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

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

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

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


Abused dogs, prisoners tortured in Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo.

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.


This is a book about extraneous persons. Subordinated and expelled from society, they take on new shapes: humans, things, dogs, and spirits that are brought together under the umbrella of legal history. Their transformations prompt us to think about what it means to be considered in terms of law. I offer some broad perspectives on metamorphosis, invoking only some of the manifold ways that law dwells on, messes with, and consumes persons. It is through law that persons, variously figured, gain or lose definition, become victims of prejudice or inheritors of privilege. And once outside the valuable discriminations of personhood, their claims become inconsequential.

Law is the protagonist of this plot. The social, economic, and even spiritual practices of remote times persist in legal forms and pronouncements. My treatment of ghostly properties and human and nonhuman animal materials appeals for an understanding of legal reality, lively, ever-present, and reimagined by those outside the guild of lawyers. I see my task as unearthing what Sir Frederick Maitland described as the “dry bones” of law and giving them life in unexpected places. For some readers, it will seem that I make legal effects revel in what is least akin to judicial activities and the operations of law. But the generous reader will, I reckon, follow me on the journey through a series of haunts, sites that recapitulate, if fitfully, the transmutations that are so much a part of legal history.

I seek to know what happens to conventional historical and legal sources when they are pressed to answer unconventional . . .

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