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The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons

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Abused dogs, prisoners tortured in Guant�namo and supermax facilities, or slaves killed by the state--all are deprived of personhood through legal acts. Such deprivations have recurred throughout history, and the law sustains these terrors and banishments even as it upholds the civil order. Examining such troubling cases, The Law Is a White Dog tackles key societal questio Abused dogs, prisoners tortured in Guant�namo and supermax facilities, or slaves killed by the state--all are deprived of personhood through legal acts. Such deprivations have recurred throughout history, and the law sustains these terrors and banishments even as it upholds the civil order. Examining such troubling cases, The Law Is a White Dog tackles key societal questions: How does the law construct our identities? How do its rules and sanctions make or unmake persons? And how do the supposedly rational claims of the law define marginal entities, both natural and supernatural, including ghosts, dogs, slaves, terrorist suspects, and felons? Reading the language, allusions, and symbols of legal discourse, and bridging distinctions between the human and nonhuman, Colin Dayan looks at how the law disfigures individuals and animals, and how slavery, punishment, and torture create unforeseen effects in our daily lives. Moving seamlessly across genres and disciplines, Dayan considers legal practices and spiritual beliefs from medieval England, the North American colonies, and the Caribbean that have survived in our legal discourse, and she explores the civil deaths of felons and slaves through lawful repression. Tracing the legacy of slavery in the United States in the structures of the contemporary American prison system and in the administrative detention of ghostly supermax facilities, she also demonstrates how contemporary jurisprudence regarding cruel and unusual punishment prepared the way for abuses in Abu Ghraib and Guant�namo. Using conventional historical and legal sources to answer unconventional questions, The Law Is a White Dog illuminates stark truths about civil society's ability to marginalize, exclude, and dehumanize.


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Abused dogs, prisoners tortured in Guant�namo and supermax facilities, or slaves killed by the state--all are deprived of personhood through legal acts. Such deprivations have recurred throughout history, and the law sustains these terrors and banishments even as it upholds the civil order. Examining such troubling cases, The Law Is a White Dog tackles key societal questio Abused dogs, prisoners tortured in Guant�namo and supermax facilities, or slaves killed by the state--all are deprived of personhood through legal acts. Such deprivations have recurred throughout history, and the law sustains these terrors and banishments even as it upholds the civil order. Examining such troubling cases, The Law Is a White Dog tackles key societal questions: How does the law construct our identities? How do its rules and sanctions make or unmake persons? And how do the supposedly rational claims of the law define marginal entities, both natural and supernatural, including ghosts, dogs, slaves, terrorist suspects, and felons? Reading the language, allusions, and symbols of legal discourse, and bridging distinctions between the human and nonhuman, Colin Dayan looks at how the law disfigures individuals and animals, and how slavery, punishment, and torture create unforeseen effects in our daily lives. Moving seamlessly across genres and disciplines, Dayan considers legal practices and spiritual beliefs from medieval England, the North American colonies, and the Caribbean that have survived in our legal discourse, and she explores the civil deaths of felons and slaves through lawful repression. Tracing the legacy of slavery in the United States in the structures of the contemporary American prison system and in the administrative detention of ghostly supermax facilities, she also demonstrates how contemporary jurisprudence regarding cruel and unusual punishment prepared the way for abuses in Abu Ghraib and Guant�namo. Using conventional historical and legal sources to answer unconventional questions, The Law Is a White Dog illuminates stark truths about civil society's ability to marginalize, exclude, and dehumanize.

