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

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

by W. J. T. Mitchell

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

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Dinosaurs may no longer roam the earth, but they are far from extinct in public consciousness. They thrive in books, movies, cartoons, and even advertisements. Their images are so pervasive and their symbolism so multifarious that Mitchell calls dinosaurs "the totem animals of modernity." A cultural historian, he explores the diverse images of dinosaurs in terms of their themes and histories and the lessons that may be learned from these. His insights into children's fascination with dinosaurs are particularly sharp. In places, lay readers might find his analyses a bit overwrought (he makes much ado about Barney, for example), but this is one social text that actually has an occasional, albeit understated, sense of humor. Recommended for scholars, informed lay readers, and true dinosaur zealots everywhere.--Gregg Sapp, Univ. of Miami Lib., Coral Gables
Mitchell (English and art history, U. of Chicago) delves into the dinosaur as cultural icon as it has manifested itself, and evolved in various ways over the years. Though scholarly, the book is attractively designed and includes numerous photos and cartoons that represent the pervasive role of dinosaurs in public consciousness. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Mark Taylor
This one-sided critique fails to do justice to the complexity, diversity and novelty of the digital revolution. . . .That is not to say that Mitchell has not made a contribution for, as he writes, dinosaurs are not only good to think of but also good to think with. -- The New York Times Book Review
Phoebe-Lou Adams
One need not share the author's views in order to enjoy his book. -- The Atlantic Monthly
Edward Rothstein
[I]n a provocative new study...Mithchell takes on the cultural obsession with dinosaurs.
The New York Times
Herbert Kupferberg
[A] stylish account—sometimes rueful, often witty, always thoughtful—of how dinosaurs have seized the human imagination.
Parade Magazine
Kirkus Reviews
A cultural-historical reading of the dinosaur's image from its discovery in the 1840s to its current media superstar status as popular icon, from Mitchell. This book was conceived as a message in a bottle, written for future intergalactic explorers to help them understand how the dinosaur figured in human civilization, treating 'both the real and the imaginary, the scientific and the popular dinosaur as fossils in a common archaeological dig." Though Mitchell does do justice to the theories of dinosaurs as palpable artifacts (and how their study is 'accorded special treatment totally out of proportion to their practical and scientific importance'), as a broadly curious humanist and student of icons, he appreciates that paleontology doesn't begin to explain the meaning of the dinosaur. He wants to know why there are more dinosaur images today than there ever were actual beasts; to decipher the dinosaur's cultural function, as a wonder and a toy and a logo, monster and metaphor and monument. He's drawn to its ambiguity: How did a synonym for failure became a surefire commercial attraction? As befits a book whose content is as jumpy and intellectually charged as bebop, and whose layout resembles a mildly tranquilized 'Wired' magazine, great fistfuls of ideas and analyses and textual intricacies are showered upon the reader. They include a totemic exploration of 'Calvin and Hobbes,' Lacan and Walter Benjamin and Lévi-Strauss, as well as Jurassic Park, Stephen Jay Gould, Italo Calvino, the artists Robert Smithson and Alan McCollum, and a supporting cast of thousands.

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University of Chicago Press
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Last Dinosaur Book

The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon

By W.J.T. Mitchell

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003

University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-53204-6

Chapter One

Why Children Hate Dinosaurs

Although our history of the dinosaur is over, it isn't the end of the
story. Throughout the history of the dinosaur image there has been one
figure whose role we have so far taken for granted. Children are probably
the principal audience for dinosaur images. Every day of the school year,
busloads of children are herded into natural history museums in major
cities, and in elementary schools throughout the United States,
paleontology has become a semi-official fixture of the curriculum.
"Dinosaur units" are now standard fare in "the majority of California
school districts." With the reinforcement of the toy industry, children's
television shows, advertising, and roadside attractions, the dinosaur may
be the most publicized animal in children's lives.

* * *

The myth that all children love dinosaurs is contradicted by this
nineteenth-century scene of a visit to the monsters at the Crystal Palace.
(Cartoon by John Leech. "Punch's Almanac for 1855," Punch 28 [1855]: 8.
Photo courtesy of The NewberryLibrary, Chicago.)

* * *

There is a widespread assumption that all children love dinosaurs, that
they find them automatically fascinating, interesting, marvelous,
wonderful, and irresistible. I do not have any sociological studies or
statistics to prove that this assumption is wrong, nor do I need any. The
claim that all children love dinosaurs simply cannot, on the face of it,
be true. If only one child in the world were to express indifference or
ambivalence, let alone hostility, then the claim that all children love
dinosaurs would be proved false. Since I have certain knowledge of one
child who did not love dinosaurs (namely, myself), the common wisdom has
to be wrong.

That's right. I was not one of those children who love dinosaurs. To me
they always seemed a crashing bore compared with the medieval dragons,
whose images were accompanied by wonderful romantic stories of courageous
knights and beautiful ladies. My first introduction to dinosaurs was
accompanied by a stern admonition: no stories, no fantasies; this is
science. These creatures are (were) real. They existed a long time ago, so
long ago that there were no people around to have any adventures with
them, much less make up stories about them. So I tuned out of the dinosaur
lessons, concentrated on King Arthur, and grew up to be an iconologist, a
historian of cultural images, instead of a paleontologist. The only
interesting question about dinosaurs to me was why other kids thought they
were so wonderful. Did this mean that there was something wrong with me?
What was I missing?

