Dogs, Prisoners, and Persons

An interview with author Colin Dayan about marginalized and dehumanized beings.

Posted Nov 06, 2018

"Abused dogs, prisoners tortured in Guantánamo and supermax facilities, or slaves killed by the state--all are deprived of personhood through legal acts."

"Even a dog knows the difference between being kicked and being stumbled over.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes)

I recently learned of an extremely insightful and I hope game-changing book by Vanderbilt University's Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities Dr. Colin Dayan titled The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons. Having been keenly interested in the lives of dogs, prisoners, and the notion of legal personhood for many years, I began reading it and couldn't put it down. The book's description is right on the mark when it states, "Abused dogs, prisoners tortured in Guantánamo and supermax facilities, or slaves killed by the state--all are deprived of personhood through legal acts...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? 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."

Colin Dayan
Cover of The Law is a White Dog
Source: Colin Dayan

Having been familiar with Dr. Dayan's book called With Dogs at the Edge of Life, I wanted to know more about her previous book, so I asked if she could answer a few questions. Gladly, she said she could. Our interview went as follows: 

Why did you write The Law is a White Dog and then With Dogs at the Edge of Life? Does your latest book draw on the earlier book and how -- what are some of the common themes and how are they different?

"Only with dogs before us and beside us can we understand the making or unmaking of the idea of persons." (The Law is a White Dog, Page 209)

Your first question is the most crucial, since The Law is a White Dog was originally called Held in the Body of the State. It was envisioned as fieldwork of the years I spent visiting, talking with prisoners, and interviewing wardens in the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence, Arizona—especially the work done in the “Death House” and “Special Management Unit." But by the time I sat down to write about cruel and unusual punishment and the legal terrors I had observed—all made possible by the Rehnquist Court--I had a home filled with three dogs. They changed my life. 

No longer could I write simply about personhood. Instead, I began to trace a form of ethics that moves beyond depersonalization and the anthropocentric worldview that supports it. Held in the Body of the State became The Law is a White Dog. And by the time I wrote the last section, “Skin of the Dog,” I realized that what mattered most in my analyses of dispossession and outlawry is the non-human, the animals whose eyes, flesh, and sinews lift us up and through the destruction we humans have wrought against life, vegetable and mammalian, everywhere.

I then wrote With Dogs at the Edge of Life—the most passionate work I’d ever done—inspired by Stella, my American Staffordshire Terrier. Writing about the rampant persecution and profiling of pit bulls, I hoped to show how prejudice works across the human/ non-human divide. I asked: What does conscience look like at the boundaries of humanity, at the edge of a cherished humanism? Summoning a remote and uncertain reservoir on which all creatures might draw but from which most humans have learned to cut themselves off completely, I called for the kind of entanglement that takes the attentiveness of dogs as a model.  I sought to stage encounters with what we call “animality,” but which inspires a mode of sentience that has everything to do with perception, unleashing another kind of intelligence beyond the world of the human.

Having taught a course on animal behavior and conservation for more than 17 years to inmates at the Boulder County Jail, I was taken in by your own extensive experience teaching prisoners. I'm fascinated by the connections you draw between how dogs, slaves, prisoners, and other marginalized groups of people are treated in the legal system in the United States. Can you please tell readers how you came to realize these connections and why you think it is essential that they are recognized and used to reform our views of dogs (and other animals) and legally marginalized humans?

I was working in and writing about the Arizona State Prison when I learned that they sometimes used dogs to punish inmates. I never witnessed these punishments, but I heard about them from prisoners, who called them “dog frights”—a play on dogfights.  It wasn’t that prisoners feared dogs, but they feared what was done to dogs in order to turn them into the enemies of the incarcerated—and, of course, they knew that in a confined space they were cast as the caged and the dogs were let loose to carry out a victimization that was intended by humans in control of both species of captives. I began to think about the natural alliance of both dogs and these men and how one of the most awful practices I ever heard about was the perversion of that vital connection.  It’s amazing to witness what wonderful trainers and handlers prisoners become when allowed to train and abide with dogs, so this practice seemed especially cruel.

