Colin Dayan

Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities
Professor of Law

Colin Dayan studies American literature, Haitian historiography, and American legal scholarship—the focus of her two most recent books. In her 2007 book, The Story of Cruel and Unusual, she exposes the paradox of the eighth amendment to the constitution, showing that in the United States, cycles of jurisprudence safeguard rights and then justify their revocation. Her 2011 book, The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons, examines how the fictions and language of law turn persons—and other legal non-entities, such as slaves, felons, terror suspects and dogs—into “rightless objects.” The Law Is a White Dog was selected by Choice as one of the top 25 “outstanding academic books” for 2011. In her other work, she introduces an English-speaking audience to Haitian poet René Depestre’s early epic poem about the vodou gods and their journey to the American South. In Fables of Mind: An Inquiry into Poe’s Fiction (1987), she discusses Edgar Allen Poe’s fictional works as complicated critiques of the traditions of romance and the gothic. Professor Dayan is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has received fellowships from the Danforth Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the Davis Center for Historical Studies and the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University.

Over the past ten years, she has written widely on prison rights, the legalities of torture, canine profiling, animal law and the racial contours of US practices of punishment for the Boston Review, the New York Times, The London Review of Books and Al Jazeera America, where she is a contributing editor.

Representative Publications

  • With Dogs at the Edge of Life (Columbia University Press, forthcoming, December 2015)
  • "With Law at the Edge of Life," 113(3) South Atlantic Quarterly 629 (2014)
    Full Text | WWW | PDF
  • "And then came culture," 26(2) Cultural Dynamics (2014) (Special issue in honor of Michel Rolph Trouillot)
    Full Text | WWW | PDF
  • The Law is a White Dog, Princeton University Press (2013)
  • “Due Process and Lethal Confinement,” 107(3) South Atlantic Quarterly 485 (2008).
    Full Text | PDF
  • "Words Behind Bars," Boston Review: A Political and Literary Forum (November/December 2007)
    Full Text | WWW
  • The Story of Cruel and Unusual, MIT Press (2007)
  • "Legal Terrors," Representations (2006)
    Full Text | WWW
  • "Legal Slaves and Civil Bodies," in Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics (Russ Castronovo and Dana D. Nelson, eds.), Duke University Press (2002)
    Full Text | WWW
  • “Held in the Body of the State: Prisons and the Law,” History, Memory, and the Law (Austin Sarat and Thomas Kearns, eds.) University of Michigan Press, 1999.
    Full Text | WWW

Contact Information

615-322-2175 (voice)
322 Benson Science Hall (office)

Curriculum Vitae


Ph.D. City University Graduate Center
B.A. Smith College