Jurassic Park, or Sympathy for the Dinosaur

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What dinosaurs seem to represent to us is a whole alternate model, an elaborate projection, of a racially-varied 'society' not unlike our own.
Joe Sartelle

Issue #5, May 1993

'Or maybe it's just ritual behavior,' she said, 'species-specific behavior that serves to identify them to one another. But maybe it doesn't have any broader meaning.' Ellie sighed. 'Or maybe they're weird. Maybe dinosaurs are weird. Or maybe it's a kind of communication.'
— a graduate student, at the end of Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park

Extinct for some sixty-five million years or so, dinosaurs are now all around us. One can hardly turn anywhere in American popular culture without bumping into dinosaurs, ranging from the realistic, life-size animatronic models increasingly featured at theme parks (such as the current exhibit at 'Marine World - Africa USA' in Vallejo, Ca.), to the silly anthropomorphic antics of toddler cult-hero Barney the Dinosaur on the hit PBS show Barney and Friends, and the working class dino-muppets of the ABC sitcom Dinosaurs. Of course, popular fascination with dinosaurs is nothing new in itself, but there does seem to be an incredible explosion of dinosauria going on lately, an outbreak of dinosaur-mania that will reach an over-the-top level of cultural saturation with the release on June 11th of Steven Spielberg's $60 million adaptation of Michael Crichton's best-selling novel, Jurassic Park. Perhaps the most hotly anticipated and over-hyped Hollywood blockbuster ever (and thus almost destined to disappoint), Jurassic Park has already made cultural history by setting a new record for merchandising agreements: more than one thousand products have been officially licensed, everything from model kits to baseball caps. While obviously I haven't had the chance to see Spielberg's movie yet, I did read Crichton's novel in anticipation of the Big Event. In addition to being a fun and action-packed story, it provides us with the resources needed to answer the question that will surely be on the mind of every Bad Subjects reader this summer (culturally sensitive and attuned people that you are): 'What's the deal with dinosaurs, anyway?'

The basic plot of Jurassic Park is fairly simple. A Palo Alto corporation called International Genetics Technologies, Inc. (InGen) has become able — through an entrepreneurial combination of audacity, technology, human ingenuity, and fantastic outlays of capital (mostly funded by Japanese investors, who are the only ones willing to wait years for uncertain results) — to clone dinosaurs from the bits of their DNA recovered from dinosaur blood inside the bodies of insects that once bit the now-extinct animals and were then trapped and preserved in amber for millions of years. (This is, by the way, theoretically possible.) The project is the dream of John Hammond, a billionaire capitalist with a passionate interest in dinosaurs, who comes across in the novel as a bizarre combination of Ross Perot and Ronald Reagan — part authoritarian martinet, part dissociated and childish old man. With the resources of his wealth and power, Hammond buys a rugged island a hundred or so miles off the coast of Costa Rica and turns it into Jurassic Park, 'the most advanced amusement park in the world,' with attractions 'so astonishing they would capture the imagination of the entire world': a population of living, breathing actual dinosaurs.

With the park just a year away from opening to the public (those rich enough to pay, that is), the nervous investors insist on sending a team to the island to determine whether or not the park is as safe and under control as Hammond continually insists. It isn't, of course, and most of the novel tells the story of everything getting completely out of control, most especially the incredibly fast, vicious and intelligent dinosaurs known as 'velociraptors,' which are six-foot tall, bipedal and socially-organized pack hunters with teeth that can chew through steel bars, and whose only response to their human creators and captors is to attack and kill them. The team of experts includes Alan Grant, a famous paleontologist known for his theories about dinosaur infant-rearing behavior, and his paleobotanist graduate student assistant, Ellie Sattler; and also John Malcolm, a brilliant and idiosyncratic mathematician (played by Jeff Goldblum in Spielberg's film, a perfect bit of casting) whose field of expertise is chaos theory, which deals with turbulence and unpredictability — complex 'real world' conditions that can only be described through non-linear equations. Malcolm, of course, predicts that the park is inherently unstable and its security precautions must inevitably break down. There are also Hammond's grandchildren, whose parents are getting a divorce: an eleven-year old boy, Tim, and his seven-year old, ceaselessly obnoxious sister Lex (if only the tyrannosaur had killed her halfway through, when it had the chance!). Hammond invites them for a 'fun weekend,' and to demonstrate the safety of his park.

