More on The Last Dinosaur Book:
Read Chapter 37, "Why Children Hate Dinosaurs, an excerpt from the book.
Go to A Schematic History of Dinosaur Images adapted from page 101 of the book, with dozens of links to relevant websites.
Read Mitchell's Seven Theses on the Dinosaur a lecture handout on the main themes of The Last Dinosaur Book.
Other books by W. J. T. Mitchell published by the University of Chicago Press include:
Links to dinosaur resources on the web can be found at:
You may also like to read the Romantic Praxis interview of W.J.T. Mitchell.
This article originally appeared in the University of Chicago Chronicle, May 1, 1997 issue. Reprinted with permission. For more on the Chronicle and to read the latest University news, go to the University of Chicago News Office.
A Interview with W.J.T. Mitchell
Americans, W.J.T. Mitchell knows, are crazy about dinosaurs. They're everywhere: on gas station signs, in amusement parks, in museums, and in movies such as The Lost World, a sequel to Jurassic Park. The Last Dinosaur Book, (published by the University of Chicago Press) examines why dinosaurs have become a symbol of the United States' drive toward nationalism and modernity. "The dinosaur is like the bald eagle, except it's an unofficial symbol instead of a sanctioned one," Mitchell said.
Dinosaurs are a new topic for Mitchell, the Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor in English Language & Literature at the University of Chicago, and a University faculty member since 1977. The editor of Critical Inquiry, he has published widely on literature, mass media, and visual culture. His book Picture Theory, a study of verbal and visual interactions in art, literature, and media, won the College Art Association's highest award last year: the Charles Rufus Morey Prize for the most distinguished book in art history. He was the first scholar who is not an art historian to receive this award.
Your dinosaur book has an intriguing premise. Can you tell us more about it?
It's set in an imaginary future where alien visitors--reptilian bipeds, of course--come down to earth to take a look around. All the humans are gone, but the aliens see remnants of human culture everywhere--factories, cities. Gradually they realize that human beings had an obsessive fascination, perhaps even a cult, focused on reptilian bipeds very like themselves--what we now call dinosaurs.
The book is framed as an archaeological retrospective on the cultural phenomenon of dinosaurs. When these reptilian bipeds find a library, they see shelves and shelves of scientific, popular, and children's books on dinosaurs, all of which take dinosaur fascination for granted. But they also find this one, which tries to explain that fascination to beings who won't have a clue why dinosaurs were important. That's why it's called The Last Dinosaur Book. It's addressed to future aliens who will find our familiar customs very strange indeed.
Did you go through the dinosaur craze when you were a kid?
No, I didn't get it at all. I thought dinosaurs were boring and dragons were fascinating. I preferred King Arthur, with its stories of knights and dragons.
It was not until I saw Jurassic Park that I realized it was the culture surrounding the dinosaur that was interesting. Science has its version of the dinosaur, but the dinosaur is also fantasy, myth, and metaphor.
That's when you decided to write this book?
Yes. I had studied cultural images for a long time--especially the irrational attachments people have to images such as idols and fetishes. Totems are a particularly relevant example for the cultural study of dinosaurs. In traditional societies, totems are multi-purpose symbols, usually of animals, although sometimes of vegetables or minerals. Totems perform many functions. They can be religious icons, ancestral figures, or symbols of social identity as when, for example, the bear, eagle, or elk becomes the emblem of a tribe. They are also involved with sex, gender, and reproduction.
Jurassic Park uses dinosaurs as totems--not just of American culture, but also of the New World Order of the multinational corporation. Jurassic Park uses the dinosaurs to tell a tale of male hysteria in this new world. All the dinosaurs in the movie are female, and the most exciting ones are the velociraptors, which are small, quick, agile, and travel in packs. So you have all these females that you can't control wrecking havoc in a place created by men. It's a film about male panic at the emergence of new kinds of women.
The dinosaur Brachiosaurus in the great hall of the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, with Native American totem poles in the distance. What is the relation between these two kinds of monumental figures? We routinely label totems as "primitive" or "premodern" objects, in contrast to modern, scientific images of the dinosaur. What if we reversed the labels and thought about the totem pole as a reflection of real knowledge about the world and the dinosaur as the reflection of modern fantasy? (© Ted Lacey Photography, 1998.) [Photograph from The Last Dinosaur Book]
So you think that Americans use dinosaurs like totems also? In what way?
"Dinosaur" is a large and diverse category of animals, which is why it functions so well as a modern totem. Dinosaurs mean very different things to different people, and there are many different kinds of dinosaurs to identify with. They aren't exclusively American symbols, however. France and England have important interests in the dinosaurs, and of course Japan has Godzilla, a mutant dinosaur who is sometimes the destroyer and sometimes the nation's protector.
Well, dinosaurs are used to create a national identity, for one thing. The United States has set aside a "Dinosaur National Monument" in Utah. Many states have a state dinosaur--New Jersey's is the Hadrosaurous, the first complete dinosaur found. But the foundation for American fascination with dinosaurs was established by Thomas Jefferson.
Natural history museums started in the United States as a matter of national priorities. We lacked the cultural antiquities of Europe--the paintings, the sculpture--and we needed something to establish an identity. Jefferson felt the giant bones of the American mammoth exemplified the potential of American greatness. Since America was to be a nation based on natural law and self-evident truths, what better sign of nature, Jefferson thought, than these big bones of giant creatures that were being dug up in our soil?
Jefferson had a "bone room" in the White House and helped to establish the natural history museum as a national institution. Now every natural history museum needs dinosaurs to draw people in. No one visits museums just to see butterflies.
"I continued looking at the skeleton, the Father, the Brother, my Counterpart, my Self; I recognized my fleshless limbs, my lineaments carved in stone, everything we had been and were no longer, our majesty, our faults, our ruin." -- Italo Calvino, "The Dinosaurs." (Quarry Wall, Dinosaur National Monument, Vernal, Utah. Skull of Camarasaurus. Photo by the author.) [Photograph from The Last Dinosaur Book]
So why are Americans crazy about dinosaurs?
Because they symbolize everything we are--and are not. They are not just reptiles, they're terrible reptiles that often walked on two legs. We see them as having been the rulers of the earth, and humans rule the earth now. Yet they are extinct, which is a persistent worry of humanity. They are both ferocious and ridiculous--a sign of power and of the obsolete.
A good example of this ambivalence is a McDonald's commercial that shows the interior of a natural history museum. You see the bones of a T. Rex, and then, magically, the dinosaur comes to life. It stomps through the hallways, obviously hungry, looking for food. It spots a dozing guard who is holding a box of McDonald's fries. The T. Rex roars and the guard wakes, frightened. But the dinosaur doesn't eat the guard. It bows its head and whimpers. "OK," says the guard, holding out a fry. "Sit." The dinosaur does so. "Roll over." The dinosaur does. "This one should be easy for you," the guard says finally. "Play dead."
That commercial encapsulates the role of the dinosaur in our society: awesome but ridiculous. And it's because it is like a chameleon or quick-change artist that the dinosaur is fascinating. The makers of this commercial are, in effect, showing us the totem animal of modern culture brought back to life and controlled by the "totem vegetable" of today--the McDonald's french fry.
For information on purchasing the book -- from bookstores or here online -- please go to the webpage for The Last Dinosaur Book.