May 1, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 16

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    Profile: 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 soon-to-be-released The Lost World, a sequel to Jurassic Park. His work in progress, The Last Dinosaur Book, (forthcoming from 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, 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.

    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.

    For example? 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. 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.

    -- Jennifer Vanasco