Objectification, War Crimes, and Dinosaur Bones

Picture of Raptor by Ursula Vernon

Copyright Ursula Vernon: Behold the velociraptor, the terror of the Cretaceous…–pictured here with beloved stuffed T-rex “Mr. Gobbly.”

I love dinosaurs.

Well, I do. Actually, make that extinct things. I love extinct things. Glyptodonts, for instance: giant, ice age armadillos with big club tails. And titanis walleri which is like the bird version of a T-rex, complete with wings that have devolved into little hands. And for sheer weird you can’t beat the Cambrian fauna like opabinia, the five-eyed critter with a vacuum mouth, or hallucigenia, the spiky creature so strange that for a long time paleontologists were unable to tell which way went up.

At this point, I should make the disclaimer: I’m sheerly a hobbyist. I rely on my fiance for most of my information. He comes home from paleontology classes, or reading sciency things, and gives me the digest version (unless it’s something like the BBC that I can pop over and read without confusing my social-science-addled brain). I don’t always repeat things accurately. So, take me with a grain of salt.

Still, I love reading about extinct things — probably in the same way that I love reading really weird science fiction novels. There’s that sense of wonder: a creature that looked like this really lived? And dinosaurs have only gotten more exciting since I was little. No longer the grey and brown reptiles that lumbered across text books, looking only slightly more intelligent than heads of cabbage, we now know that some dinosaurs were probably closer to warm-blooded than cold, and thanks to lithographic limestone in China, we can even look at the impressions of dinosaur feathers.

Reveling in the nerdy joy that is extinct critters, my fiance and I have a collection of dinosaur books. This year, for my birthday, my fiance flew out to see me in Iowa and gave me, besides a week with his wonderful self, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs by Dougal Dixon.

This is a really good book. Apart from gorgeous, colorful illustrations (mmm, gorgeous colorful illustrations), it has different kinds of information than I’ve found in other books on dinosaurs. It features a number of drawings showing how dinosaur bones are found from different eras and ecosystems, for instance, and while my fiance is a geologist, I’ve never before appreciated the rock-heavy end of paleontology.

Alongside pictures of the dinosaurs, it also features descriptions of how paleontologists have come to the conclusions they have about certain animals. For instance, rather than just saying that caudipteryx couldn’t fly, the book explains that the asymmetry of the feather mpressions we’ve found from the animal lead us to that conclusion. It’s also very clear about when we’re guessing. Many animals are known from only a specimen or two, often an incomplete one, and we don’t really know what they looked like.

I had known before that we knew many dinosaurs from very few bones, but every time I learn anew how few, it astonishes me. Skulls in particular, the part of the animal that allows us to look dead creatures “in the eye,” are especially likely to be crushed and destroyed.

We know so little of what life was like on the planet before we were here. What little we have are tiny snapshot glimpses: this dinosaur with a fan of feathers like a peacock, this gigantic devonian fish with a head covered in armor of bone.

And as I’m thinking these thoughts, I flip to the entry on Spinosaurus, and draw entirely the wrong conclusions.

Spinosaurus is a Cretaceous (that’s the middle period of the dinosaur age) therapod (the meat-eating bipeds like T-Rex) with quirky crocodilian jaws and a gigantic sail on its back. At the risk of violating someone’s copyright, it looks like this:

picture of Spinosaurus

It’s about 50-60 feet long, which makes it one of the biggest carnivorous dinosaurs that we’ve found (it’s been called the biggest, but paleontologists are always finding new biggests, so I’m going to avoid the superlative). It was also the villain of Jurrassic park… 2? 3? One of the JP sequels, anyway. Note the big, weird sail on its back, which many paleontologists think was used for temperature regulation (you can find similar sails on a number of extinct animals, including a couple of the sauropods (the big dinosaurs with long necks like brontosaurus or brachiasaurus) and older creatures like dimetrodon).

Spinosaurus was originally found in Egypt in 1912 and its bones were displayed in the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany. In 1944, after sustained allied bombing, the fossil was destroyed.

Reading about that, I had that swift punch to the gut feeling of loss, that “oof” which isn’t really conscious. These bones survived 95 million years. They survived the asteroid impact that caused the mass extinction event at the end of the Jurrassic. They survived ice ages. They survived humans poking around in the Egyptian desert, being generally destructive. They were mounted, and studied, and sketched, giving us a glimpse of our world’s ancient past, and then they were wiped out by a bomb.

When was the last time I had that “oof” feeling when I was reading about human war casualties from World War II?

