The Law is A White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons by Colin Dayan (review)
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Reviewed by
Colin Dayan The Law is A White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons Princeton University Press, 2011. xviixvii + 368368 pp.

Law is the major character in Dayan's philosophical narrative. The main objective of this narrative is not so much to offer a juridical understanding of the ways that law restructures reality than to show how "law encapsulates, sustains, and invigorates philosophies of personhood" (Dayan xii). Analyzing how the law sometimes alters and disfigures human persons—as with slavery and civil death—reducing people to bare human materials, biologically alive but legally dead, Dayan summons a remarkable range of philosophical tales, including Voodoo, Greek tragedy, medieval law, Human Rights Watch reports, magic, and medicine. But eclectic as this selection is, these discourses tell a rigorous story about how humans are turned into non-humans, how animals become humans, how things are endowed with intention. Such mutations, for example those enacted by bad magic or fantasized by philosophers and writers, lie at the core of what Dayan recognizes as the law's capacity to create the fiction of dispossessed persons, a fiction she identifies as "negative personhood," whereby legal thought renders "the meaning of persons shifting and tentative: whether in creating slaves as persons in law and criminals as dead in law, or in the perpetual re-creation of the rightless entity" (xii).

Given the variety of names and discourses referenced in Dayan's tales, we might review this book in many ways, and yet Locke and Melville play crucial roles in all of them. This is not to say that The Law is a White Dog is a book on Melville, or even that Melville's presence is overwhelming. Instead, Melville centrally illuminates many of its arguments. Like the many spectral existences that pervade Melville's writings, Locke and Melville haunt Dayan's mind and play a central role in the chapter "Taxonomies," which both elucidates arguments advanced up to that point, and grounds those to come.

Dayan understands Locke's empiricism as opposing the essentializing of any identity; hence it is potentially non-identitarian. Positing that human nature—human reason, its ideas, its self-reflection, or simply everything that generates human self-identification—is not innate but generated by experience, Locke allows for no fixed essence to differentiate among human beings [End Page 86] and even among different forms of life; he distrusts essentialized "conceptions of sorts and species. The boundaries of animal species are uncertain . . . and even the distinction between variety and species is blurred" (Dayan 117). In fact, Locke de-essentialized human nature to the point of speculating that one person could be diffused into two bodies, or, on the contrary, that two minds could inhabit the same body. But Dayan's interest in the fantastic aspect of Locke's philosophy is guided by its ethical and political potential. For her, Locke's claim that no identity is pre-determined avoids the political perils of hierarchical thinking by cautioning us to understand that no human being, and therefore, by definition, no race, differs in its nature from any other. In Dayan's understanding, then, Locke's ontologies of personhood block racist discourses and are heavily invested in mobilizing ideas of equality and in disturbing a hierarchically ordered humanity. Yet the eighteenth-century natural histories that were formulated in the wake of Locke's thinking, as if completely oblivious of it (Dayan discusses in detail Edward Longe's History of Jamaica, but other examples abound), substituted his experimental persons with un-crossable taxonomical boundaries that not only separated humans from animals, but also offered new ideas concerning what was to count as human. These new taxonomies unleashed racist fantasies that came to locate "a guinea-negro" in the same category as "learned horses, learned and even talking dogs" (119), while at the same time eighteenth-century slave codes finessed naturalist hierarchies into a new legal category of the slave, a fiction of law that became a reality, designed to embody a fantasized mixture of human, animal, and inanimate thing.

Melville, Dayan suggests, is perhaps the antebellum America's most profound answer to such racist bio-classifications. As she reminds us through a...