Mae West and the British Raj

Wendy Doniger

  • The Last Dinosaur Book: The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon by W.J.T. Mitchell
    Chicago, 321 pp, £25.00, November 1998, ISBN 0 226 53204 6

One of the best of the many puns in this book is the gloss of ‘dinosaurus’ as ‘Dinos’R’ Us’, a take-off on the ‘Toys’R’Us’ logo that sends a double message through its form (we are talking about advertising, more specifically about advertising aimed at children) and content (the dinosaur is a ‘cultural icon’ that somehow holds the key to ‘us’, to our national identity, or political unconscious, or economic agenda, or Freudian unconscious, or all of the above). This is a heavy burden to lay even on such a big animal, and requires some massive scholarly leverage; W.J.T. Mitchell invokes the secular trinity of Darwin, Marx and Freud. He traces the historical origin and development of our ideas about dinosaurs, through evolutionary theory and palaeontology (primarily Darwin and Cuvier), 19th and 20th-century history of science, political history, fiction (the ‘lost worlds’ of Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Bur roughs and Arthur Conan Doyle), film, advertising, depth psychology and art (paintings in art museums and museums of science, cartoons and comics).

The scholarship is successfully air-brushed by an elegant Post-Modern presentation. Mitchell, who teaches English and art at Chicago University, and is an editor of Critical Inquiry (the Debrett’s of cultural and critical studies), emerges from this book as a kind of ‘Pomosaurus’ or perhaps even a ‘thesaurus’ (a creature nimble with multiple meanings). The 40 brief chapters are peppered with visual and verbal jokes and are lavishly illustrated with cartoons and fine reproductions of paintings. The format is a cross between a beautifully produced children’s book and the New Yorker.

The argument is nothing less than that dinosaurs ‘R’ the human race. They function as transitional objects, not only in the original sense that D.W. Winnicott applied to things like the teddy-bears cherished by children, but as symbols for our culture as a whole, ‘at the level of history and (possibly) the evolution of the human species’. The dinosaur ‘expresses the political unconscious of each era of modern life, manifesting collective anxieties about disaster and extinction, epitomising our own ambivalence toward our collective condition’.

The Last Dinosaur Book draws on history to explain how ‘a relatively obscure scientific discovery in Victorian England’ grew into ‘a globally popular cultural icon’. History is repositioned as what you see ‘from the rear view mirror’, historical hindsight as directed on us now, seeing ourselves as if from the future – an illuminating approach. Mitchell divides dino-story into three eras that mimic Marx’s periodisation of modern human history: early modern ‘Victorian’ dinos (1840-1900), modern ‘classic’ dinos (1900-60) and the Post-Modern ‘dinosaur renaissance’ (1960 to the present). The term ‘dinosaur’ (meaning ‘terrible lizard’), coined in the 1840s by Richard Owen, is misleading: in fact dinosaurs are neither reptiles nor lizards (nor, inevitably, terrible). Charles Knight, who painted them for the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago from the turn of the century, divided the ‘schizosaur’ into type A, the bipedal carnivore or saurischian (‘lizard hips’) epitomised by Tyrannosaurus rex, which evolved into birds, and type B, the armoured quadrupedal herbivore or ornithischian (‘bird hips’) epitomised by Triceratops, which, perversely, did not become birds but instead became extinct.

Dinosaurs entered American history during the period of westward expansion, when big game was beginning to vanish and the dinosaur became ‘the biggest game’. In Mitchell’s hands, dinos are a game that we do not hunt, but play. He is, in his own words, ‘neither dinophile nor dino-scientist’, but an iconologist, an analyst of images. He finds dinos ‘good to think with’ (in the terminology that Lévi-Strauss applied to myths and totems), because of their hybrid, paradoxical nature. The ‘schizosaur’ is ‘a figure of everything alien to human nature (cold-blooded, reptilian, rapacious) and of all that is most familiar in human nature (cold-blooded, reptilian, rapacious)’. Going beyond these coincidences of opposites, however, Mitchell argues that the dinosaur is a ‘shape-shifting, transitional figure that can seem to mean almost anything one minute and almost nothing the next’, a kind of ‘empty sign, a blank slate’, ‘on which every kind of collective and individual fantasy can be projected’. And he finds this problematic for a cultural symbol: ‘it has too many meanings, and too many of them are contradictory.’