30 review for The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons

  1. 5 out of 5

    Annie

    This book was a bitch to find. I tried to find it in the Boston library system, Cleveland library system, and the Denver system, in any format, without success. I felt foolish when I found out it was available for free online— if anyone else is struggling, here’s the link: https://muse.jhu.edu/book/36622. The book starts off with a description of the very first case I read in law school: the Ackley house, where a judge reversed the sale of a home, on the grounds that the owner of a home, Ms. Ack This book was a bitch to find. I tried to find it in the Boston library system, Cleveland library system, and the Denver system, in any format, without success. I felt foolish when I found out it was available for free online— if anyone else is struggling, here’s the link: https://muse.jhu.edu/book/36622. The book starts off with a description of the very first case I read in law school: the Ackley house, where a judge reversed the sale of a home, on the grounds that the owner of a home, Ms. Ackley, was legally obligated to advise the buyers prior to sale that the house was, to her knowledge, haunted by Revolutionary War ghosts. The author tells this story to highlight how absurd the law can be sometimes—stripping people of their personhood (e.g. slaves, immigrants, Guantanamo detainees, people convicted of crimes) or granting personhood to things which are decidedly not people (corporations, dead people, fetuses) whose rights can outweigh those of actual people. The author’s overall point is that the law clings to tradition and to precedent to such an extent that it renders law practically meaningless. “The word-magic of legal fiction remains a false assertion of the privileged kind, made by those in power to wield ambiguous, even spectacular effects.” I especially liked the chapter on prisoners and the author’s incredulity with the legal contortions that allow prison wardens to, for example, deprive prisoners of other humans (solitary confinement) for years at a time; to take away their art and hang it up to showcase their prison but not allow the prisoners to keep anything they make because “anything they produce is the property of the prison”; to refuse to allow them to practice their religion merely because it inconveniences the prison; and to refuse to allow them to read virtually anything but the most narrow of materials, forbidding even newspapers of all kinds. Interestingly, the author compares the dehumanization of inmates to the devaluation of dogs, both of whom, in a lot of ways, share the same rights or lack thereof: stripped of rights like their bodily freedom, speech, and religion, inmates scarcely hold more rights than dogs do. The “legal value” of both dogs and inmates is often defined by their value to others, rather than their intrinsic value—prisoners are defined only by the harm they have done to others, and in legal cases where someone kills a pet dog, “the dead dog exists only insofar as it elicits human feeling.” Plus, the author points out, because of this dehumanization, “no country kills more dogs or imprisons more people than the United States.” The law, the author argues, has become a kind of sorcery, akin to the rationalizations of Cotton Mather in the witchcraft trials. If the law has the ability to kill (in the form of “civil death,” or stripping of personhood— i.e. as of convicted felons) and resurrect, what does that mean about the literal and figurative body of the average citizen? Is it always a plaything, or property, of the law? Alive, or possessing personhood, only because law gave it to them? Do they not have the right to be legally, socially, civilly, and literally alive, intrinsically? The title is a reference to the author’s childhood in Atlanta, citing this poem: The law was angry The law was rabid It came upon you in the night The patrolers Seeking you out They always came with a white dog They were white dogs With their white cone hoods And their white capes Ghosts in the night The law is still a white dog, the author tells us. It’s ferocious and irrational and it’s coming for your legal personhood, so God help you if you ever find yourself in one of the many categories of people who are stripped of their legal identity.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Zeke Smith

    A "white dog" was a dog trained to attack any black person. This book is original and amazing. Exposes a lot about the racial foundations of mass incarceration and police brutality in the U.S., the prison house of nations. A "white dog" was a dog trained to attack any black person. This book is original and amazing. Exposes a lot about the racial foundations of mass incarceration and police brutality in the U.S., the prison house of nations.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen O'Neal

    This rather strange book is written at the intersection of literature and law. While the topic is interesting, I could have done with less metaphor and more coherent argumentation. Nonetheless an interesting if very disturbing read.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Humphrey

    On one hand, this book provides interesting riffs on a very real theme, with some provoking claims. On the other, its argumentation is sloppy and its references are fast-and-loose. If The Law is a White Dog inspires, it is in spite of its dubious scholarship, not because of it.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Nat

    Dayan doesn't write, she conjures. Stunning book. Dayan doesn't write, she conjures. Stunning book.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Mills College Library

    346.73012 D2755 2011

  7. 5 out of 5

    Amanda Hobson, Ph.D.

    Dayan's writing is both esoteric and completely compelling. This text is an excellent mix of metaphor, law, literature, and metaphysics. Dayan's writing is both esoteric and completely compelling. This text is an excellent mix of metaphor, law, literature, and metaphysics.

  8. 4 out of 5

    !Tæmbuŝu

    KOBOBOOKS KOBOBOOKS

  9. 4 out of 5

    Matt

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jaron Bentley

  11. 4 out of 5

    Elaine

  12. 5 out of 5

    Gabe

  13. 5 out of 5

    Sebastian Torero

  14. 4 out of 5

    Tonia

  15. 4 out of 5

    Rachel Broughton

  16. 5 out of 5

    T.M.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Lil

  18. 4 out of 5

    Ambria

  19. 4 out of 5

    Tom

  20. 5 out of 5

    Hamja

  21. 4 out of 5

    Reem

  22. 5 out of 5

    Clara

  23. 4 out of 5

    Kate

  24. 4 out of 5

    Destiny Guerrero

  25. 4 out of 5

    Margot

  26. 5 out of 5

    Jordan

  27. 5 out of 5

    Raquel

  28. 5 out of 5

    Cal Louise

  29. 5 out of 5

    Rook

  30. 4 out of 5

    Alex

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