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Cultural Studies discovers the dinosaur

11:00 PM, Jan 24, 1999 • By PAUL A. CANTOR
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This is not a coffee table book about dinosaurs, but it comes close. The Last Dinosaur Book is cleverly, colorfully, and lavishly illustrated. It is filled with movie stills, comic strips, cartoons, and, if that is not enough to hold your interest, you can flip pages 95 to 227 and watch an animated dinosaur come to life.

But before you think you have found the perfect present for that child who loves extinct behemoths, you should be cautioned: The Last Dinosaur Book is an exercise in iconology, not paleontology; it's not about dinosaurs but about our cultural image of dinosaurs. Its author, W.J.T. Mitchell, is a professor of English at the University of Chicago, untrained in zoology and biology.

That doesn't mean he lacks a fascinating tale to tell. Mitchell traces the evolution of the image of the dinosaur in popular culture, and shows how it has changed in response to economic, social, and political developments. Dinosaurs, for example, functioned as symbols of enormous power during the machine age of the nineteenth century. As Mitchell writes, "the dinosaur makes its appearance with all the other modern monsters, coming into public consciousness in the same period, and as a product of the same forces that produced the tank, the locomotive, the steamboat, and the skyscraper."

But now in the information age, our image of the dinosaur has changed. We no longer picture dinosaurs as slow, lumbering brutes. The new star of the dinosaur world is the velociraptor, smaller and less imposing, but smarter, agile, and ultimately more threatening because it hunts in packs. Mitchell coyly asks: "Could this be an allegory of the replacement of corporate giantism by the new model of 'downsized' business organization, stressing flexible accumulation, rapid deployment of task forces to problem areas, and teamwork?"

Mitchell insists on finding economics beneath all cultural phenomena. Indeed, Marx is one of the dinosaurs he'd like to resurrect: "We need Marx to understand the relation of dinosaurs to politics and economics, to the development of capitalism as a world system." While Mitchell makes much of recent films like Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park that place their dinosaur subjects in the new context of multinational biotechnology corporations, he also reveals how contemporary ideology influences those films' view of dinosaurs. He shows that the Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World, "is a veritable hymn in praise of dinosaur family values, portraying its T. rex couple as ferociously nurturing parents." In The Lost World, the beasts spend more quality time with their offspring than the humans do.

Though Mitchell concentrates on the United States, he notes that the story of the dinosaur as a cultural icon really begins in Britain. The original attempt to popularize dinosaurs was the 1851 Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London, where giant-sized models of creatures like the iguanadon were displayed for the first time. Given the roots of our dinosaur imagery in Victorian Britain, Mitchell argues for a connection between dinosaurs and empire: "The dinosaur can symbolize the dominant 'master race' that commands a global empire, the vanished, savage races that lost out in the Darwinian struggle, or an invading horde of aliens who threaten white supremacy."

Here I think Mitchell is really onto something. For much of this century, dinosaurs were portrayed as strong physically, but weak mentally. This is exactly the image that Western colonial powers held of the non-Westerners they subdued. Thus when dinosaurs appear in modern stories, they are invariably found in remote jungles or backlands in Africa or South America and are often linked with primitive tribes who worship or fear them. The typical dinosaur story contrives to transport one or more of the giant beasts to a metropolitan area in a major industrial nation. The fight to the death that inevitably results was an emblem of the struggle between the First and Third Worlds, brute strength pitted fatally against modern technology -- precisely the battle played out time and again on colonial frontiers.