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Trevor Stone's Journal
Those who can, do. The rest hyperlink.
The Alphabet Versus The Goddess 
10th-Jun-2002 04:26 pm
fun characters
Smegging grrfurgenama. I just typed a long post and then, instead of hitting the Done button, remembered a note I was going to add to my previous post and selected it to edit, which replaced my text without asking me if I wanted to save. That is so not a feature. Let's see how much I can reproduce.

A few days ago I finished reading The Alphabet Versus The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image, by Leonard Shlain. The book's thesis is that literacy, and especially alphabetic literacy, hypertrophies the left brain's masculine hunter-killer traits and values of abstract serial linear thought at the expense of the right brain's gatherer-nurturer traits and values of concrete holistic gestalt thought. As alphabetic literacy enters a culture, the society is rocked with violence, religious intolerance, destruction of images, suppression of women, and the overthrow of concrete polytheist goddesses with abstract monotheistic gods. This is seen in the Hebrews, Greeks at the time of Aristotle, Orthodox vs. Gnostic Christianity, the Reformation, the Marxist revolutions of Russia, China, and Southeast Asia, Sunni vs. Shi'ite Islam, and modern Islamic fundamentalism like the Taliban. On the flip side, in the agrarian period before the appearance of writing, most cultures' central deity was a powerful Earth mother, represented by copious images, whose lesser consort/child died and was reborn every year. Men and women both worshiped goddesses, and society was fairly egalitarian (this remains the case in many hunter/gatherer cultures today). Major thinkers who spoke rather than wrote (Laozi, Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Mohamed) tended to have fairly tolerant and pro-female attitudes. And these values as well as images tended to appear in cultures where alphabetic literacy was not widespread (including those cultures who passed from literacy to illiteracy, those near to violent literate cultures, and those who have yet to attain literacy). Furthermore, as photography and electromagnetism (with all its feminine metaphors) appeared in the forms of photography, movies, television, and computers, the West's laws, attitudes, and culture has shifted from excessive yang to a fairly balanced state. In a nutshell, a culture's communication media, perhaps more so than its content, determines the values, actions, and trends of society. For some more data, see my CWA post (about two thirds of the way down).

The book is written for the general public, so it lacks the flurry of citations found in scholarly works. It is far from New Age pseudo science, though; Shlain's bibliography spans 9 pages and ranges from Augustine and Virgil to Will Durant and Bertrand Russell. His data is the "generally accepted" story; exploration of various views of, say, ancient archaeological data is not in his scope. The events Shlain describes are large-scale and very complex, and doubtless arise from many factors and can be explained in many ways (which he acknowledges); his goal is to provide a unifying theory linking the counterpunctual rise and fall of the written word, masculine values, images, and feminine values. As a brain surgeon, Shlain's division of traits, values, and modes of thought rests on sound neurological data (and he acknowledges that the hemispheric split is more metaphorically accurate than physically accurate).

The book is excellently written, using both left hemispheric literalism and right hemispheric metaphor. Shlain doesn't claim to have proved anything, but rather to have demonstrated a correlation, from which the reader is to draw conclusions. His argument is cogent and well-documented, unlike many writers on male/female cultural interplay. He only once "falls" into "rhetorical" "damning" "quotation" marks. His language flows well and is graced by many words he has selected in the hopes that they don't fall out of the lexicon. The paradigmatic and specific ideas expressed in the book lead me to recommend it to almost everyone, from literalistic Protestants to open-minded Pagans to feminists who rail against cultural images. I can't think of many of my friends who wouldn't enjoy the book, and even fewer who would not benefit from reading it. I have found its modern perspective on yin/yang quite helpful in examining my own tendencies, beliefs, and development. (In the past, I've been big on literal interpretation, against photography and GUIs, and down on lots of right-hemispheric modes of perception. In recent years, I haven't read as much, I've watched more movies, and have adopted a more benign view of many Christians.)

I think I'll be able to use a bunch of what I've learned from this book in my review of Origins of the Modern Mind. I'm impressed by my memory abilities in rewriting this entry after writing it once and not reading it.

Edit 2/15/2009: In the intervening years, I've become less enamored with Leonard Shlain's work. He tries a little too hard to cram the entirety of human history into some simple ideas of the brain. His books and presentations are very enjoyable and informative, but they need a heavy dose of salt. He points out a lot of connections between elements of the zeitgeist that are worth chewing on, but I think the story he tells about their unification is a little simplistic. I still think The Albphabet vs. the Goddess is a book worth reading, but readers interested in the subject should read widely; there are a lot of cognitive scientists with interesting theories who also write well "at the Scientific American level" as Prof. Paulson would say.
10th-Jun-2002 05:08 pm (UTC) - wow
Wow that seems like an awesome book, id love to read it. But seeing as I'm a cheap broke ass mo-fo can i borrow it from ya :)
11th-Jun-2002 10:44 am (UTC)
Did he discuss at all St. Brigid, and her whole bringing the written language in while keeping with the Goddess tradition and whatnot?
She seemed to make the whole thing work in harmony. Until the Christians decided to claim her as a Saint for THEM. Dorks. ;)
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