Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Alphabet Versus the Goddess ~ by Leonard Shlain

The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image ~ by Leonard Shlain, 1998, language and culture, 10/10
The process of learning alphabetic literacy rewired the human brain, with profound consequences for culture.  Making connections across a wide range of subjects including brain function, anthropology, history, and religion, Shlain argues that literacy reinforced the brain's linear, abstract, predominantly masculine left hemisphere at the expense of the holistic, iconic feminine right one.  This shift upset the balance between men and women and initiated the disappearance of goddesses, the abhorrence of images, and — in literacy's early stages — the decline of women's political status.  Patriarchy and misogyny followed.

Shlain contrasts the feminine right-brained oral teachings of Socrates, Buddha, and Jesus with the masculine creeds that evolved when their spoken words were committed to writing.  The first book written in an alphabet was the Old Testament, and its most important passage was the Ten Commandments.  The first two commandments reject any goddess influence and ban any form of representative art.

Shlain goes on to describe the colossal shift he calls the Iconic Revolution, that began in the 19th century.  The invention of photography and the discovery of electromagnetism combined to bring us film, television, computers, and graphic advertising; all of which are based on images.  Shlain foresees that increasing reliance on right brain pattern recognition instead of left brain linear sequence will move culture toward equilibrium between the two hemispheres, between masculine and feminine, between word and image.
This book fascinates me, and I'll probably buy a copy so I can mark it up.  I didn't want to stop reading long enough to write out notes, as I usually do.  So I have a list of pages I want to go back and annotate.  Or read the whole book again.  Notice that I rated the book "10/10" up above, which means it really hit home with me.  Some of the ideas that I found most intriguing include these that I want to investigate.
  • The Tao Te Ching contains not a single proper pronoun (p. 199).
  • North American Plains Indians chiefs were elected by older women (p. 349).
  • In classical times, the Greek logos meant "the word"; in the twentieth century, it contracted into logo, the icon.  And now a picture of a trashcan icon  has replaced the word t-r-a-s-h (pp. 416, 417).  For example:
Even though I have multiple translations of the Tao Te Ching that I used with my Religions of the World classes, I never noticed it has no pronouns.  Really?  I want to go grab one of the copies off the shelves and start flipping through it.

Do I recommend the book? Oh, yes, highly.  If anyone has already read it, please tell me what you thought of this book.

1 comment:

Bonnie Jacobs said...

Here's a video by Leonard Shlain about this book. Whoever posted it in 2012 says he died in May of 2009.