The multivalent and contradictory nature of a symbol would certainly not bother a structuralist, or any mythologist; even Jung regarded archetypes as blank slates, vacuums crying out to be filled. Does this mean that anyone with the kind of obsession that makes some people great scholars but drives others to commit axe murders, could write a book like this about anything in popular culture – nipple-piercing, say (African roots … ), or roller-blading (the wings on the feet of Mercury … )? Can anything be an archetype, if you trace it far enough down? Can you drill a hole anywhere and reach the core of the human heart?

Mitchell also asserts the opposite view of dinosymbolism, however; that the dino saur is not an archetype but a stereotype, with a limited repertoire of subtypes, which ‘can be captured by that crudest of all images, the cookie-cutter’. And he means it literally; he shows us cookie-cutters in the shape of dinosaurs. To sink this drill would be to find dinosaurs all the way down.

Which is it to be, Professor Mitchell? Does the dinosaur mean everything or just something? Is it eternal, or the product of a specific historical configuration? In the battle of the methodological giants, the Arche meets the Stereo, the Perennial meets the Fad. Mitchell cites at the start Stephen Jay Gould’s reference to the ‘archetypal fascination’ with dinosaurs (giving rise, as Gould puts it, to schemes to ‘turn the Jungian substrate into profits’) and wonders if dinomania is not, rather, a matter of ‘something specific to certain cultures and historical epochs’. He tips his hand on this question when he remarks that the psychological and historical explanation that he seeks ‘will not be able to rely on assumptions about eternal archetypes’. If, then, dinosaurs do not in fact mean anything and everything, if they are opaque as well as transparent signifiers, both blank slates and cookie-cutters – what do they signify?

Gould summarised the enduring appeal of dinosaurs in three little words: ‘big, fierce, extinct’. The first and third concepts may be causally related: it may be that dinosaurs no longer have any expanse in time because they had such a great expanse in space; they may have become extinct because they were (too) big. Their bigness is highlighted by comparisons with other cultural icons of bigness that establish their relative scale; where King Kong perched on top of the Empire State Building, dinosaurs are depicted next to skyscrapers, like children backing up to yardsticks to be measur ed. And, like James Joyce’s measurement of eternity through the metaphor of the bird pecking away at the enormous mountain, this is a religious viewpoint, designed to make us realise how small we are.

The corollary element of smallness in time, extinction, also reminds us of how small our lifespan is: someday we, too, will be gone. Mitchell sees dinos as warning signs, like the canaries miners took down with them; ‘when the dinosaur comes to life, some group of human beings is on the endangered species list.’ He summarises the many reasons given to explain why dinosaurs died out: too big, too specialised, too violent, not violent enough, victims of a natural catastrophe, or wiped out by God. This last (which might be called the dino-mite theory) inspired the 1996 film, How Dinosaurs Learned to Fly: they had a great time, ‘smoking, drinking, dancing to loud rock and roll music’, until they decided to do bungee jumping without a rope; then type A evolved wings, while type B became an endangered species. The ‘too big’ theory combined with the ‘dino-mite’ theory to argue that the dinos grew too big for the ark at the time of the Flood and were put on a second ark, which went down (like the Titanic? I wondered); tabloid newspapers keep reporting on discoveries of its remains.

But if the triad of ‘big, fierce, extinct’ is a place to start, it is neither necessary nor sufficient. It is not necessary, because some dinosaurs were not fierce, some were not particularly big, and some – the ones that turned into birds – survive. And the triad is not sufficient to distinguish dinosaurs from other ‘big, fierce, extinct’ things like, to take two at random, Mae West and the British Raj. Mitchell is well aware of this: ‘If we assume that power, violence and death are always inherently interesting to human beings (already a questionable assumption), there are plenty of ways to gratify this desire without dinosaurs.’ His evidence suggests, instead, another (non-)definitive triad: dinos are gendered, alien and capitalist.