There are other characters, of course, but these are the principals, all of them our heroes except for the perversely blind and stupid Hammond, who, like all of the bad guys, eventually gets what he deserves. Much of the story is detail, and I won't give away any more of it than I need to. It's enough to say that the park's control systems fail, the dinosaurs menace the humans (lots of dinosaur action), and some velociraptors almost make it to the mainland as stowaways on a supply ship. At the end, the Costa Rican government bombs the island's dinosaurs back into extinction... except for the ones that have somehow already escaped. But for the purposes of our analysis, the movements of the plot matter less than the role played by the dinosaurs themselves. Whereas in the upcoming movie the dinosaurs will first and foremost be interesting as an example of special effects and spectacle, in the novel — as in the case of Barney, and the Sinclairs of Dinosaurs — the dinosaurs are significant as characters in their own right.

It is of course an extremely common and ancient conceit to use animal species to stand in for human beings, or particular kinds of humans. What dinosaurs seem to represent to us is a whole alternate model, an elaborate projection, of a racially-varied 'society' not unlike our own. On the one hand, 'dinosaurs' refers to hundreds of very different and distinct species, just like the category of 'mammals.' On the other hand, in our popular fantasies we use the term 'dinosaurs' as though they were a single species, with the different types (the actual species) functioning as equivalents to human races and ethnicities — for example, I seem to recall that on Dinosaurs, Earl Sinclair is a tyrannosaur, while his boss was a triceratops. I would argue that this dual meaning is at work in all of our popular representations of dinosaurs. Certainly it's there in Jurassic Park: 'Some dinos are tame and cute,' explains one of the characters, 'and some are mean and nasty. Some of them see well, and some of them don't. Some of them are stupid, and some of them are very, very intelligent.' Just like people!

But dinosaurs are allegories not only of racial differentiation but of class identity as well — this is especially heavy-handed in the crude and caricatured working class personalities of Dinosaurs. In Crichton's novel the dinosaurs are literally a class of beings created by capital in order to serve capital: they are genetically-engineered, their DNA sequences altered just enough to make them patentable and thus private property; then they are held in captivity, where they must perform the labor of acting out their dinosaur identities for the benefit of wealthy tourists. Moreover, they are altered so that they are completely dependent upon their owners, the island's literal ruling class: they have been deprived of the ability to manufacture a particular amino acid and must receive it regularly in their food. 'These animals are genetically engineered to be unable to survive in the real world,' the dinosaurs' designer tells the visitors. 'They can only live here in Jurassic Park. They are not free at all. They are essentially our prisoners.'

What makes Jurassic Park particularly interesting, then, is that it can be read as a narrative effort at articulating a politics of race and identity linked together with a politics of class. Jurassic Park isn't just located in the Third World, allegorically it is the Third World: those diverse and mysterious (yet somehow all the same) Others who, like the dinosaurs, were not Others but only themselves until capitalism discovered their 'primitive' appeal and engineered them into a combination of global industrial labor force and exotic cultural 'parks' for wealthy tourists and First World scholars and slummers. Like the dinosaurs, the peoples of the Third World are ideally kept in a state of radical dependence, which has become woven into the very fabric of their cultures and identities — capitalism's equivalent to the rewritten DNA of Jurassic Park's dinosaurs.

The novel's emphasis on the fact of the dinosaurs' manufactured nature, however, tells us that the politics of identities is secondary here to the politics of class. To the extent that we feel sympathy for the dinosaurs, we wish that they could be set free to pursue their innate dinosaur identities and societies, free from human domination and exploitation. But the problem with this noble sentiment, as Jurassic Park repeatedly reminds us, is that the dinosaurs aren't really dinosaurs any more — they are artificial reconstructions of dinosaurs, close copies or images of the originals. In order to reconstruct dinosaur DNA, the scientists had to paste in equivalent segments of DNA from other, later (more developed or evolved) species. This is what allows Hammond to 'own' the animals: it was his capital that brought them into being. There's still a lot of 'real dinosaur' to them, but they are the creations of their exploiters: they are definitely not authentic.

