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RE: The Last Dinosaur Book(long)
MATT: GOOD QUESTIONS. I'VE PLUGGED IN A FEW BRIEF REPLIES BELOW.
From: Matthew Celeskey [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Saturday, May 01, 1999 4:14 PM
To: email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: 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 (CRUCIAL POINT HERE: I THINK
THEY ARE 'SIMILAR' NOT 'THE SAME'--THE MODERNITY OF THE DINOSAUR TOTEM IS TO
BE EMPHASIZED, AND THAT MEANS WE LOOK FOR TRANSFORMATIONS AND REVERSALS OF
FUNCTION, NOT JUST 'THE SAME' FUNCTION. THE DIFFERENCES AND INVERSIONS ARE
AS IMPORTANT AS THE SIMILARITIES). 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,'(I WAS THINKING OF
'OFFICIAL' STATE DINOSAURS LIKE NEW JERSEY'S HADROSAURUS; ALSO OF THEIR USE
AS UNOFFICIAL PRESTIGE SYMBOLS--U OF TEXAS PRESS TRUMPETING THEIR REGIONAL
FOSSILS IN RELATION TO THE TEXAS CONCERN FOR SIZE; DINOSAUR NATIONAL
MONUMENT IN UTAH; THEN THERE ARE THE METAPHORIC ASSOCIATIONS--HARRY
HARRISON'S RENDERING OF DINOS AS AN IMPERIAL CONQUERING CIVILIZATION OPPOSED
TO PRIMITIVE HUMANS, IN WEST OF EDEN; THEIR USE AS A SYMBOL OF MASS SOCIETY
IN CAPEK'S 'WAR WITH THE NEWTS'; OR WITHIN PALEONTOLOGY, BAKKER'S CONSISTENT
COMPARISON OF DINOSAURS WITH IMPERIAL CIVILIZATIONS) 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? (YOU'RE
RIGHT: "CLAN" SIGN IS RELATIVELY RARE, AND IN FACT, THIS IS A CRUCIAL
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TRADITIONAL TOTEM AND THE MODERN ONE. I SUPPOSE THE
ONLY PROPER CLAN (WITH ELDERS, RITUALS, FEASTS AND SACRIFICES) THAT USES THE
DINOSAUR AS TOTEM IS THE SVP. THE MODERN EQUIVALENT OF THE CLAN IS THE
RACE, NATION, ETHNIC GROUP, OR THE GENDER GROUPING. CAPEK TREATS HIS
SAURIANS AS A SYMBOL OF "THE NEW MASSES". THE GENDERING OF
CARNIVORE/HERBIVORE IS ONE PLACE WHERE TRADITIONAL TOTEMISM (AS LEVI-STRAUSS
DESCRIBES IT) INTERSECTS WITH MODERN. THE BASIC POINT HERE IS THAT TOTEMISM
PROVIDES A CONCEPTUAL OPENING, BUT IT HAS TO BE MODIFIED FOR MODERN
CONDITIONS, SINCE OUR SOCIAL ORGANIZATIONS ARE DIFFERENT. WHAT WE SHARE
WITH TRADITIONAL SOCIETIES, THOUGH, IS THE ERECTION OF ANIMAL SYMBOLS FOR
SOCIAL COLLECTIVES, AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF NARRATIVES AND RITUALS AROUND
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? (NO--SEE BELOW) It seems to me
could be considered "anti-totems," archaic beasts who strengthen your
pedigree by contrasting with it (a sort of totemic outgroup, I would guess).
I THINK THIS IS A VERY SHREWD WAY OF PUTTING IT, AND I'D LIKE TO BORROW YOUR
IDEA. THE ANTI-TOTEM WOULD THEN BE AN ANIMAL GROUP THAT HAD TO DIE OUT SO
THAT WE COULD LIVE. THIS IS CERTAINLY ONE STORY THAT IS OFTEN REPEATED
ABOUT THE RELATION OF DINOSAURS TO MAMMALS. BUT THE ANTI-TOTEM CAN THEN BE
RECYCLED AS THE TOTEM FIGURE FOR A NEW GROUP. THINK OF THE WAY THE DRAGON
CAN BE ASSOCIATED WITH THE ANTI-CHRIST IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION, AND YET BE
APPROPRIATED AS A HERALDRIC DEVICE BY FEUDAL ARISTOCRATS. SIMILARLY,
LEVIATHAN IS THE SYMBOL OF THE CHAOTIC FORCES OF NATURE IN THE BOOK OF JOB,
AND BECOMES THE SYMBOL OF THE COMMONWEALTH IN HOBBES' POLITICAL THEORY.
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
non-dinosaurian works.OTHER RITUALS TO CONSIDER: THE DINNER PARTY
CELEBRATING THE UNVEILING OF THE CRYSTAL PALACE DINOSAUR (INTERPRETED BY THE
LONDON ILLUSTRATED NEWS AS A JONAH-IMAGE AND A SCENE OF PREGNANCY); OR
WATERHOUSE HAWKINS' OWN ACCOUNT OF HIS WORK AS A LABOR OF RESURRECTION;
BAKKER'S DESCRIPTION OF THE EMOTIONS THAT ACCOMPANY UNEARTHING FOSSILS; OR
THE MATING DANCE OF CARY GRANT AND KATHERINE HEPBURN AROUND THE
'INTERCLOSTAL CLAVICLE' IN 'BRINGING UP BABY' OR KONG'S FIGHT WITH THE
DINOSAURS TO DEFEND HIS WHITE TROPHY WIFE. I DON'T THINK THIS INTEREST IN
SEX, REPRODUCTION, FAMILY IS JUST SPIELBERG'S CONTRIBUTION. SEEMS TO ME HE
IS TAPPING A THEME THAT HAS ALWAYS BEEN THERE IN THE SYMBOLIC RESONANCE OF
THE DINOSAUR. HORNER'S 'FAMILY VALUES' DINOSAURS MAY BE WORTH THINKING
ABOUT IN THIS REGARD. IT'S ONE PLACE WHERE A CHANGE IN THE SCIENTIFIC AND
POPULAR IMAGE OF THE DINOSAUR MAY BE SEEN IN CLOSE SYNCHRONY.
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. WE'RE IN THE SAME BOAT HERE.
MY HEAD IS NOT FULLY AROUND THIS EITHER. I WANTED TO PUT THE ARGUMENT IN
ITS STRONGEST FORM, MAKING DINOS "THE" (NOT JUST "A") MODERN TOTEM TO STRESS
THEIR UNIQUE FUNCTION AS A GLOBALLY CIRCULATED ANIMAL IMAGE, A MODERN,
SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERY AND THUS A NEW TAXON IN PUBLIC CONSCIOUSNESS. THE WAY
TO DISPROVE MY CLAIM WOULD BE SIMPLE: PROPOSE ANOTHER ANIMAL SYMBOL THAT
DOES ALL THE THINGS THAT DINOSAURS DO.
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?).NOT 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!ME
TOO. MY BOOK COULD HAVE BEEN TWICE AS LONG, AND I'M SURE OTHERS WILL
CORRECT AND IMPROVE ON IT. IT WAS JUST AN ATTEMPT TO START THE
THANKS FOR YOUR COMMENTS, MATT. BEST, TOM MITCHELL