Oh, I have that “oof” feeling fairly regularly. I had a much more severe reaction recently when Twisty posted the video of the Iranian girl being stoned to death on I Blame the Patriarchy. I wouldn’t even call that an “oof” feeling, really. It was a terrible moment of grief and inadequacy which lasted, oh, 12 hours, before my brain reasserted its general keel of optimism, for better (I remain functional) and for worse (functional, but skimming triviality).

And I got the “oof” and worse from reading We Would Like to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families and watching Hotel Rwanda. But when was the last time that the horrors of World War II pried open my desensitized skin? I think it was reading The Periodic Table by Primo Levi, four or five years ago.

It took a moment, but as the “oof” feeling receded, I started to feel guilty.

And then, as the initial wave of guilt passed, I started to try to convince myself that my initial impulse had been reasonable. After all, a spinosaur fossil is unique and irreplaceable. When it’s gone, it’s gone, and all the opportunity to reclaim it is also gone. It signifies knowledge that will be forever missing.

I grieve for lost spinosaur bones. I grieve for the lost knowledge of what our planet’s past looked like. I crave to hold our history in my hand, and really look back into time. I grieve for the lost opportunity to do that.

But what part of my reasoning about why spinosaurus is irreplaceable and worth grieving for does not apply equally — and with, indeed, more strength and fervor — to every lost person? Each of the eleven million casualties of the Holocaust were unique and irreplaceable; with their deaths, their uniqueness was lost to the world. By human action, they are forever missing.

Six hundred thousand in Iraq. Six hundred thousand in a day in Rwanda.

I can cite these stastics, and yet I still grieve for spinosaur bones?

It’s a different kind of grief, I suppose. Yet when I consider the people that must have died in that bombing, and concentrate my attention on the fossil that was lost instead, I am objectifying the dead. I am judging their worth as objects against the worth of another object. By a subconscious absorption of economic law, I automatically value the rare object over the conscious one, and this, I suppose, is what Marxist analysts mean when they say that capitalism leads us fetishize other people.

How easy it is to make people into things with worth and value that can be placed in opposition to objects, like fossils, or even abstracts, like knowledge. How we suffer from trying to make people into objectified abstractions that we can move around like cogs in our head. This child’s life for that man’s freedom. Those people’s deaths for these people’s sense of security. This life for that ideal. So easy to slip unconsciously into the edges of it. I want to know about this ancient thing. I do not want to have to stop and consider the fullness of a human life, prematurely ended, and fit the full, incomprehensible breadth of it into my head.

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9 Responses to Objectification, War Crimes, and Dinosaur Bones

  1. 1
    Myca says:

    Okay, if you love:

    1) Science Fiction
    2) Dinosaurs
    3) Dougal Dixon

    Then you really really reallllllly need to check out “After Man: A Zoology of the Future”. As a kid, it blew my mind, and I still really want a pet Rabbuck.

    Preferably an Arctic Rabbuck. They’re so fuzzy.

    —Myca

    ps. I’m not blowing off the rest of your post . . . I read it, and I’m thinking about it, I just immediately thought “OOH! Dougal Dixon!” and wanted to post.

  2. 2
    Christian says:

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts, so beautifully expressed. Thank you for reminding me that this slice of time and space I live in is actually quite peaceful and progressive. There is sometimes a ‘ruthlessness’ to feminism that I don’t understand, a deeply burning hatred of men disproportionate to wage disparity, uneven political representation or pats on the bum in the office.

    I never watched Twisty’s video. Reading the responses to it is enough. My mind tells me their culture destroys men’s lives too. How strange to think of those men as victims, but I feel like I’ve been hit by those stones, breaking my soul apart, a spiritual battering that must be unimagineably worse to be born in. I believe dark times end, and I believe in redemption, and in the healing power of love, but can it end in such a place, after such crimes, without a bloody reckoning? My emotions tell me to take all the women and children out of the country and scour it with nuclear hellfire. Then bury it in a hundred yards of soil, plant over it and leave it fallow until the youngest child of the youngest survivor has passed away peacefully in her old age, and never speak of what went on there again, all trace of their religion, their culture, their language and heredity gone. Erase them.

    I want to fall down and cry, and be erased with them.

  3. 3
    W.B. Reeves says:

    The Russians have a saying that helped get them through the last century:

    “When you live by the graveyard, you can’t weep at every funeral.”

    Sorry if that sounds callous but it’s important to remember that our grief is of no use to the dead. Grief is the solace of the living.

    I’m not sure that objectification is really the appropriate term. It sounds as though you weren’t even thinking about the human cost when you reacted to learning that the bombing of Berlin had destroyed a unique artifact. Any comparison you made was after the fact and I think the overarching point is that you considered the human cost at all. That speaks well for you, not against you. Many, if not most, wouldn’t have given the dead a second thought.

