by Travis Mateer
I had an amazing interview yesterday that I am still buzzed over, but I’m not going to say with who just yet. Instead I’d like to discuss the idea that the invention of the alphabet usurped female power in society.
This idea comes from a book I read years ago by Leonard Shlain, titled The Alphabet Vs. The Goddess. The link is to a Brain Pickings post about the book, with this statement from Shlain describing the premise:
Of all the sacred cows allowed to roam unimpeded in our culture, few are as revered as literacy. Its benefits have been so incontestable that in the five millennia since the advent of the written word numerous poets and writers have extolled its virtues. Few paused to consider its costs. . . . One pernicious effect of literacy has gone largely unnoticed: writing subliminally fosters a patriarchal outlook. Writing of any kind, but especially its alphabetic form, diminishes feminine values and with them, women’s power in the culture.
This is a provocative assertion that Shlain–a neurologist by profession–backs up with his scientific understanding of how the brain processes images versus how the brain processes words. Here is a brief description:
Images are primarily mental reproductions of the sensual world of vision. Nature and human artifacts both provide the raw material from the outside that the brain replicates in the inner sanctum of consciousness. Because of their close connection to the world of appearances, images approximate reality: they are concrete. The brain simultaneously perceives all parts of the whole integrating the parts synthetically into a gestalt. The majority of images are perceived in an all-at-once manner.
Reading words is a different process. When the eye scans distinctive individual letters arranged in a certain linear sequence, a word with meaning emerges. The meaning of a sentence, such as the one you are now reading, progresses word by word. Comprehension depends on the sentence’s syntax, the particular horizontal sequence in which its grammatical elements appear. The use of analysis to break each sentence down into its component words, or each word down into its component letters, is a prime example of reductionism. This process occurs at a speed so rapid that it is below awareness. An alphabet by definition consists of fewer than thirty meaningless symbols that do not represent the images of anything in particular; a feature that makes them abstract. Although some groupings of words can be grasped in an all-at-once manner, in the main, the comprehension of written words emerges in a one-at-a-time fashion.
To perceive things such as trees and buildings through images delivered to the eye, the brain uses wholeness, simultaneity, and synthesis. To ferret out the meaning of alphabetic writing, the brain relies instead on sequence, analysis, and abstraction. Custom and language associate the former characteristics with the feminine, the latter, with the masculine. As we examine the myths of different cultures, we will see that these linkages are consistent.
I think the difference in neurological processing of words versus images can be applied to blog posts versus podcast conversations. I’ll use my relationship with fellow blogger Mark Tokarski as an example.
After years of interaction through words on a screen–words constructed in isolation to influence others within the playground hierarchy of the blogosphere–I decided it might be more constructive to actually speak to each other.
I wasn’t thinking about engaging different parts of my brain, but that is what happens when you are responding in real time to not just words, but the subtleties of tone and inflection and, if you can see the person, body language. It’s a very different experience, and it yields different results.
For Mark and I the results were very positive. He wrote up a nice account at his space and I’m benefiting from a richer conversation with his fellow contributors about topics that I think are critical to our survival as humans.
There is something truly powerful and magical happening right now, and I feel quite blessed to be a small part of it.
Thank you, everyone, for the support.