It wasn't until I saw Jurassic Park that I finally got the point.
Dinosaurs, I realized, were just as saturated with romance and adventure
as the dragons. I had just been looking for the romance in the wrong
place-namely, in the real lives of dinosaurs, which, apart from occasional
episodes of spectacular violence, were probably quite dull. There was
romance aplenty, however, in the human activities surrounding dinosaurs-in
the heroic quest-romances in search of their bones, the intricate
detective work of their reconstruction, the magic of their visual
resurrection, the impressive temples in which they are displayed, and the
endless mythologies that people spin about them. The romance was to be
found, in short, in the history of the dinosaur image that you have just

I doubt that I am the first person in history to fail to love dinosaurs at
the proper time and in the proper place (between 4 and 7 years of age, in
preschool and elementary school). And even if the vast majority of
children do the right thing and fall in love with dinosaurs on schedule,
they also have a tendency to fall out of love with them on schedule as
well. The Barney jingle, "I love you, you love me ..." that is sung by
kindergartners all over America is subjected to a hate-filled
transformation within a year or two. Indeed, Barney is on the receiving
end of more hostility than just about any other popular cultural icon I
can think of. Parents admit to a cordial dislike of the saccharine
saurian, and no self-respecting second-grader will admit to liking Barney
("He's too childish" was the response of first-graders I talked to at the
University of Chicago's Laboratory School.) When Barney made a personal
appearance at a suburban shopping mall a couple of years ago, the news
that he had been beaten up by a teenage gang was greeted with undisguised
pleasure in the news media. The audience on Saturday Night Live cheered
wildly when Barney (standing in for Godzilla) was knocked around by
professional basketball muscle-man Charles Barkley. The Barney bulletin
board on the Internet
consists mainly of unprintable obscenities about the
dopey dino.

I will admit that Barney evokes an extreme range of emotions, from the
unqualified love of the 4-year-old to the (often ironic) expressions of
indifference or outright dislike by older children and adults. I think we
should take Barney as a kind of weathervane of the ambivalence about
dinosaurs that seems so deeply embedded in their reception throughout
their 150 years of public life. It seems "built into" the culturally
constructed "nature" of dinosaurs to be both monumental and trivial,
awesome and contemptible, horrible and cute. In absorbing all the
"cuteness" of dinosaurs, Barney seems to become a lightning rod for all
the darker, more violent passions that they evoke. It's a little more
difficult to feel superior to the T. rex or Velociraptor, though it should
be clear that no monument, however impressive, is invulnerable to
desecration or satire. At the beginning of Jurassic Park, when challenged
by a fat little boy who doesn't see why the raptors were so impressive,
the paleontologist Dr. Grant performs a demonstration on the boy's belly
(with an actual raptor claw) of how the raptor would have disembowelled
him and eaten him alive. The message from Dr. Grant is explicit: "Show a
little respect." But the message in the boy's challenge is equally
telling: kids have no respect. They do not all love dinosaurs or find them
fascinating, and we should not base our educational practices or
psychological theories on the assumption that they do.

* * *

The monster as paleontologist, shown in this still from Jurassic Park, in
which the benign Dr. Grant gives way to his dislike of children by
administering a lesson in fear and respect to the fat little boy who has
dared to question whether dinosaurs were so great.

* * *

What would be a better starting place? To begin with, we need to recognize
the temporal, transitional character of dinosaurs as cultural symbols.
Lifelong fixation on dinosaurs, whether it takes the form of amateur
dinomania or a professional career in paleontology, is the rare exception.
Most adults go to natural history museums with their kids-or perhaps it
would be more accurate to say that the kids take the adults. How many
times have you heard a first-grader lecturing a parent or grandparent on
the latest dino-discovery? I deliberately use the word Brontosaurus in
conversations with first-graders to see how long it will take them to
correct me on the up-to-date nomenclature (Apatosaurus). On rainy
Saturdays in New Haven, the curators of the Peabody Museum of Natural
History know the place will be packed with kids.

We should recognize this for what it is, a rite of passage that is
specific to contemporary childhood in modern societies. It was not part of
anyone's childhood before 1854, it was not part of most American
children's experience before World War II, and it is still not part of
many children's experience in the so-called underdeveloped areas of the
world. As an initiation ritual, it is a very special and recent invention.

We need to be asking what sort of initiation is taking place in children's
consumption of the dinosaur image. What cognitive skills and moral
attitudes are being inculcated by the passage through dinomania? Any
assumption that this process is simply "natural" or "universal" just leads
us away from really understanding what is going on.
We need to begin, then, with a rather different set of hypotheses about
children's (and, for that matter, adults') feelings for dinosaurs, to wit:

1. The principal affect associated with
dinosaurs is ambivalence, a shifting
complex of admiration and anxiety,
identification and otherness.

2. This affect is transitional, subject to
regular changes that may have some
relation to stages in cognitive and
psychosocial development.

3. This affect is not natural or innate, but part
of a complex cultural ritual constructed by
the whole ensemble of popular media
images and pedagogy that influences the
child's experience.

Let's see where these hypotheses take us.


Excerpted from Last Dinosaur Book
by W.J.T. Mitchell
Copyright © 2003 by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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