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The Last Dinosaur Book: The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon

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For animals that have been dead millions of years, dinosaurs are extraordinarily pervasive in our everyday lives. Appearing in ads, books, movies, museums, television, toy stores, and novels, they continually fascinate both adults and children. How did they move from natural extinction to pop culture resurrection? What is the source of their powerful appeal? Until now, no one has addressed this question in a comprehensive way. In this lively and engrossing exploration of the animal's place in our lives, W.J.T. Mitchell shows why we are so attached to the myth and the reality of the "terrible lizards."

Mitchell aims to trace the cultural family tree of the dinosaur, and what he discovers is a creature of striking flexibility, linked to dragons and mammoths, skyscrapers and steam engines, cowboys and Indians. In the vast territory between the cunning predators of Jurassic Park and the mawkishly sweet Barney, from political leviathans to corporate icons, from paleontology to Barnum and Bailey, Mitchell finds a cultural symbol whose plurality of meaning and often contradictory nature is emblematic of modern society itself. As a scientific entity, the dinosaur endured a near-eclipse for over a century, but as an image it is enjoying its widest circulation. And it endures, according to Mitchell, because it is uniquely malleable, a figure of both innovation and obsolescence, massive power and pathetic failure—the totem animal of modernity.

Drawing unforeseen and unusual connections at every turn between dinosaurs real and imagined, The Last Dinosaur Book is the first to delve so deeply, so insightfully, and so enjoyably into our modern dino-obsession.

329 pages, Hardcover

First published November 1, 1998

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About the author

W.J. Thomas Mitchell

40 books45 followers
William J. Thomas Mitchell is a professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago. Editor of the journal Critical Inquiry.

His monographs, Iconology (1986) and Picture Theory (1994), focus on media theory and visual culture. He draws on ideas from Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx to demonstrate that, essentially, we must consider pictures to be living things. His collection of essays What Do Pictures Want? (2005) won the Modern Language Association's prestigious James Russell Lowell Prize in 2005. In a recent podcast interview Mitchell traces his interest in visual culture to early work on William Blake, and his then burgeoning interest in developing a science of images. In that same interview he discusses his ongoing efforts to rethink visual culture as a form of life and in light of digital media.

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Profile Image for Trevor.
1,279 reviews21.3k followers
March 29, 2017
I really believe that one of the reasons why Stephen J Gould was such an interesting science writer – well, essayist, really – was that he was a palaeontologist. You see, a palaeontologist needs to be a kind of generalist. They need to know about bones, obviously, but also about anatomy and carbon dating, they need to know lots about animals in general like physiology, and also things well outside biology like radiology and then various chemical and mechanical issues to do with life forms and their transition from life into fossils. And then Gould was clearly also interested in culture and how society impacts on the history and development of science. You can imagine Gould sitting down and having a civil conversation with, say Foucault or Roland Barthes in precisely the way that such a conversation would be impossible to be imagined if we replaced Gould with Dawkins. But then, Dawkins is much better at talking over than in talking with.

I would like to think that Gould would particularly have liked this book – I thought of him the whole way though it, and not only because he is mentioned in some of the early chapters.

I’ve read Gould’s Bully for Brontosaurus and his Dinosaur in a Haystack and never really felt at all uncomfortable about reading these books. But this book is quite different. It is the sort of book that is pretty hard to read on the train. I mean, it has a brontosaurus rearing up on its hind-legs and being shot at by cowboys on the cover. I mean, Jesus. As I said to my supervisor, I think I’d have felt less conspicuous if I’d been reading porn on the train. There is a certain class of people who read books about dinosaurs, and that class is called little boys, and men who are emotionally still pretty much little boys.

This book is stunning in what it is attempting to do and achieves. It is looking at the cultural significance of the dinosaur and what such an image says about our society. When I started this book I thought, “Surely, that is not enough for an entire book of 250 pages” – but I was wrong. But this is one of those books that surprises right up to the last page.

Marx and Engels referred to Darwin’s theory of evolution as capitalist competition applied to nature. With ‘survival of the fittest’ being the capitalist distortion of the morally neutral ‘natural selection’ process that actually drives evolution. But I’d never thought of this working in reverse, of dinosaur images having anything to say about the history of capitalism. They are, after all, just the best guess science has at any given time based on the facts we have in bones and the bodies we extrapolate from them. There is no room for the distorting hand of our culture to make those bodies fit in with our culture – is there?

The dinosaur is the totem animal of capitalism. The dinosaur was born (or, rather re-born – resurrected, would be more accurate) in the 1840s. By the 1850s the London Exhibition was building life-sized models of the beasts to place beside the Crystal Palace. They are still to be found there. And what is interesting about them is that they were made from reinforced concrete – and they were one of the first uses for this material.

