What Dogs Can Teach Us About Justice: A Conversation with Colin Dayan

Two brown dogs face each other and try to smell each other. Their tails are wagging.

What can animals teach us about justice? Everything, says Colin Dayan. Her two recent books come out of her time spent walking with dogs and dog breeders in Louisiana, observing chain gangs in Arizona, and listening to stories in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Sparked by these encounters, she turned to researching the contested legal histories of dogs, slaves, vagrants, felons, terror suspects, and other beings who are outside the bounds of civil society. These edge cases, she argues, show us the limits of a supposedly rational legal system and how justice, rights, and punishments depend on fantasies of criminality rather than sound evidence.

Dayan’s writing is at once ethnography, legal history, literary analysis, and memoir. As a professor of both Law and English at Vanderbilt University, Dayan deliberately draws on multiple disciplines and ways of understanding the tangled histories of animals and humans. In her telling, dogs are scapegoats and strays, but also beloved family members, figures of religious devotion, and the ghosts haunting American ideas about personhood, imprisonment, and cruelty. In this foundational sense, dogs are the stone rejected by the builders that becomes the cornerstone. As Dayan writes in With Dogs at the Edge of Life: “This book is about what gets treated as refuse, tossed off as trash in the world of high-status human animals. But it is also about the dogs that, in spite of the constant uncertainty of their lives, saved me from the dump, calling me back, again and again, to life.”1

I spoke with Colin Dayan on February 24, 2018, during her visit to the University of Wisconsin–Madison to give the keynote address at the English Department’s 14th annual graduate conference.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Laura Perry: What brought you to dogs, or what brought dogs to you?

Colin Dayan: I’ve always had dogs. But then for a long stretch in graduate school and as a professor I never had dogs because I lived in places like New York City.

Colin Dayan is sitting and her large black dog licks her face.

Colin Dayan is reunited with her dog, Stella, after her visit to Madison, Wisconsin in March. Photo by Colin Dayan, 2018.

It was the move to Tucson and the University of Arizona where I ended up with my pack, with my three dogs, and that’s what did it. That was the first time since childhood that I was able to watch the daily lives of dogs together. It changed my life. And I’ve never been able to live without a dog since. Living with dogs and having them as a pack on land where they could run and seeing their amazing ways of thought led me to be interested in the lives of dogs.

LP: Dogs can be considered a threat to the community, something you’ve written about in The Law is a White Dog and elsewhere. The idea of a “threat” is marshaled against both noxious animals, like dogs, and also humans who are determined to be threats to the community. That label and category has enabled all manner of forms of state violence.

CD: The categorization is fascinating. They will say, you know, it’s not the human you’re afraid of, it’s their dogs. But, it is interesting, the kind of one-on-one lamination of the pit bull onto the African American male. So clearly the attack on pit bulls very often is an attack on a specific targeted population. And there are instances throughout With Dogs at the Edge of Life of this immediate murder of dogs seen to be threats merely because they are affiliated with or loved by a person whose status is constituted as a threat: a black male, in particular. They’re racialized and criminalized, and it’s as if there’s a persistent mutuality of adaptation. I’m so fascinated by the way in which the permeability between human and nonhuman happens most in these racialized situations where you’re creating phantasms of criminality that have extreme power. They only have that force because they are moving rapidly in between categories we normally keep separate, so that there’s a constant permeability between what we constitute as human and nonhuman, and the two are both attacked at the same time.

Cover image in black and white.

LP: In With Dogs at the Edge of Life, you suggest that we try to see through the eyes of a dog. Could you explain why?

CD: It’s everything. The more I live and the more I see how politics works now in this country, the more I believe that prejudice is a perspectival technique. It’s about how someone sees, so through dogs you begin to see things differently. And so it’s a way maybe of building from the ground up. I think that not only would the division between species change, but the discrimination between races would be transformed. So, the question would be: what does it mean to see through the eyes of dogs? And I think that remains something that—for one who is not a dog—we are still working through what it means. I think it has to do with what constitutes persons, right, what we think of not as human, but actually as persons.

LP: Your approach to dogs begins with the quotidian. Can you say more about this approach in your work?

CD: Quotidian and local. That’s why so much of the academy that was transforming in the late 80’s pushed me to do law. Because I thought that transnationalism, multiculturalism, creolization, all these mergers, mestizaje even, they were very dangerous because they took not just texts, but peoples out of their actual local context and watered down or diluted their roots in order to kind of create, yet again, an umbrella of appropriation for white folks. So I do think one always wants to draw back from the larger framing labels that we’ve got in the academy.

A medium-sized brown dog trots through some shallow water in an urban landscape.

A dog in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Photo by FEMA/Andrea Booher, October 2005.

LP: Several of your books have begun with fieldwork, with you interviewing people, with you seeing a location. Is that deliberate? Do you try to have fieldwork and radical ethnographies in all of your work?

CD: I was so young when I first went to Haiti. I first went to a ceremony when I was just in college. And I think I was accepted into the surround because I wasn’t professionalized in any way. I was raised under New Criticism, where you just stay with the text and that becomes your field, the words on the page. I ended up approaching everything by the specificities of the terrain. And I would never write about anything that I had not in some way lived in or would never write about a group of people that I had not in some ways had that quotidian daily experience with. It’s a kind of rootedness, that I was lucky enough to be able to do in the places I chose to go to over the years.

Featured Image: A brief encounter between two dogs in a yard in Haiti. Photo by Stuart Maxwell, 2007.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Colin Dayan is Professor of English, Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities, and Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of A Rainbow for the Christian West: The Poetry of René Depestre (1977), Fables of Mind: An Inquiry into Poe’s Fiction (Oxford University Press, 1987), Haiti, History, and the Gods (University of California Press, 1998), The Story of Cruel and Unusual (MIT Press, 2007), The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (Princeton University Press, 2011), and With Dogs at the Edge of Life (Columbia University Press, 2015). Website. Twitter. Contact.

Laura Perry is a Ph.D. candidate in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a graduate associate at the Center for Culture, History, and Environment, and a member of the Edge Effects editorial board. Her research focuses on species and suburban development in twentieth-century American literature. She is currently a Mellon-Morgridge Graduate Fellow, a Public Humanities Exchange Fellow, and the host of Amplify on WSUM 91.7 FM Madison. Her last contribution to Edge Effects was “In Annihilation, the Revolution Will Not Be Human” (February 2018). Twitter. Contact.

  1. Colin Dayan, With Dogs at the Edge of Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 16. 

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