Politics Faculty

Vanita Seth
  • Title
    • Associate Professor
  • Division Social Sciences Division
  • Department
    • Politics Department
  • Affiliations History of Consciousness Department, Feminist Studies Department, South Asia Studies, Critical Race and Ethnic Studies
  • Phone
  • Email
  • Fax
  • Office Location
    • 119 Merrill College
  • Mail Stop Merrill/Crown Faculty Services

Summary of Expertise


Bodies in History (Politics 204)

Over the last twenty-five years there has been a considerable scholarship produced on the subject of the body. This course aims to engage at least some of that literature but to do so within an historical context. From western antiquity until the modern the body has been aestheticized, vilified, eroticized and pathologized. The overarching question of this course is: in what ways, historically, has the body been a site for larger social, political and cultural anxieties and desires? Through an engagement with literatures across a number a disciplines, this course explores the history of nudity as an aesthetic, the idea of sacrifice and renunciation in medieval religion, the correlation between the body and the carnivalesque, the metaphoric and literal conception of the body politic, the myriad forms of embodied knowledge, the historical productions of gendered, racialized and sexualized bodies, and the meaning of life and death. If the primary focus of this course is western history, a core objective is also to trouble our a priori cultural presumptions regarding the body. Readings on Chinese history suggest the absence of the nude as an aesthetic sensibility, scholars of medieval Japan have argued that the erotic need not map over corporeality, radically different medical traditions speak to radically distinct epistemologies and the racialization of the body finds expression through the logics of the grotesque, hygiene, pathology and colonial administration. Through an engagement with literary criticism, political theory, anthropology, gender studies, art history, history of science and religious studies, Bodies in History employs western understandings of the body to engage a variety of concerns including that of identity, individuality, gender, sexuality, religion, power, aesthetics, scientific knowledge and colonialism.

The Making of the Modern (Politics 203)

While it is common place to speak of the modern and modernity, what actually constitutes the modern, what distinguishes "us" from the pre-modern and what is presupposed (of the pre-modern) in such a distinction, are more complex and nuance issues than the frequent evocation of such words would lead us to believe. The purpose of this course is to introduce, at a graduate level, some of the central conceptual categories and material implications that underwrite the world of the modern. Concepts such as the individual, historicism, contract, objectivity (to name only a few), are today truths that we take as uncontested givens that shape our language, influence our thought, define our material world and inform our sense of ethics. This subject seeks to give these a priori truths a history, a history that shaped, and was shaped by, modernity. Yet the validity of the historical distinction that demarcates the modern from the pre-modern will not be taken for granted. At the same time as we engage with the constituent features of modernity, we will also be interrogating the legitimacy of such historical distinctions in the first instance (for e.g. what are the political imperatives and implications in designating much of the ëthird worldí as pre-modern?). This latter discussion will draw from, among other fields, contemporary debates in postcolonial theory. Consequently, the ultimate objective of this course is to both interrogate our understanding of what constitutes the modern but also to contextualize some of the presuppositions that underlie such categorization. In so doing students will be introduced to a broad range of interdisciplinary material including political theory, history, literature, history and philosophy of science, anthropology and feminist scholarship.

Race. (Politics 208)
Despite a growing consensus that racial difference is historically constituted and not a biological given, few would deny that race and racism continue to exist within the popular imagination, political discourse, policy decision making, legal codes and scientific research today. This course comes at the subject of race and racism from multiple disciplinary and thematic perspectives. Among other topics we consider the ‘origins’ debate (when did race emerge as a marker of human difference?), the biological articulation of racial difference in the nineteenth century, genetics and race in the twentieth and twenty-first century, the racialization of slavery and the nature/culture divide. In short, this graduate course considers the subject of race and racism from a historical and theoretical perspective appealing to literatures from history, anthropology, science and literary studies.

Research Interests

Vanita Seth is a wide-ranging political theorist whose work engages early modern European thought, feminist, postcolonial and postmodernist theory, histories of racial discourse, histories of modernity and histories of the body. Seth's current book project, tentatively titled Tailoring Individuality, traces the history of a particularly modern form of selfhood: the individual. Seth's research explores the possibility that individuality derives its meaning through its constitutive parts, through the collective assemblage of a wide array of characteristics (interiority, uniqueness, authenticity, originality, rationality, judicial culpability and corporal fixity) that have their own peculiar, inter- related and at times, discrete histories. Seth assess these histories through specific thematic sites: the signature, the face as a literary trope, the emergence of statistics, the correlation between copyright laws and discourses of originality, the emergence, in western art, of portraitures and perspective and the gradual distinction between western individuals and non-western "races," "tribes," "religions," "clans," and "castes."

Seth's first book, Europe's Indians: Producing Racial Difference, 1500–1900 (Duke University Press, 2010), forces a rethinking of key assumptions regarding difference---particularly racial difference---and its centrality to contemporary social and political theory. Tracing shifts in European representations of two different colonial spaces, the New World and India, from the late fifteenth century through the late nineteenth, Europe's Indians demonstrates that the classification of humans into racial categories or binaries of self-other is a product of modernity. Part historical, part philosophical, and part a history of science, this works seeks to expose the epistemic conditions that enabled the thinking of difference at distinct historical junctures. Through a study of Renaissance, Classical Age, and nineteenth-century representations of difference radically diverging forms of knowing, reasoning, organizing thought, and authorizing truth come into sharp relief. Europe's Indians encompasses stories of monsters, new worlds, and ancient lands; the theories of individual agency expounded by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau; and the physiological sciences of the nineteenth century. European knowledge, Seth argues, does not reflect a singular history of Reason, but rather multiple traditions of reasoning, of historically bounded and contingent forms of knowledge. Europe's Indians shows that a history of colonialism and racism must also be an investigation into the historical production of subjectivity, agency, epistemology, and the body.

Seth serves on the Advisory Board of the Center for Cultural Studies at UC Santa Cruz. She is also an editor of the journal Postcolonial Studies.So

Biography, Education and Training

Ph.D., Political Science, University of Melbourne, 2003
B.A., Government, University of Sydney, 1993

Selected Publications

  • Europe's Indians: Producing Racial Difference, 1500–1900. Duke University Press, 2010.
  • "Men Completely Wild in Appearance and Way of Life," in When Worlds Elide, eds. Karen Bassi and J. Peter Euben. Rowman and Littlefield, 2010. [Get Chapter]
  • "From Man to Men to Missing Links" in Social Identities, 15.6 (2009): 831-849
  • "Learning from Cyprus" (Editor's Introduction), in Postcolonial Studies 3:9 (2008)
  • "Tyranny of Race" (Review Essay) Thesis 11 vol. 79 (2004)
  • "Difference with a Difference: Wild Men, Gods and Other Protagonists" in Parallax 9.4 (2003): 75-87.
  • "Self and Similitude: Translating Difference (Modern Colonialism and Renaissance Conquests)," Postcolonial Studies Journal 4.3 (2001): 297-309. [Get Article]
  • Book Reviews
  • Review of Social and Political Philosophy - a Contemporary Introduction (by John Christman) in the Australian Political Science Journal 39.3 (2004): 583-584
  • "On Authenticity and the Closet" Review of Feminism, the Family, and the Politics of the Closet. Lesbian and Gay Displacement (by Cheshire Calhoun) and Beyond the Closet. The Transformation of Gay and Lesbian Life (by Steven Seidman) in Lesbian and Gay Studies Newsletter 30.1-2 (2004): 9-12.
  • Review of On Post-colonial Futures (by Bill Ashcroft) in Change, Peace and Security, 15.1 (2003): 89-91.