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Seven Theses on the Dinosaur
by W.J.T. Mitchell
Studies have shown that all important works of cultural history have a minimum of six and no more than eight core theses. Here are W. J. T. Mitchell's seven theses concerning dinosaurs and iconology, from his standard lecture handout.
1. The dinosaur, understood as a scientific concept and thus as a real entity in nature, may not exist.
2. The dinosaur, understood as a cultural icon, a symbolic object produced by human societies, certainly does exist.
3. The dinosaur is therefore much more important as a cultural object than as a scientific entity. If it were not for popular fascination, dinosaurs would probably have disappeared from scientific discourse in the nineteenth century.
4. The dinosaur is the totem animal of modern culture. It is a modern invention, a new animal group that did not exist prior to the nineteenth century. It serves, like traditional totems, as a symbol of social groups--clans, tribes, races, nations, and species. It is an ancestor figure, a magical or taboo object, and the focus of ritual feasts, spectacles of resurrection and sacrificial consumption.
5. As a cultural icon, the dinosaur changes its appearance and meaning in relation to transformations in modern political economies and to changes in scientific and technological paradigms.
6. The dinosaur is the modern descendant of traditional monsters like the dragon and leviathan. As such, it symbolizes the power of the total state in its modern constitutional form, and it has a special significance as the unofficial totem animal of the world's leading democratic nation, the United States.
7. In the last twenty-five years the dinosaur has crossed a new cultural threshold, becoming a central figure in the education of children in advanced industrial societies, a globally-circulated popular attraction, and the key to a postmodern cultural formation called "paleoart."
The dinosaur appears here as if springing up out of the modern addition to attack the traditional building. The Mercedes logo on its tail identifies it as a creature of modern corporate power, gobbling up the past. This is the Berlinosaurus, an appropriate monster for a city that has been tearing itself down and erasing its past for over a century. The ruined tower of the Gedachtnissekirche or "church of memory," is the appropriate prey for Berlinosaurus.
(Postcard by Claudia Katz-Palme, collage artist, Berlin. From The Last Dinosaur Book.)