    I’ve had the privilege of visiting London, Amsterdam, Berlin and the former Leningrad. I’ve walked the streets that bore the brunt of the Blitz. I visited the secret annex where the Frank family hid from the Gestapo. I stayed in a hostel over looking the street where the first 700 hundred Jews to be deported from Holland were assembled. In Berlin I saw and touched walls scarred by bullets and shrapnel. I stood on a bridge over the canal where the body of Rosa Luxemberg was thrown after her murder. In St. Petersburg, tens of thousands died during the Nazi siege. A cemetery of mass graves is located on the on the Vyborg side of the Neva.

    Everywhere I went, the streets were full of people going about the business of life. I don’t think this is something they need feel guilty for.

    Here at home I live in a section of the U.S. where the soil has been watered by the blood of thousands of slaves and soldiers and where “the pinetrees of the forest have hid a thousand crimes.” If I pay homage to the dead it is for my own sake, not theirs. They are past caring or being known by me.

    Our world, for all its beauty and vibrance, is a vast cemetery. The only duty that we owe the dead is the one that we owe the living. To make this world a place worth living in.

    I hadn’t meant to be so heavy but your post was thought provoking.

    A word about fetishizing. It is, I think, related to objectification but not quite the way you suggest. The reference is to tribal fetishes of shamanistic worship. Objects imbued with magical or spiritual power. In a Marxist context it refers to imputing a similar, totemistic power to an object, symbol or idea. To give a vulgar, partial illustration, if rather than saying a man makes money, you say money makes a man, you are vesting both power and volition in a symbol of economic exchange. Another example would be the manic consumerism of modern life, which urges that acquisition of more and more “stuff” will solve all our problems. The right shoes, the right clothes, the right car (or even the the right boyfriend, girlfriend), etc. The commonality between the two terms being the substitution of an imagined or created identity for the “thing itself.”

  4. 4
    Mandolin says:

    Myca:

    My fiance has that book! He showed it to me two or three months into our relationship, during that lookit-all-my-toys! phase. He talked me through it. It was a lot of fun. I’ll have to take another look at it when I get back to California.

    Christian:

    I didn’t watch the video at Twisty’s either. Just the knowledge it was there was deeply upsetting — in a way that I don’t think it would have been so vastly upsetting without video documentation, even though I didn’t watch it. Knowing there was a video record made her “realer” than the brief summaries we get all the time about these kinds of murders.

    I agree with you that the men who killed her have also been twisted, just as we here have been twisted by our circumstances. That is regrettable; those are also lives lost in a way.

    I don’t really know how to respond to what you’re saying about the hatred of men. I don’t hate men. I hate systems of oppression. I think you do a disservice by underestimating the effect of patriarchy on women’s lives, though. The number one threat to the health of a pregnant woman is a reluctant father. Women are raped and murdered by men. We are kept in line with objectification and violence. There is a constant barrage of threat to take away even our rights to control our own bodies. You make it sound as though you’re setting yourself up as the arbiter of whether or not it’s legitimate for us to be angry — as though a little oppression should be okay, why don’t we swallow it and go make a sandwich? That may not be your intent, but it is how you’re coming off.

    W.B.:

    Don’t apologize for being heavy, what you have to say is very interesting. Grief is, of course, a salve. I can hope it will be a spur to future action, but how well has that worked for us? We build a holocaust museum with the slogan “never again,” and on the day of its dedication, we allow 600,000 more innocents to be murdered. If not grief, should we be striving for — perspective? Remembrance?

    Sorry for getting my Marx wrong. I was hazily remembering a lecture by one of my professors who was riffing off of Durkheim’s view of cities, and who was of the opinion that all relationships between people in an urban environment come down to economics, that we’re making each other into potentials for “can make this number of plastic toys in an hour” or “is worth $50 for landscaping.”

  5. 5
    Christian says:

    Mandolin, I never imagined you hated men. I was just commenting that while I support the feminist movement I tended to think of the extremists of the feminist movement as somewhat barmy because the everyday goals of feminism that I’m most conscious of in my very beautiful corner of the world don’t require the extreme actions they advocate: segregation, y-chromo abortions, feminist terrorism, etc. Reading about fifty responses to that video exposed me to a different kind of feminism facing a different kind of injustice. I felt a great deal of pain, and I also craved an extreme response.

    You make it sound as though you’re setting yourself up as the arbiter of whether or not it’s legitimate for us to be angry — as though a little oppression should be okay, why don’t we swallow it and go make a sandwich? That may not be your intent, but it is how you’re coming off.