The link between dinosaurs and buildings – particularly skyscrapers – is a very long one. Not only are dinosaurs so often shown standing up beside a tall building as a way of showing their own size, but they are also generally shown destroying these buildings. We resurrect these animals, but we do so for the utterly bizarre reason that we expect them to immediately turn on us and eat us. Dinosaurs are Frankenstein’s ultimate monster – as Jurassic Park makes all too clear.

Google for images of the dinosaurs at Crystal Palace Park. They aren’t at all like the dinosaurs we are used to. They are, as Mitchell brilliantly points out, the Wild Things from Sendak’s book.

Slow, lumbering, small brained – they are the lumbering first steps of capitalist enterprise – always a step away from extinction. They are the embodiment of survival of the fittest battles. This was something that remained fairly constant throughout the history of dinosaurs. We’ve all seen images of Tyrannosaurus Rex up against Triceratops in one of their ground-shaking battle to the death. This is boys’ own at its best – you can hear the argument already over who is going to win: look at those teeth, look at those horns!

One of the questions about the terrible lizards was the problem of cold-bloodedness. You see, if Tyrannosaurus was cold-blooded he (is there any real question he is a he?) would need to have crawled about and been a scavenger, rather than the huge fighting machine we see him as today. I read a book about this years ago – a collection of classic essays on science – but one that didn’t explain how the science had moved on. It had moved on to making some dinosaurs warm-blooded – that is, more terrible birds than terrible lizards. The image that haunts our nightmares went back to pushing its way through those endless jungles. And this was the second phase of the cultural history of dinosaurs, when they had become huge corporations, battling it out to the death with other giants. Was it any wonder that an American oil company might use the image of a dinosaur as its corporate logo? The irony, given where oil comes from, could not be more amusing.

As Mitchell points out, there is something right about robotic dinosaurs in films up to about the 1960s. In the age of mechanical reproduction, they move like robots and that seems perfectly right to us. In fact, frighteningly right. They are dumb, huge and terrifying – much like the corporations they so often represent – and similarly singularly focused on their own interests and survival.

The real change comes post-1960 – the age of biocybernetic reproduction, when we learn there is something we should fear much more than robots. Now we have genetically modified and recreated animals. That is, real, living animals brought back from the dead by information technology, chaos theory and genetic engineering. And these animals are no longer the huge, lumbering corporations of the past, like the dinosaur named to honour Carnegie, but the downsized velociraptor – all-girl dinosaurs that hunt in packs and are fast learning and, in Jurassic Park at least, eat their way through their all-male victims. The only thing missing is an unquestioning commitment to customer service…

As Mitchell expresses this at the end of the book, “The ‘discovery’ that dinosaurs have something to do with capitalism, as if this were a guilty secret rather than an obvious starting point, is no discovery at all. The question is what the dinosaur has to do with capitalism, how it becomes part of the naturalizing of modern life and the monumentalizing of states, constitutions and individuals.”

What is most surprising about dinosaurs is that they are empty shells, or rather, hollow bone scaffolds, that we add substance, and shape and colour to before we animate. As hard to believe as this is, no one has ever seen a dinosaur. We all think we have – they are, in many ways, our most familiar animal. But all we have really ever seen of them is their bones. For example, we have no idea what colour they were – and so this changes with time too, they are infinitely more colourful today than in the Fordist age when they were any colour you like as long as it was green or grey. Not only have our understandings of how dinosaurs moved and looked and behaved changed over time, but what dinosaurs mean as cultural images has changed too. Or rather, not changed so much, as allowed for many contradictory and paradoxical images and meanings to cling and pile one on top of the other around them.

For example, in the early 1990s McDonalds had an advertisement on US television of a museum at night. A T-Rex in bones sniffs the air, breaks its chains and hunts down the source of food – which turns out to be a packet of fries in the hands of the museum guard. But to get offered some of the fries it must perform a series of tricks, roll over, sit and, all-too-obviously, play dead. The ad is available here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIhPO...

And this sums up the point perfectly – the terrifying monster is transformed in ninety-seconds into a pet. Dinosaurs are containers for our fears and our insecurities. They are the ultimate in obsolescence and yet they only exist because of science. They are dragons, but they are ‘real’. They are anti-civilisation, but good mothers and impossible without civilisation. And they are Freudian penis-envy made laughable – I’ll never be able to look at a brontosaurus in quite the same way again.

And talking about penises – nearly at the end of the book he tells us that the first dinosaur bone ever found was named by those who found it Scrotum Humanum. This was because the bone looked remarkably like the human scrotum. There is a lot of talk in this book about the film Bringing Up Baby where Cary Grant is a palaeontologist who is assembling a dinosaur and spends much of the film trying to work out where to put his bone. And then there is Indiana Jones who spends a lot of time searching for big bones too. Look, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but then…

I’ve hardly scratched the surface of this book. I haven’t mentioned Jefferson or King Kong or the church of memory. I haven’t talked about Noah and his flood or Carl Sagan and the three-layered brain. This book would make the best documentary series – it would be something to mull over time and again.
746 reviews
April 6, 2019
Fascinating history of dinosaurs in popular culture.
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