In other words, Jurassic Park can be read as, among other things, a critique of identity politics and those elements of leftist or progressive thought, principally regarding minorities and the Third World, which fetishize the differences of the exploited while conveniently forgetting that these identities depend for their very existence upon a history of exploitation and cultural hybridization. If dinosaurs are figures in our popular culture for various kinds of 'ethnicities' (the dominant model of 'identity'), then Jurassic Park is a very coherent statement that ethnicities, like the novel's dinosaurs, are the creations of capitalism — reconstructions and images of identities that no longer exist, and are completely inaccessible except through the behavior of the hybrid, recreated identities. All we have are the images, not the total world from which they have been extracted.

Furthermore, Jurassic Park also suggests that the fortunes of ethnicities, like those of the dinosaurs, are inextricably tied to the fortunes of the capitalist system that brought them into being: once summoned into existence, they must earn their keep to survive. Thus the politics of identities and 'multiculturalism' are completely compatible with capitalism, being themselves the product of capitalist exploitation: imperial domination yields to domination by the 'free market,' in which all identities are just so many laborers and consumers with particular qualities and interests to target and exploit. Like the various dinosaurs on Jurassic Park's island, each identity is given its own contained space, within which it is 'free' to be itself. What creates and holds together the 'diversity' of identities is an elaborate system of regulation, control and commodification.

So Jurassic Park offers us nothing less than an allegory of the global system itself, with a land mass carved up into 'areas' inhabited by an assortment of 'identities' and 'societies' — all engineered from what was once 'nature' by scientists and technicians in the service of capital: 'to make money,' Hammond explains, 'lots and lots of money.' The diverse, different dinosaur enclaves are policed and exploited by the humans, who in terms of the allegory are figures for the operations of global capitalism; part of the appeal of the fantasy is that it makes the abstract and collective agency of global capital into the concrete and personal human motivations of the people who built the park. In a move typical of capitalist culture, greedy, stupid people get the blame rather than a greedy, stupid mode of production.

However, and not surprisingly, Jurassic Park mystifies its critique even as it makes it; or rather, to be more precise, it offers us contradictory messages about whom to blame for what goes wrong. The novel opens with a half-fiction, half-fact introduction about the corruption of pure science by business interests; the field of biotechnology, in particular, has been driven from the beginning by the capitalist interest in profit. This distinction between science and capitalism — science is the resource, capitalism the corrupting agency — is occluded over the course of the novel, so that science finally takes the blame. Near the end of the book, while the humans are fighting off the velociraptors, Malcolm (the mathematician) delivers a long and didactic speech about how science is to blame for messing up the world because it has no morality; science tells us how to do things, not what things are worth doing and why. Malcolm talks about how the inventions of science, like Jurassic Park, are fated to exceed our control, just as his chaos theory predicts. What gets dropped from the picture is the role of 'business' or capitalism; like the Japanese investors that we hear of once or twice but then disappear from the narrative, the forces that control the inventions of science (i.e., the means of production) are slowly 'forgotten,' replaced by a reified, ahistorical notion of a five-hundred year long 'scientific era,' now coming to an end.

In other words, the role of Malcolm's chaos theory in the novel is to serve as a mediating term between capitalism and nature: it reinterprets social forces as natural forces. According to Malcolm, chaos theory was developed in response to problems like predicting the weather, and the theory says it simply can't be predicted beyond the space of a few days, because the forces involved are too complex and unstable. If everything in a popular narrative like Jurassic Park really means something else, then so too does chaos theory. If dinosaurs are in some sense the global proletariat and Jurassic Park a model of global capitalism, then chaos theory — the novel's attempt at understanding the forces at work in the park — is no less than a figure for dialectical materialism, the Marxist theory of history. Like Marxism, chaos theory is interested in transitional processes: how does a system suddenly and even violently shift from one relatively stable state to another?

The idea that chaos theory is a kind of shadow-version of Marxism, at least as it is deployed in this novel, becomes clear when Malcolm talks about how 'the medieval system' somehow ceased to work, and so it was somehow replaced by 'the scientific era' — in other words, we're talking about the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Malcolm also pronounces what may be the book's main 'message,' in the crudest sense of the term, which is that we are now on the leading edge of another transition: 'We are witnessing the end of the scientific era. Science, like other outmoded systems, is destroying itself. As it gains in power, it proves itself incapable of handling the power.' Again, this is easily rewritten into Marxist terms: capitalism will eventually destroy itself because of the growing contradiction between the means of production (the potential of the developed resources) and the social relations of production (how people are organized and put to work). Eventually, the social relations of capitalism will simply be unable to manage the productive forces effectively, and a new social arrangement — socialism — will develop in response. However, what 'socialism' will actually look like if we finally manage to achieve it is unrepresentable: 'All major changes are like death,' Malcolm observes, 'You can't see to the other side until you're there.'

