The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon
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A cultural-historical reading of the dinosaur’s image from its discovery in the 1840s to its current media superstar status as popular icon, from Mitchell (Engish and Art/Univ. of Chicago). This book was conceived as a message in a bottle, written for future intergalactic explorers to help them understand how the dinosaur figured in human civilization, treating “both the real and the imaginary, the scientific and the popular dinosaur as fossils in a common archaeological dig.” Though Mitchell does do justice to the theories of dinosaurs as palpable artifacts (and how their study is “accorded special treatment totally out of proportion to their practical and scientific importance”), as a broadly curious humanist and student of icons, he appreciates that paleontology doesn’t begin to explain the meaning of the dinosaur. He wants to know why there are more dinosaur images today than there ever were actual beasts; to decipher the dinosaur’s cultural function, as a wonder and a toy and a logo, monster and metaphor and monument. He’s drawn to its ambiguity: How did a synonym for failure became a surefire commercial attraction? As befits a book whose content is as jumpy and intellectually charged as bebop, and whose layout resembles a mildly tranquilized Wired magazine, great fistfuls of ideas and analyses and textual intricacies are showered upon the reader. They include a totemic exploration of “Calvin and Hobbes,” Lacan and Walter Benjamin and LÇvi-Strauss, as well as Jurassic Park, Stephen Jay Gould, Italo Calvino, the artists Robert Smithson and Alan McCollum, and a supporting cast of thousands. It is dispiriting, though, that so vibrant a meta-analysis’such provocative fun and polished wit—finds that “the time when dinosaurs ruled the earth is now, and their rule is synonymous with the global dominance of American culture.” (illustrations)

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-226-53204-6
Page count: 308pp
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1998