Male genders prevail at first (many of these guys are, after all, raptors), but are superseded by females, whose eggs or teeth, or both, pose the threat. The names are gendered, too; just as the Mastodon was named for the bumps on its teeth that resembled female breasts, so the first dinosaur bone ever found, in Oxford in the 1670s, was regarded as having the shape of a scrotum and was therefore named the Scrotum Humanum. (A boner? For once, Mitchell forgoes the pun, which hovers, with Freud, over his hilarious analysis of Cary Grant and all the dinosaur ‘bones’ in the film Bringing Up Baby.) In our day, too, little boys identify with dinos as big and fierce – in a word, macho. The Calvinosaurus comes to us neither from the Protestant theologian nor from Italo Calvino (who wrote a wonderful story about dinos), but from the fantasised macho alter ego of Calvin in the cartoon Calvin and Hobbes: bigger than his parents and named after himself (as Andrew Carnegie named the Diplodocus Carnegii). As for the other gender, some little girls allegedly find cuddly dinos to love and mother – while others, I suspect, identify with them as big and fierce, or are too busy preparing for their law school entrance exams to bother with dinos at all.

As for the second criterion, the dinosaur is alien on a series of shifting levels: when King Kong carries off a white woman (herself regarded, originally, as a threat) we are on her side and against the black people on Kong’s island; but when the islanders join forces with the Anglos we side with them against the ape, and when Kong is challenged by a dinosaur we root for the ape against the lizard – who finally takes the form of the aliens (reptilian bipeds, of course) who have been visiting us in movies since the Fifties. This then becomes yet another explanation for the dinos’ extinction: they were abducted by aliens, and have been returning in flying saucers ever since.

These gendered aliens are, finally, capitalists, viewed through the eyes of Marx and Darwin, predators bankrupting herbivores, the free market red in tooth and claw. The Last Dinosaur Book has a lot to say about the dino not only as an explicit corporate logo (for fossil fuel – Sinclair Oil) but also as ‘the animal emblem of the process of modernisation, with its intertwined cycles of destruction and resurrection, innovation and obsolescence, expansive “giantism” and progressive “downsizing”’. Mitchell wonders about a painting of Iguanodon under attack by Deinonychus: ‘Would it be far-fetched to see this as an image of the relation between Microsoft and IBM?’ In a word: yes. He continues: ‘Could this be an allegory of the replacement of corporate giantism by the new mode of “downsized” business organisation, stressing flexible accumulation, rapid deployment of task forces to problem areas and teamwork?’ In a word: no. A more compelling metaphor, it seems to me, is offered by the capitalist implications of ‘a Stegosaurus made of money’, a dino at the Smithsonian that was rumoured to be ‘made from worn money withdrawn from circulation’. This image of extinct money also has the advantage of placing the dino saur where it belongs, as not the symbol but the product of capitalism; as Mitchell himself notes, it is ‘a cross between an idol and a cash cow’.

The triad – gendered, alien and capitalist – boils down, like certain trinities, to one: modernity. Mitchell asserts that the dinosaur is both ‘a species totem for the human race’ and ‘the totem animal of modern culture, a creature that unites modern science with mass culture, empirical knowledge with collective fantasy, rational methods with ritual practices’. We cannot miss the irony in the fact that, although the physical history of dinosaurs symbolises all that is ancient and extinct, dinosaurs have been socially constructed to epitomise all that is modern (as seen through Post-Modern eyes). Thus, the dinosaur is not a blank slate after all; it says things that cannot be said quite so vividly in other ways, things that, as Mitchell interprets them for us, are not at all trivial.

The question of triviality does, however, raise its ugly head here, as in the reception of any work about popular culture: how serious about all of this is Mitchell, who teaches at an institution whose mascot is not Barney but Aristotle? When Robert Bakker urges us in The Dinosaur Heresies (1986) to say, when we see Canada geese flying north, ‘The dinosaurs are migrating, it must be spring!’ we know, Mitchell argues, ‘that the cart is pulling the horse’. Surely this is a charge that could be laid against anyone urging us to say that dinosaurs are ‘a species totem for the human race’. Mitchell rounds up the usual Pomo suspects to support him in his more substantial claims: Foucault (‘When Foucault wondered what would take the place of the Age of Man, he probably didn’t suspect that it would be the Age of the Dinosaur’ – good for Foucault); Benjamin (who referred to ‘Europe’s last dinosaur, the consumer’); and Adorno (who called the dinosaur a symbol of the ‘monstrous total state’).

