“Beauty will save the world.” Dostoevsky
In Part I of this series about neurosurgeon Dr. Leonard Shlain’s groundbreaking book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, I painted a bleak picture of how alphabet literacy, writing, and reading have historically reinforced left-brain values to the detriment of right-brain values, goddesses, social stability, women’s rights, and images.
However, in the mid-twentieth century, one extraordinary invention precipitated a world-changing shift from the left hemisphere’s inflated alphabetic obsession back toward the right hemisphere’s language of images. That invention was television. Shlain writes:
“Television’s popularity greatly increases the power of images. Iconic information has superseded alphabetic information as the single most significant cultural influence.” p. 409
“The most explosive feminist movement in the five-thousand-year history of patriarchy occurred during the first television generation.” p. 411
What are some of the changes that the Western world’s newfound emphasis on images has wrought? Shlain offers these examples:
- The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima and Nasa’s photograph of the Earth floating in space are the two most indelible images of the twentieth century.
- The personal computer has greatly increased the impact of the iconic revolution and continues to do so. It has converted the television screen from a monologue to a dialogue by making it interactive.
- Unlike all the scribes of past cultures, men now routinely write using both hands instead of only the dominant one. Shlain believes this is an unrecognized factor in the diminution of patriarchy.
- The mouse liberates the right hand’s need to stay with the confines of the lines on white paper; this requires a hand-eye coordination that is more spatial than linear; it invites right brain pattern skills to participate in the maneuvers necessary to generate the written word.
- Word-processing programs add another right-brained talent: the geometrical moving about of phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and whole passages increases the right hemisphere’s influence on the composition of writing; there are no pages to turn, which further discourages linear thinking; scrolling is more akin to deciphering vertical Chinese ideograms than reading horizontal alphabet text; window formatted information is the standard.
- The computer’s processes have unwittingly advanced the cause of women and images, even though these aspects of computer operation have nothing to do with the computer’s content, which is the manipulation of information.
“Irrespective of content, the processes used to maneuver in cyberspace are essentially right hemispheric. The World Wide web and the Internet are both metaphors redolent of feminine connotations.” p. 418
Shlain notes that there remain many cultures still living in earlier states of development. Unfortunately, they must make the passage into the twenty-first century by first having to recapitulate the sublimity and mayhem that Eurocentric cultures experienced through these ages. Just as one country recovers from the alphabet’s whiplash and begins to enjoy its benefits, another caroms toward madness. It’s as if some parts of the world are currently experiencing their Dark age, some their Renaissance, some their Reformation, while others their Enlightenment. Religious wars and witch hunts consume the energies of many others. Further obfuscating matters is the fact that the Iconic Revolution has already arrived in countries which have still not fully integrated literacy into their societies.
One stunning example: Shlain noted at the time this was published (1998) that “The rapid rise of Muslim fundamentalism has been in reaction to the perceived threat of a foreign siren goddess with a captivating big eye: television. The Taliban in Afghanistan, the most recently literate Islamists, are the most extremely patriarchal; they are fighting desperately to prevent images of any kind from invading their society; at some deep level, they understand that iconic information is the carrier of feminine cultural values.” p. 424
I’d like to close with two hopeful thoughts from Shlain for those of us who are concerned about the recent trend back to fundamentalist patriarchal values regarding women, minority rights, the war against democracy, education, religion, nature, and the state of our world.
Modern psychology has learned that
” . . . unconscious motivations can cause an individual to engage repeatedly in unhealthy and counterproductive behavior. Such a cycle is ordinarily not broken unless the individual somehow becomes aware of the underlying mechanism that is driving his or her behavior; only then can a person initiate corrective action. p. 429
” . . . no group in any country can successfully restrict the flow of image information. Television, more powerful than Asherah, Astarte, or Athena, has doomed all fundamentalist movements, and their extremism is the rearguard action of an army in retreat. . . religious fanatics who believe that the only truth is contained in a book will, in the end, be bypassed and will become curious relics.” p. 424
May it be so.
Image credits: Blue Marble, NASA. Mushroom Cloud: unknown.
Jean Raffa’s The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at Amazon. Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications, Inc. Jean’s new Nautilus Award-winning The Soul’s Twins, is at Amazon and Schiffer’s Red Feather Mind, Body, Spirit. Subscribe to her newsletter at www.jeanbenedictraffa.com.