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The Law Is a White DogReview - The Law Is a White Dog
How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons
by Colin Dayan
Princeton University Press, 2011
Review by Shelly Marshall, B.S., CSAC
Apr 27th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 17)

Since our country is a representative republic based on the rule of law, the study and comprehension of the law is paramount to understanding our society. In her book, The Law is a White Dog, Colin Dayan, the Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University, has attempted to bring us the legal and historical sources as to society's reasons for legally dehumanizing slaves and prisoners. The book is weighty, dark, and cumbersome but none-the-less explores intriguing legal areas you probably have not ventured in before.

It is more like a work of fiction to begin a book with tales of haunted houses, yet Chapter One of this decidedly non-fiction book does just that in, "Holy Dogs, Hecuba's Bark." Apparently a woman, Helen Ackley sold a haunted house to an "unwitting purchaser" and when they demanded their money back, it became a case for the courts. Ackley had enjoyed a good relationship with the ghosts for many years but did not find it necessary to disclose this to the new owners. Once in court the judge in Stambovsky v. Ackley (1991) ruled in favor of the buyers and determined, "{A}s a matter of law, the house is haunted." So although many might question the reality of spirits, legally they exist.

Chapter One introduces the topic of "civil death" whereby felons, monks, and nuns although alive in body are "dead in law." The legality of possessed persons and their wills were examined and the analogy of Hecuba, the shape-shifter which the author uses as the metaphor for the "shape-shifting and undoing of status that are the focus of the this book." A disjointed history of Greek mythology follows interspersed with dialogs on zombies as unnatural persons which leads the reader into a story from Leviticus and burnt offerings for cleansing and purification. Not many readers will be able to follow the line of reasoning from spiritual lepers to the dogs of Katrina, and jumping immediately to "prisoners warehoused indefinitely; disappeared ghost-detainees tortured and held incommunicado in prolonged detention; sick cows kicked and prodded in slaughter--the rationales and rituals of terror proliferate."

Yeah. And it gets better.

There is a decided bias to love the perpetrator and villainize the enforcer of civil law to the point of ridiculousness throughout the following chapters. When speaking of prisoners of war or prisoners of maximum security Dayan uses words such as "brutal, nightmarish, unendurable suffering, and systematic debasement." When describing how the officers in charge of one facility used force feeding to keep prisoners on a hunger strike alive--instead of heralding the personnel for saving the lives of these guys, she writes that the "process involves excruciating pain, bleeding and vomiting."  Nothing done to save lives, capture terrorists, honor religious preferences, punish criminality, and keep populations safe from the bad guys escapes her scorn. In this book, all the good guys wearing white hats exchange their white hats for the black of the perpetrators. Poor poor terrorists.

Chapter Two, "Civil Death," opens with the metamorphosis of the white dog. It is a myth in Haiti about an oungan (priest) who may steal the spirit of a dead person and trap them in the body of a dog with white skin. This Haitian myth is the launching pad for her "sorcery of the law" and discussion of our legal culture. Indeed, Dayan tells the reader that she wants to explore with them how the law materializes dispossession. She explains that the civil body of law is analogous to the spirit of a dead person trapped in the white skin of that dang dog. The author's commentary continues with mental images of civil death, enslavement, negative person-hood, social death, civil ghosts, and legal ambiguity.

Did you know that that the word "corruption" can best be understood by reverting to a dictionary of 1770--the Universal Etymological English Dictionary? Once defined in context, the reader gets a cheerless history lesson on the "corruptions of blood" and how slavery in the western world once declared persons "civilly dead" if their blood were so corrupted by Negroes. Of note were the 128 graduations of color from absolute black to the absolute white in Francis's legal classifications of ancestry. The classifications were a symphony in an artist's palette of colors such as metis, marabou, griffonne, sacatra, sambo, mulatto, mustee, octoroon, quadrons, etc.

The chapter explores the 13th amendment to the constitution and reveals a loop hole which allowed convicted criminals to have "involuntary servitude"--ie chain gangs. Dayan calls this a loophole for slavery. The chapter ends talking about when the felon dies in the spirit, before the body dies, the soul is killed. She laments the diminishing dignity of incarceration. This author is not a defender of the law's authority.

In Chapter Three, "Punishing the Residue,"  she shows an absolute bias for the reprehensible by speaking of the "so-called civilized world that sponsors execution, indefinite solitary confinement, excessive force and psychological torture" and calls criminals "disfigured personhoods" as if society in protecting itself is perverse while criminals apparently are victims. Dayan does not use the term "victim," preferring instead to paint pictures of the brutality of justice when society attempts to force a person to pay for their crimes.

