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Re: The Last Dinosaur Book(long)
Tom and list:
You are certainly correct in stating that I am skeptical about your
claim that the dinosaur is best understood as a totem animal. However, I
won't say that it is an unprofitable avenue of research or that it is,
on the face of it, implausible. My main complaint was that I found "The
Totem Animal of Modernity" unconvincing.
As I read it, the chapter (12) was divided into two parts -
1. Examining dinosaurs as serving the same function in modern societies
as totem animals in premodern societies.
2. Comparing the concept of dinosaurs with the concept of totemism.
In the first, there were a lot of ideas thrown around, but few examples.
The Toronto Raptors are an unequivocal example of dinosaurs as "clan
signs," and you make an good case for Jefferson's fossils reflecting the
natural fitness of a young America. But this doesn't convince me of your
statement, "The dinosaur is a 'clan sign' for a wide range of social
collectivities, from national to federal 'states,' from vanishing races
to dominant, imperial civilizations, from warrior-hunter brotherhoods to
dangerous new sisterhoods of 'clever girls.'" Certainly dinosaurs have
been used as metaphors and labels for all of these, but a clan sign? I'd
like more examples where the collectivities select or at least identify
with dinosaurs before I'm convinced of this point.
Regarding the Greek Chthonian monsters and the Sioux Unktehi, are these
predecessors considered ancestral totems? It seems to me that these
could be considered "anti-totems," archaic beasts who strengthen your
pedigree by contrasting with it (a sort of totemic outgroup, I would guess).
Ritual practices, as Dan Varner pointed out, abound when paleontologists
and dinophiles (and zoologists and animal lovers, for that matter) get
together to share the object of their fascination. And I will say you
make some interesting points about resurrecting dinosaurs for public
consumption and the possible connection between totemism/ethnobiology
and dinosaurs/taxonomy. But the only example given for popular dinosaur
ritual is Jurassic Park's concern about dinosaur breeding run amok vs.
human procreation anxieties, which is a bit of a stretch to connect with
a sexual consummation rituals, and might be more simply explained by
examining the family values themes present in Spielberg's
As for the second part, as I read it, the difficulties of the concept of
totemism are presented. But instead of addressing these difficulties, a
comparison is made between them and the difficuties of the concept of
"dinosaur". Where it seems to me that an argument could be made for
"dinosaur" and "totem" being interchangable tools for the cultural study
of natural history, the argument that dinosaurs *are* the modern totem
animal is finally presented in a strengthened form in a way that I,
admittedly, have yet to wrap my head around.
Finally, I should admit that I come to "The Last Dinosaur Book" with a
lot of baggage - years of fascination with the cultural aspects of
dinosaurs which began as attempts to incorporate dinophilism into a
conceptual art background. I've read and reread (and reread) it in
attempts to gain as "openminded" a view as possible. George Leonard has
pointed out where TLDB can be helpful in opening new avenues, and I
applaud his show suggestions and the exhibition in Wyoming (has the
"Paleoart" article been published in _Studies in Modern Art_ yet?).
Still, as a dinophile, I want to see the subject examined carefully.
Maybe more carefully than any publisher in his right mind would accept!