The real fight takes place, however, when T. Rex meets King Lear, not King Kong, and a still, small voice in the reader’s brain asks if there is not more intellectual fun to be had in Mansfield Park than in Jurassic Park. Cultural studies was wickedly satirised by the character in Don DeLillo’s White Noise who had recently joined the popular culture department and noted with some surprise that the chairman’s ‘collection of prewar soda pop bottles’ was on permanent display and that ‘there are full professors in this place who read nothing but cereal boxes.’ Never have so many read so much into so little.

Mythic symbols – and the dinosaur undoubtedly is one – survive in a broad range of cultural forms. This, to me, is what makes the field of cultural studies at its best so interesting: it demonstrates that the concerns of ‘low’ culture and kitsch are coterminous, though differently inflected and yielding different fruits, with those of ‘high’ culture and high art; it shows us the continuities between Donald Duck and Leda’s swan. But, as Mitchell remarks, ‘the dinosaur is not just “a” kitsch icon, then, but the epitome of kitsch,’ and ‘paleoart’ is high kitsch. Since the cult of the dinosaur is situated at the Lite, or cereal box, end of the cultural spectrum, the reader of this book may ask, ‘Tant de bruit pour une omelette?’

Mitchell admits this weakness:

I can think of (at least) two objections to these readings of Bringing Up Baby and Jurassic Park (and perhaps to everything that has preceded them): first, that they are excessive ‘readings into’ what are, after all, nothing but Hollywood entertainments; second, that they simply use the films to talk about other things (the history of capitalism, of American ideology, of sexual anxiety) that might be better discussed directly.

In answer to the second challenge, Mitchell argues persuasively for a unique contribution of historical data, for ‘the power of visual-verbal fictional forms like the comic strip to give us psychological insights that can never be captured by questionnaires and interviews with real children’.

In answer to the first challenge, of intrinsic artistic worth, Mitchell does not argue, as some of his colleagues would, that the products of mass culture are just as complex as those of high culture: instead, he sees their charm precisely in the fact that they are indeed simple and vulgar, but not stupid and worthless. He asks why there are so many images of dinos in the American Museum of Natural History and so few at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and hopes aloud that Post-Modernism might now open a space ‘for dinosaurs to “cross the park” and enter the art world’. To encourage us, he offers lush reproductions of palaeoart and calls Rudolph Zallinger (who painted the dinos for Yale’s Peabody Museum) ‘the Giotto of dinosaur illustration’. Mitchell hopes that works such as Allan McCollum’s Lost Objects, an installation of castings of dinosaur bones, will make the final art cut, and he expresses this fantasy with his own cartoon of a dino crashing through the walls of MOMA, the high temple of Modernism, the enemy of kitsch and of the modernity for which it stands.

Whom does Mitchell hope to convert to an appreciation of the importance of the cult of the dinosaur? Despite its format, this is not a book for children or for anyone, of any age, who is already crazy about dinosaurs: that gang will be far too busy zapping aliens in their computer games even to bother to look at the pictures. Indeed, even children don’t invariably like dinos; in a chapter entitled ‘Why children hate dinosaurs’, Mitchell cites a six-year-old’s chilling parody of the Barney theme song: ‘I hate you, you hate me, Barney gave me HIV.’ Nor did Mitchell himself like dinos when he was a kid; ‘they always seemed a crashing bore … The only interesting question about dinosaurs was why other kids thought they were so wonderful. Did this mean that there was something wrong with me?’ And so he grew up to be a famous professor and, still dinosore, wrote this book to answer his ‘interesting question’. Through it, he may have returned to his childhood to make peace with the dinosaur that once made him feel as if he were the alien, just as so many of us revisit high school in our dreams, hoping, this time, to pass our geography tests. For The Last Dinosaur Book belies (or, some might say, deconstructs) its title; far from laying its subject to rest, it gives the dinosaur yet another life, an enduring place in the ephemeral pantheon of popular culture.