different protest movements throughout the world that don’t really have a leader per se, at least not a figure as prominent as Trump, for example. So that’s kind of where I struggled, or [where] I kind of wanted to make sense [of things]. Laclau relies on Freud to make that argument, so I trace it back to Freud and couldn’t really find any justifications for arguing that leaders are essential. So I kind of conclude that oh, actually maybe it isn’t essential, and maybe it’s a slip of an argument or something. That’s the main thing that I try to deconstruct.

Q: What has been the most rewarding part of the thesis process?

A: There’s a lot of different bits, like the support that I get from my friends — that’s been really rewarding. But if I think about the thesis project itself, it’s probably been how far I’ve come in terms of understanding Laclau. When I read the same book for the third time, I see the little notes that I made the first time (because I like to write in the empty spaces), and I’m usually off point — I’m miles off the point. But that makes me realize how much I’ve come in the process of understanding his arguments, from the first time I read to the second time, to the third time. And that’s just something that you don’t really get with other coursework because you don’t really go back to the text multiple times (except for when you’re writing a paper). It’s just been a rewarding experience to work with Laclau for pretty much a year and evaluate his discussion and feel like I understood, to a certain degree, his arguments.

Q: What have you learned from some of the challenges or setbacks that you’ve had in doing your thesis?

A: I think one of the biggest things that I learned is how to accept criticisms in a very constructive way. By that, I mean you have to really separate or be very clear about what they are criticizing. So for example, I got my first draft pretty much rejected, but when I was listening to their feedback, I noticed — and this was something that [William H. Hastie ’25] Professor [of Political Science Thomas] Dumm, who was my second reader, did really well. He really separated my ability, my understanding from the paper itself, and he really criticized the paper, but he didn’t attack me as a human being or my abilities or anything like that. It was hard to accept [at first], but when I finally was able to separate those two, it gave me another bit of motivation to actually work on it again, because it felt like he didn’t really criticize my ability — it was just how the paper was written. So if I work [on it] again, I’ll probably be able to do better. So I guess in short, it would be learn[ing] how to internalize criticism in a very constructive way.

Q: And is the thesis you’re doing related to your future career goals?

A: Yeah, it is. So it was back in February last year that I decided to do a thesis, but that was also when I decided to go to grad school to do political theory. So it was definitely intertwined at the beginning, and through the process, the ebbs and flows kind of correspond with my desire to go to grad school. When I feel like I’m doing good, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I should really go to grad school and do more of this.’ And then when I get stuck, I’m like, ‘Why am I even doing this, I should probably just not go to grad school because I’m probably not capable of doing it.’ But in the end, even though I feel like I’ve gotten better at understanding Laclau, understanding populism, and all that stuff, there’s so much more that I still don’t understand and I want to know. So that definitely makes me want to go to grad school — or made me want to go to grad school, because I’m actually going to go to grad school at the University of Essex, which is where Laclau used to teach, and a lot of his former students are now teaching. So I’m kind of diving into the cradle.

Q: What is something you would tell students who are considering doing a thesis in the future?

A: It really depends on which phase you are at. If you’re either a first year or sophomore, earlier in your college experience, I’d say, (a) be open about what you’re interested in, (b) try to read whatever that interests you to just get some foundational knowledge on the topic, and (c) connect with professors early on. They’re obviously the best resource that you have, so it’s good to know them at a personal level so that you know whether you can work with him or her or them in a productive way — and also, it’s always a better experience when you know the professor better.

If you’re talking about sophomores (because some people are already committed to writing a thesis), I have two things to say. One is that you can always stop, like the school allows you to stop and you don’t have to continue if you don’t feel like you want to. I think that’s one thing that’s not been emphasized enough. I think people shouldn’t feel lesser just because they didn’t finish — it is just what it is. And that also means that if somebody might want to do it, they should try because they can always stop. The second thing is — and it’s kind of related, but it’s not to strive for perfection. The thing is, famous philosophers, scholars, whatever — like Foucault, for example — they’re not at their current position because they’re perfect. It’s not that there’s nothing to be criticized in their work. It’s the fact that they found something groundbreaking or they shed light on something new that is worthy of attention — because there’s numerous people who criticize Foucault on whatever aspect they think that they don’t agree with. So the same thing applies for senior theses. It’s not really about making the perfect holeless argument. That’s good, but it’s more about trying to find what is interesting to you, and what will be interesting for other people to know. And that’s the more important thing for me, at least, in a thesis project.