The one-on-one lamination of the pit bull onto the African American male strikes me as one of the most powerful instances of reciprocity between dog and human.  I first thought that we needed a new ethics, based on a question:  What does it mean to live, to write in a political climate that is acquiescent in multiple genocides? This led me to reconsider the rationality of a racism that depends for its force on the conceptual power of the superfluous, the disposable. 

What concerns me most, however, is the way in which stigma can be produced, a blight on a person so strong that he or she can lose all rights that the state deems necessary.  There are certain kinds of humans, I argue, who are threatened by law enforcement in league with humane beneficence: the poor, whether white or black whose dogs are perceived as weapons, not pets.  This discrimination, as we have seen in the recent police attacks on peaceful protestors throughout the United States, once set in motion, can be easily applied to people we do not yet consider outside the pale of empathy, those very much part of a liberal, right-thinking community. State violence begins with those all-too-easily marked as disposable, not worth considering.  They are the first targets, and their dogs are the first to be rendered noxious, forfeited without redress to the illusion of public safety.

Can you please tell readers why and how you use the word "ghosts" when you write about dogs and dehumanized humans?

“Ghosts” are crucial in all my work, from the early Haiti book to my most recent memoir, In the Belly of Her Ghost (forthcoming in March).  I have always tried to bridge the dichotomy between sacred and profane, spiritual and material, ghostly and corporeal.  In other words, I want to show how we might work from the interstices, in between categories usually kept separate: especially that between human and non-human animals, but also between the center and periphery.

There is a lot of interest in revising existing laws to change the status of nonhuman animals (animals) from being mere property to enjoying the privileges of being recognized as "persons." How does the notion of "legal personhood" enter into the discussions in your books?

"It is in the treatment of dogs that we see how easily a disquisition on personhood -- individual qualities and propensities -- and even the consideration of status can not only sustain prejudicial harm but lead to an order of extermination." (The Law is a White Dog, Page 247)

In turning away from standard liberal approaches to human and non-human relations—such as animal rights or animal welfare, I ask for an alternative, more risky and bracing way of being in the world, indeed, another way of thinking--and of loving.  In all my work, I want to ask, along with my readers: What might it mean to reorient our ethical and conceptual assumptions from the perspective of other creatures?

So although I’m keen for animal rights lawyers to succeed in their struggle to recognize the legal personhood of animals, I also recognize the dangers in using human terminology when dealing with non-humans. To say that dogs are persons is to attribute to them the kind of conscious intentionality that defines subjectivity as we understand it.  But instead of opposing humans to dogs, perhaps we need to question the limits of humanity.  Giving animals what we think they need or deserve in terms of human conceptions of right and wrong, or capacity and incapacity, is part of the top-down judgment that always fails those we speak for.

We need to think along with our dogs, but as the ground for human sensibility and cognition, not the other way around.  In such a terrain, perhaps the word “human” can be redeemed.

Who is your intended audience? It's clear that both books will be of interest to people interested in the general fields of human-animal studies and anthrozoology, but who else would benefit from reading them?

Not just folks in the general fields of human-animal studies and anthrozoology, but also a general audience of people who think of themselves as “lovers of animals” or anyone interested in justice and equality in practice— those who want to consider ways of transforming actions that harm and degrade both humans and non-humans: the connections matter.

What are some of your current projects?

A new memoir called Animal Quintet and an article on "Trump law and the law of the Third Reich."

Thank you so much for such important and insightful answers to my questions. I hope The Law is a White Dog will enjoy a wide-ranging global audience. It would be a perfect choice for all sorts of classes and also for practicing lawyers, judges, and those working on behalf of the well-being of dogs and other animals. Each time I go back to it I find something that begs for more thought and discussion. 

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