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RE: The Last Dinosaur Book

Dear Philidor:  Thanks for a very insightful comment.  Yes, traditional
totem animals were living creatures, usually familiar species in every day
life.  The idea of extinction (in our sense) wasn't available to traditional
societies, though they did have ideas about vanished races and especially of
monstrous predators  who had to be wiped out so they could survive (see the
Sioux legends of the Unktehi, discussed in my book).

My idea is that the dinosaur is a distinctly modern totem because it
provides a vivid public image of the modern idea of extinction.  It is then
"brought back to life" and made into a familiar animal in everyday life by
the collaboration of modern science, art, and media (the rhetoric of
resurrection from the dead is everywhere in both scientific and popular
accounts of the excavation and restoration process).  Traditional totems,
similarly, did not become sacred until they were represented in graphic or
sculptural images (see Durkheim's Elementary Forms of Religious Life on this

As for the power of the dinosaur image.  You are right that it sometimes
(but not always) symbolizes the familiar cliches of stupidity, slowness,
etc.  I think it's important to recognize, though, that there are many other
meanings (ferocity, world dominance, giantism) that make dinos objects of
admiration and wonder.  If one tries to grasp the "whole picture" of the
dinosaur as cultural icon, I think one has to employ categories like
ambivalence, paradox, and ambiguity, NOT a one-sided interpretation of them
as pathetic failures.  The crucial point is that dinos are both sublime and
ridiculous, terrible and cute, wonderful and awful, associated with the
archaic and obsolete AND with the novelty or innovation.  This circuit of
contradictory meanings is sometimes compressed into a 60 second commercial
(see my "Big MacDino" chapter).  Freud, by the way, thought one key to
totemism was ambivalence; but more generally, cultural symbols that have
real power and importance always work this way.  Symbols that just mean one
thing all the time are relatively unimportant.  Figures like the dinosaur
(and the dragon, the whale, the leviathan, the thunderbird) by contrast are
figures to conjure with, and to argue over.  Your own comment already
suggests a way in which dinos serve, not just as metaphors of failure, but
as possible foci for positive identification.  Certainly our ability to
"bring them back to life" in scientific and popular display is a
demonstration of our own power.

-----Original Message-----
From: owner-dinosaur@usc.edu [mailto:owner-dinosaur@usc.edu]On Behalf Of
Sent: Saturday, May 01, 1999 10:21 AM
To: wjtm@midway.uchicago.edu
Cc: dinosaur@usc.edu
Subject: Re: The Last Dinosaur Book

In a message dated 4/30/99 11:46:30 AM Eastern Daylight Time,
wjtm@midway.uchicago.edu writes:

>From my understanding of the concept, I'm not sure that totem is the best
analogy.  Isn't a totem a living animal, an individual exemplar of a
spiritual power able to imbue followers with power or counsel?  In that
an extinct animal is an extinct god.  Saturn was not extinct, and the
Saturnalia represented upheaval, a contrast to the present order.  The
dinosaur may be comparable in the sense that it represents a different
distant in time rather than space, and may indicate a happy disruption, a
palliative for someone feeling powerless.
This is different from the other cultural use of dinosaurs, the slow and
obsolete creatures inevitably replaced by something better.  In fact, the
view of dinosaurs as efficient and powerful might then be cultic, a
supportive ingroup separated from the rest of the world.
Comment very much appreciated.