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Interchange – Ghosts, Dogs, and the Law: On Constructing Criminality and Negating Persons


The law is a kind of haunting. In single words the history of slavery and denigration can be discovered. And it’s through these words, through the retention of their meaning in their original application, through that first life where they did their original work, that they haunt us.

Our program is a conversation with Colin Dayan, author most recently of two lauded books, With Dogs at the Edge of Life and The Law Is a White Dog. She’s at work on a memoir now, called Animal Quintet, and several pieces which will find their way into this in some form have appeared now in places like the Los Angeles Review of Books and the Yale Review.

Colin Dayan joined me from her home in Nashville, Tennessee, via Skype (please forgive us a few audio anomalies throughout).

As much of Dayan’s work centers on the way the law has been written to serve the White Master…we begin with a discussion of the recent police executions of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile–killings I’ve heard called “extrajudicial” (meaning no accusation, no trial, no jury, no judge, just death by cop) which Dayan claims are wholly sanctioned by laws which were formulated in and through this slave-holder nation. Dayan calls these “ritual repetitions” hauntings embodied in the very language of our laws.

In With Dogs at the Edge of Life, Dayan relates her personal responses to the treatment of dogs and dog-owners with her more scholarly pursuit of the black codes that still inhabit court decisions. Dogs as proxy for color, for poverty, for the category of the inferior, creatures termed Pariah dogs…the pit bull and the stray. When we went to the break Dayan had discussed how in her childhood in Atlanta they called police and dog catchers (indistinguishable to her then–and perhaps still as regards indiscriminate power in law) “the laws”–an embodiment of a power that was seemingly out of nightmares. We continue the conversation with the ways that the law, materialized in police, creates unequal geographies in our country. A walk on a public street is a potential locus of terror for the black man.

We begin this final segment with a look at the Humane Society which often serves as a locus of extermination: does putting the word “humane” in front of a killing act justify it? Also Dayan notes how the “language of care” is a language of privilege. We then turn to “Animal Quintet,” Dayan’s most recent work in memoir that perhaps is a return to a writing she suggested she would not do in her 1995 book titled “Haiti, History, and the Gods”:

Let me admit at the outset that I am obsessed by Haiti, for reasons that have much to do with my own vexed and haunted childhood, the uncertainty of my family origins, and my confrontation with an always blocked, silenced, or unspeakable history…I will take my reader on no backward-turning journey into childhood terror, fragments of denial, and lies that kept me forever outside, always on the margins of any place or self that could be called my own.

The South of Colin Dayan’s Atlanta is the context for this final segment on Interchange.

220px-Colin_DayanColin Dayan is Robert Penn Warren Professor of the Humanities and professor of law at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of With Dogs at the Edge of Life, The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons, The Story of Cruel and Unusual, and Haiti, History, and the Gods. She has also written for the New York Times, London Review of Books, and Boston Review.

Dead Dogs: Breed bans, euthanasia, and preemptive justice by Colin Dayan (Boston Review)
Like a Dog by Colin Dayan (Boston Review)
Goring Beauty by Colin Dayan (LA Review of Books)
The E-Snuff of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by Courtney Baker (Avidly, LA Review of Books)

“Police Dog Blues” by Blind Blake
“Walkin’ Dog Blues” by Reverend Gary Davis
“Lonesome Dog Blues” by Lightnin’ Hopkins
“Rain Dogs” by Tom Waits

It is the judges (as we have seen) that make the common law. Do you know how they make it? Just as a man makes laws for his dog. When your dog does anything you want to break him of, you wait till he does it, and then beat him for it. This is the way you make laws for your dog: and this is the way the judges make law for you and me. They won’t tell a man beforehand what it is he should not do—they won’t so much as allow of his being told: they lie by till he has done something which they say he should not have done, and then they hang him for it. (Jeremy Bentham, “Truth vs Ashurst,” 1792)

Producer & Host: Doug Storm
Assistant Producer & Editor: Rob Schoon
Board Engineer: Jonathan Richardson
Executive Producer: Joe Crawford

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