Articulating Dinosaurs: A dense academic book, but rewarding even for a lay fan

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Articulating Dinosaurs by Brian NobleArticulating Dinosaurs by Brian Noble

I have to confess that Articulating Dinosaurs (2016) by Brian Noble wasn’t quite what I’d expected, though that was certainly more my fault for not reading the description closely and in its entirety. Basically, any author/publisher has me at “dinosaurs,” so everything after that is just so much superfluous verbiage. So yes, I can’t say I was at all fully prepared for the academic/critical theory nature of the work, though it didn’t take too many early references to Lacan or Foucault before I figured out my misperception and readjusted my expectations. It’s been a few years (OK, decades) since my crit days, and I can’t say that even when I was reading critical theory that I was wholly enjoying or comprehending it (I do recall doing a lot of back-and-forth page-flipping re-reading with Lacan, for instance. Plus, I’m pretty sure there was swearing). Those memories didn’t quite encourage me to go back and ground myself more fully, so I just forged ahead with Noble’s work, cheerfully acknowledging my ignorance of many of his referents, and you know what — and here’s the key for those of you already thinking you’re moving on — it didn’t matter.

Because while a good amount of abstruse terminology reared its sometimes ugly/intimidating/annoying head (or, for those better versed in such things, its informative/insightful/thoughtful head), I still thoroughly enjoyed Articulating Dinosaurs for its arguments, its real-world concrete examples of points (especially in the form of the lengthy case study of a specific museum exhibit), Noble’s lucid prose (despite the inherent fogginess of some of the critical language), and the way the work places dinosaurs in a sociological/cultural context.

I don’t want to downplay the critical theory — readers should be prepared for terms, passages, and section headings such as:

  • “Chronotope” — “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and special relationships … expressing the inseparability of space and time (time as the fourth dimension of space”)
  • “Zone of Implosion” — “a provisional agentive-form and organizer of time-space with attendant lives — animated, reanimated, or otherwise … In the case of the Mesozoic nexus, these actors and forces merged around a modernity-generated topos and chromos that produce and condition what can count as truthful visions of nature as a changing yet constrained dynamic … The multiple, layered, messy performative nexuses combine, working much the same sense as Michel Foucault’s apparatus, and more specifically as a dispotif.”
  • “The Rhizomatic non-System: Recalibrating Systematics and Phantasmatics”

There’s no doubt there’s a lot of this sort of thing throughout Articulating Dinosaurs, as Noble is not writing for a general or lay audience. But that said, as mentioned one can, well, maybe not “glide” through, but certainly pick one’s way across to such lines/passages to more clearly understandable territory in that next paragraph or two. And it all holds together pretty well as general argument, even if you’re missing (as I did) some of the specific points.

What Noble does with all this is to attempt to write “a book about dinosaurs, but more particularly a book about the action that brings them back, back to life.” The two ways this is mostly done is via fiction (whether print or film or others) and science (museum exhibits and papers, for instance, and Noble is interested in how:

scientists manage incursions of what is only supposed to be fictional into what is only supposed to be factual? Or do that all? Do they — or, just as importantly, why should they — care about this? … The ultimate proposition … is that articulating dinosaurs is a mode of articulating power in different ways … a political anthropology of dinosaurs … tracing the public emergences and transformations of two dinosaurs in particular.

One of those two is the T-Rex, especially its role in fiction, specifically Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (in print and film), the original King Kong, and Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, but also its discovery as fossil and subsequent exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History. Into this mix he brings issues of race, eugenics, gender, the role of nature in our lives, and other socio-cultural-political factors. Opposed to the T-Rex and taking up the second half of the book is Maiasaura, in particular an exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum. With its name translated as “the good mother lizard,” Noble’s very detailed ethonographical examination of the exhibit allows for further exploration of the aforementioned issues, and how society’s attitudes toward them have or have not changed.

Here, for example, is a passage regarding gender roles based on some of the exhibition textual displays:

Here, almost from the outset, are the suggestions of the Maiasaur’s life and times, its nurturing capacities aligning in an uninterrogated way with its gendered nomination as “the good mother.” There is no mention of nurturing “fathers” or males. There is instead a matter-of-fact point about who does the caregiving … The configuring of family, feminine gendering, nurturance, a “gentle” and “adorable” dinosaur, articulating with “families” as “natural” audiences for this exhibit was becoming increasingly obvious.

Articulating Dinosaurs is not your typical dinosaur book by any means. Nor is it, as mentioned, aimed at the lay audience. But that’s not the same as saying a lay reader can’t get a lot out of it. What Noble does is open our eyes to ways of thinking about things we’ve never considered, even when we’ve been thinking about them (dinosaurs) ever since we were children. What more can you ask?

Publication date: July 14, 2016. In this remarkable interdisciplinary study, anthropologist Brian Noble traces how dinosaurs and their natural worlds are articulated into being by the action of specimens and humans together. Following the complex exchanges of palaeontologists, museums specialists, film- and media-makers, science fiction writers, and their diverse publics, he witnesses how fossil remains are taken from their partial state and re-composed into astonishingly precise, animated presences within the modern world, with profound political consequences. Articulating Dinosaurs examines the resurrecting of two of the most iconic and gendered of dinosaurs.  First Noble traces the emergence of Tyrannosaurus rex (the “king of the tyrant lizards”) in the early twentieth-century scientific, literary, and filmic cross-currents associated with the American Museum of Natural History under the direction of palaeontologist and eugenicist Henry Fairfield Osborn.  Then he offers his detailed ethnographic study of the multi-media, model-making, curatorial, and laboratory preparation work behind the Royal Ontario Museum’s ground-breaking 1990s exhibit of Maiasaura(the “good mother lizard”).  Setting the exhibits at the AMNH and the ROM against each other, Noble is able to place the political natures of T. rex and Maiasaura into high relief and to raise vital questions about how our choices make a difference in what comes to count as “nature.”  An original and illuminating study of science, culture, and museums, Articulating Dinosaurs is a remarkable look at not just how we visualize the prehistoric past, but how we make it palpable in our everyday lives.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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3 comments

  1. Even though I’ve forgotten most of what I used to know about dinosaurs, you’ve made this seem very accessible. Thanks!

  2. This books needs to be on my bookshelf. And both “zone of implosion” and ‘chronotope” are going on my writing prompts list.

  3. Brian Noble /

    Thanks for the thoughtful and frank review Bill. My hope has always been that the book would reach across lay and expert audiences, and you have affirmed that can happen!

    Brian Noble

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