But even though Jurassic Park backs away from or disguises its Marxist tendencies toward a critique of capitalism through its use of chaos theory, at least it has the great virtue of endorsing the need for a comprehensive theory of some kind. For what is finally at stake in our popular fascination with dinosaurs, it seems to me, is a deep fascination with what Marxists call totality, the premise that everything in our social existence as human beings is connected, linked together meaningfully. As in chaos theory models of global weather, everything is implicated in everything else: my own individual and local conditions are determined and constructed in very complex ways by what's going on all over the globe. However, the totality of capitalism as a single global system is obscured by the diversity and 'difference' it ceaselessly manufactures; the apparent variety conceals an underlying sameness in the processes that produce it. Only a totalizing theory allows us to map the sameness within the difference; without such a perspective, we're left in the position of Ellie Sattler in the quote that opens this essay.

I think that dinosaurs, particularly for children who learn the complicated names of the species and geological periods, represent the possibility of mastering a totality, of understanding a whole world — a possibility figured by the very idea of Jurassic Park itself. One of the more amusing aspects of Jurassic Park for someone like myself is that it contains it own set of academic 'cultural critics,' the paleontologists, who up until the time of the story have only had access to a completely dead and vanished culture — the Lost World of the dinosaurs. When confronted with the living behavior of actual dinosaurs — in the case of the quote, a society of velociraptors — they are mystified. As the novel explains, paleontologists are used to working mainly with bones, from which you can make some very good deductions about the qualities of the animal as a physical and individual specimen, but they won't tell you very much about its actual behavior, and even less about its relations with its total environment.

In other words, what Ellie lacks when she observes the dinosaurs is a theory of the totality of the dinosaurs' world. Without that, interpretation is sheer guesswork, in which almost anything is possible: maybe they're just weird, or maybe they're communicating, who knows? Now — to return to points made earlier — if Jurassic Park is an allegory that seeks in its own narrative ways to think about the relationship between identity politics and class politics, then what it seems to be saying is that what dooms the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park is their lack of a totalizing theory about their world. I am only half-joking. If the dinosaurs were able to understand themselves in relation not only to each other as distinct types (tyrannosaur, stegosaur, triceratops, etc.) but also in relation as a class to the humans that dominate them, they could understand their common interests and work together to escape their island prison.

Before you dismiss this as too silly, let me point out that within the dinosaur population of Jurassic Park, we find one type of dinosaur that represents a version of the class consciousness I'm talking about — the velociraptors. Significantly, I've heard that this species is an invention on Crichton's part: a group of smart and rebellious dinosaurs are apparently necessary for the story he wants to tell. Velociraptors are the most dangerous dinosaurs because they are pack hunters — they know how to work together. We also learn that in addition to their collectivism, they are characterized by bad attitudes and a talent for breaking out of their confinement (making them, I suppose, the bad subjects of the dinosaur population). Now, I am not saying that the velociraptors are literally the class-conscious revolutionary vanguard of the dinosaurs — only that they figuratively suggest some such thing.

But even the velociraptors are defeated along with the rest of the dinosaurs. So to return to the allegory: if dinosaurs are ethnicities, the 'identities' of 'identity politics,' then the reverse is also true, that ethnicities are dinosaurs, survivors of a Lost World that are kept alive by capitalism but are not viable outside their enclaves. In economic terms, they are the result of deliberate underdevelopment. Not powerful enough on their own to do more than reach a modus vivendi with their capitalist exploiters, ethnicities (races, nationalities, identities) need a theory of the totality of their relations to each other and the world, a theory that shows they have more in common as an exploited class than they have differences as distinctive identities. Identity politics has to yield to class politics; multiculturalism is for dinosaurs. We should feel sympathy for the dinosaur, even as we recognize that it makes sense only in the context of a totality — the capitalist mode of production — which has created its identity out of exploitation, for the purpose of further exploitation. Only when our dinosaur identities are finally extinct and capitalism is a Lost World will we be able, at long last, to know ourselves in the totality of our human being. That, for me, is one lesson of Jurassic Park.

Copyright © 1993 by Joe Sartelle. All rights reserved.

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