    I can see where I might have left that impression, but I don’t think any level of oppression is okay. It’s possible that we might disagree on where the weaving line between oppression and community needs lies. I don’t believe we have the infinite resources required to give everyone every desire without it infringing unfairly on someone somewhere, and our hope for a best possible culture demands we adopt on a cultural level some personal obligation toward the welfare of others, even if we really don’t care to. I don’t think I have any convictions in that regard that favor mens rights over womens. If I believe there are sandwiches to be made and grinning and bearing to be done in the interest of the common good, I would be doing it as well.

  6. 6
    Mandolin says:

    “If I believe there are sandwiches to be made and grinning and bearing to be done in the interest of the common good, I would be doing it as well.”

    Absolutely. ;) We can each make half a sandwich.

  7. 7
    W.B. Reeves says:

    Mandolin, no need to be sorry about confusing the terminology of fetishizing. A great many self identified “Marxist” got and get confused by Charlie’s theory. Charlie recognized this himself in his own lifetime. He once remarked of some of his erstwhile followers, “If this is Marxism, then I am not a Marxist.” It’s always the problem that arises at the intersection of theory and ideology. Where an analytical perspective morphs into an apriori belief system. When a way of understanding the world transforms into a means of defining the world.

    It sounds as though your Professor was trying to explain the process of commodification and the related process of commodity fetishism. It’s the second of these that my point about consumer culture refers to. He may also have been falling into the all to common practice of economic reductionism. Assuming that if you view social life as being driven by economics that you must view individuals as nothing more than economic units. Again, a lot of self identified Marxist have done this as well.

    The irony is that commodity fetishism was Charlie’s way of explaining why, as capitalism developed, monetary values began to be applied to things in a fashion that had little or no relation to their functional value. It’s a particularly useful concept when examining our current economic system’s dependence on the manufacturing of demand/desire through marketing and advertizing. Rather than reducing people to mere economic entities, the idea of commodity fetishisim recognizes the importance of subjective perception in social and economic systems.

    Vulgar Marxists of the reductionist type have often argued that the entirety of Women’s oppression was defined by the exploitation of their labor and ignored any aspect that couldn’t be tallied on a balance sheet. Feminism succeeded in exposing the fallacy of this thinking.

    Enough of that. You ask what do we do rather than grieve? I can only answer for myself when I say that I embrace perspective /inspiration as necessary prerequisites for intelligent and effective action. To return to Amsterdam for the moment, what is enlightening is the reaction of the citizens of Amsterdam to the beginning of the Jewish deportations.

    That city possesses what is called the Museum of the Resistance, housed in what had been a Synagogue prior to being closed by the Nazis. There I learned that when word spread of the round up of the first 700 Jewish men, the Tram workers union called for a general strike. The strike resulted in the complete shutdown of the city for two days until the nazi occupation forces intervened directly to suppress it. The event inaugurated the start of the Dutch Resistance movement that grew thoughout the war and helped cripple the Nazi war effort in the face of savage repression. It should stand with the Danish people’s rescue of the Danish Jews as one of the shining moments in human history.

    That spirit abides yet in Amsterdam. On one trip there, I visited the Nordekirk, whose tolling bells are mentioned in Anne Frank’s diary. They have a statue of her there that is quite beautiful. At the opposite end of the church plaza there is a large, pink marble triangle set into the pavement. It is known as the “Homo Memorial” and is dedicated to the memory of the gay and lesbian victims of the nazi extermination. As I was taking a picture of it, two women on bicycles stopped by and ask if I knew what it stood for. I will always remember the expressions of both pride and pleasure on their faces when they learned that I was an American and that I knew exactly what I was looking at.

    Do you know the song these words come from?

    As we go marching, marching,
    unumbered women dead,
    join with us in our singing,
    their ancient call for bread.
    Small art and love and beauty,
    their drudging lives they knew.
    We also call for bread
    but we call for roses too.

  8. 8
    Mandolin says:

    I don’t know that song. Wikipedia pulls up an entry on the Bread and Roses strike.

    Thank you for sharing the history and your story; they are inspirational. It’s easy to focus on the failures, and miss the times when people have remembered to resist.

  9. 9
    TikiHead says:

    Mandolin,

    Regarding the past, and what is lost to us, I always loved this fragment of Auden:

    ‘O plunge your hands in water,

    Plunge them in up to the wrist;

    Stare, stare in the basin

    And wonder what you’ve missed.

    ‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,

    The desert sighs in the bed,

    And the crack in the tea-cup opens

    A lane to the land of the dead.

    http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15551