Dayan's sympathies fall so blatantly to the "victims" of society and her analysis of what the law has done to strip them of their lives, becoming "dead-in-law," that it becomes laughable when she describes incarceration as so horrendous as to "unremitting monotony, indirect light, the cement walls are not painted." Horrors, the reader might say to themselves.  She believes that punishment should not mean to punish, apparently. The glaring hole in this tale of woe is the lack of an alternative for dealing with criminals and leaving their dignity intact, as the author wants. She does point out that neither slaves or prisoners are defined or covered in the constitution, thus not protected. She does go on to excoriate the supreme court for their "allowable suffering paradigm," that resulted from Justice Rehnquist's opinion in Bell V. Wolfish (1979).

The reader learns that originally a slave could be a "person in law" if he committed a crime but was "property" at other times. This is part of our history covered in Dayan's work that elevates it to something worth reading, albeit just barely.

Even the title of Chapter Four illustrates her propensity for obfuscation. It is titled "Taxonomies." What is "taxonomies" you ask? A word meaning to compartmentalize. Although I enjoy a challenge in learning new words and ideas, this work taxes even me. The first three pages are devoted to the visions and fantasies of "Israel Potter," a Melville novel. In this we get the metaphor of the steer with a white face and we are told it "makes us think uneasily of whites in black face." All I could think of was why did it take three whole pages to make this point? A point that I could not tie to the rest of "Taxonomies."

We then get a long rambling treatise about Edward Long who wrote the "History of Jamaica" (1774) who debased blacks and compared them to orangutans. It took 4 pages to say he justified slavery in his work. Dayan then continues with Locke's essay on consciousness and how person-hood is dependent on consciousness and not the physical body per se. We get back to the history of Jamaica. Thirteen pages into the chapter, it remains vague as to what "Taxonomies" wants the reader to understand.

What establishes the law here is not the appropriateness of the relation between animals and slaves, but a wayward merging that keeps both intact and before us: the body of the cow, horse, or mare and the body of the slave. Those who are treated as property cannot have property, let alone trade it, make judgments about its life and death, or its reproduction.

Thus slaves were "things" and "property" but under the law could commit crimes for which their masters were not held accountable because they were also "thinking agents." This was one of the rare gem points that made this work somewhat redeemable.

Chapter Five," A Legal Ethnography" (another of those words I was forced to look up), the author discusses case law where the law began to be suspect (at least in her opinion) and not objective. She explains how cruelty resides in the law itself. A history of slave law is reviewed and analyzed.

In Chapter Six, "Who Gets to Be Wanton?' (--at last, I don't have to look the word up. I know what "wanton" means, don't I? Rats--I better look it up. "Unprovoked." OK. Got it.) Again we are treated to an interesting story. This is about Tatiana, the Siberian tiger that escaped from a Zoo and killed 17 year old Carlos Sousa in 2007. The tiger is said to have been taunted by  three teens and Dayan asks, "Who were the savages--teens or tiger?" She briefly discusses animals in med-evil trials who were tried for their crimes (such as eating children, biting, goring). From mid-evil religiosity we morphed to the eighth amendment and we are told this is the only provision in the Bill of Rights that applies to prisoners.

At this point Dayan decides to tell us what wanton means. Yeah! Although "unprovoked," is a part of the definition, it seems that only those in power, guards, are capable of it! So according to our author the criminals cannot do anything wantonly--only the guards. (Note to reader, Dayan and I are apparently not using the same dictionaries.)

She defines and redefines torture and what entails torture, accusing the Bush administration of being complicit. Dayan called Bush "wanton in the sense of 'insolent' or 'reckless' of justice and humanity."

In Chapter Seven, "Skin of the Dog," we go over Hurricane Katrina and the dogs and people left behind. It was an allegory for how humans are dehumanized and she writes, "I returned to the history of criminal and civil law in order to extend the fate of Katrina dogs--and their owners' loss--to larger questions of judicial interpretation and its consequences. Actions against or unconcern with dogs are related to the giving or withholding of legal personality form human animals."

In summary, Dayan's metaphors are so complicated that one wonders why she stretches the comparisons at all. For instance, "blood and property" become a metaphor for defining persons in civil society. How we treat dogs becomes a metaphor for how we dehumanize people. She tries hard to find conceptual frameworks as a way of illustrating the law and it becomes so contorted that one's framework collapses before understanding what she is getting at. Dayan believes the bad guys are always picked on and the good guys are the bad guys, if we see it through her eyes. In this work, coherence is fleeting, words burdened with unfamiliarity and combined in unwieldy sentences that make a comprehensive reading almost impossible. It feels as if one is trying to decipher old English and has to painfully recognize each spelling, process the words, and then combine it with the rest of the words before forgetting the point. Although peppered throughout with interesting tidbits of case law, Greek and other mythologies, and supernatural analogies--the book is a wanton, taxonomic, ethnographic analysis on how the law can make and unmake people.

© 2012 Shelly Marshall


Shelly Marshall, B.S., CSAC is an Adolescent Chemical Dependency Specialist and Researcher.


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Metapsychology Online Reviews
ISSN 1931-5716