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

By Colin Dayan | Go to book overview

2
CIVIL DEATH

The prejudice with respect to specters, therefore,
originates from nature; and such appearances
depend not, as philosophers have supposed,
solely upon the imagination.

—George-Louis Leclerc, Compte de Buffon, Histoire
naturelle, générale et particulière
(1749–78)


GHOSTS OF LAW

IN PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI, I HEARD A STORY ABOUT A WHITE DOG. Reclaimed by an oungan—a priest who “deals with both hands,” practicing “bad” magic—a ghost dog comes to life. Starving, its eyes wild, it appears late at night. A Haitian friend called it “the dog without skin.” To have white skin was to have no skin at all. But this creature was not really a dog. When a person died, the spirit, stolen by the oungan, awakened from what had seemed sure death into a new existence in canine disguise. We all agreed that no spirit formerly in a human habitation would want to end up reborn in the skin of a dog. Being turned into a dog was bad enough, but to end up losing its natural color, to turn white, was worse. In this metamorphosis, the old skin of the dead person, like the skin discarded by a snake, is left behind. But the person’s spirit remains immured in this coarse envelope, locked in the form of a dog.

I tell this story, a tale of what some call the “supernatural,” to extend my discussion of the sorcery of law. What the modern

-39-

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

Table of contents

  • Title Page ii
  • Contents ix
  • Preface xi
  • 1 - Holy Dogs, Hecuba’s Bark 1
  • 2 - Civil Death 39
  • 3 - Punishing the Residue 71
  • 4 - Taxonomies 113
  • 5 - A Legal Ethnography 138
  • 6 - Who Gets to Be Wanton? 177
  • 7 - Skin of the Dog 209
  • Acknowledgments 253
  • Notes 259
  • Bibliography 303
  • Index 325
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