“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 Iconic information has superseded alphabetic information as the single most significant cultural influence.”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.
Thank you so much for following up last weeks’ article as this whole subject has got me thinking and remembering the day the ‘television’ arrived at our house. I remember tiptoeing around it, peeping inside, often, because where were all those little people, if not hiding on the inside! I have to laugh at myself writing this today as it was obvious sign for my ‘inner work’ to come, decades later! Yes, I’ve always wanted to know what happened on the inside!
You see alongside my first love, books, I’m a huge lover of television, most especially the big screen. In fact, I’ve noticed more and more often that I find myself working with images. I will select a certain image copy and paste it onto a new document before I start writing. Sometimes the words come first, sometimes the image, but the joining of them, I can’t deny. The power of the image, like nature is undeniable, no wonder the patriarchy wants control.
Love and light, Deborah.
Awww, how cute! Wanting to see the little people inside! I was ten when we got our first TV set. I loved it and it certainly was intriguing, but I never thought of the images that way. That was the era of the Lone Ranger and Tonto and Silver. I fell passionately in love with them and as you know, they were featured in the earliest dream I remember. Also the most emotionally impactful. Those images and the meaning they held for me led me to the fundamental themes that guide all my writing. Talk about the power of the image. . . !! I’m living proof. Love, Jeanie
Well, thanks to your brilliant first book, ‘The Bridge to Wholeness’, this afternoon I’ve been searching for ‘dragon’ images for a future poem on how to make peace with mine. Thanks for todays inspiration! I remember ‘The Lone Ranger’ so well, I loved Silver and Tonto too. Yes, what powerful dream images they were for you. As a child I spent years dreaming of dragonflies and then ended up working for an organisation with the same name. You couldn’t make this stuff up! x
I’m glad to know that “Bridge” has inspired a poem. I look forward to reading it on your site. How interesting that you dreamed of dragonflies for so long then ended up as an adult with a powerful need to make peace with your inner dragons. Then working for an organization with the same name? No, you couldn’t make this up. Well, you could, but no one would take you seriously…. If we wrote novels containing these kinds of synchronicities people would probably accuse them of being too ‘contrived.’ But as you and I have learned from experience, they are very real and deeply meaningful to us. I have a small collection of images from some of my most powerful dreams to remind me of their influence on my life. And yes, I have an old framed publicity picture of the Lone Ranger, Tonto, and Silver! Love, Jeanie
Fascinating indeed! There is always a “two-sides solution for reaching the goal; however, the images are the winners! The awareness that you talked about is highly recommended. In any case, this would have to be hung up and posted for all freedom fighters. Thank you, my lovely teacher, for opening many doors (for me) to very new ideas.
Yes, even physics tells us that it’s the tension between opposite forces that creates and maintains the energies of life. Male and female, inhale and exhale, push and pull, hot and cold, sun and moon, word and image, and on and on…. Thank you, my dear friend, for sharing the thoughts and ideas of your open and ever-curious mind here.
Hello Jeanie, thank you for this fascinating post. I’d never really thought about television being a ‘driver’ in an image filled world. This makes me think of the power of advertising, propaganda, opening up a much wider world of history, art, culture. I recall the rise of feminism, flower power in the 60’s, eastern philosophy reaching western shores, and vice versa and much more. The dialogue opened up, thankfully.
I’m blown away by Shlain’s assertions. I haven’t read him. I’m reminded of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock. Your excerpts are very powerful and they resonate on a deep level with me. The rise of extremists, patriarchal in kind, is very real. I can sense that they sense they’re in danger of losing the battle and their hold on power. Thank you for this. Love, Susan
Thank you, Susan. Thesis a topic that’s always been fascinating to me too. As a former writer and producer of children’s television shows I learned a lot about the power of images. So when I went back to college for my doctorate I took a couple of classes on television literacy and wrote my dissertation about the values that were conveyed to children via the sounds and images and actions on their favorite TV shows. It was very revealing!! After I graduated I taught a college course in television literacy with an emphasis on the subtle messages conveyed by commercials as well as magazine ads, etc. Yes, there are a lot of subliminal messages we absorb from commercialized images, most of them meant to influence our thoughts and emotions in certain directions. This was a hot issue in the 70’s and 80’s!
I agree with you about the extremists. People get very riled up when their cherished values and beliefs are seriously challenged. Look at what’s happening to the women who are protesting in Iran today about the patriarchal mandate to cover their hair! There’s a lot of fear behind that.
Humans oppress other humans. With one notable exception (symbolized by the first “Word”), words have no power on their own, other than the power we assign to them. Words are tools and only cause harm when they become weaponized by another human or group of humans. Film is another tool. Like other symbols and tools (including the alphabet and both the spoken and written word), film and other forms of technology can be used for good or ill. Tools can reveal reality and uncover truth or be manipulated, censored or dismissed in pursuit of evil. Human perception is easily manipulated.
Maybe our preoccupation with left-brain versus right-brain, masculine versus feminine is a form of projection, a way for some of us to avoid looking more deeply at our own motives and limitations in terms of how we arrive at an understanding of realities and reality itself beyond our limited perspectives. Hopefully I’m using both sides of my brain as I compose this comment and yet — I also believe my soul is eternal and didn’t originate in my brain and that it will live on long after I’ve forgotten myself and my bones and brain have returned to the earth as dust.
There’s a price to be paid for everything, though typically the ones who bear the heaviest cost are those who can least afford it. How many know or care how the minerals needed to support our technological advances come to be or the cost paid by other humans, frequently children, who live and labor on the African continent under inhumane, dangerous conditions for slave-wages, if that. Their stories matter:
Lately I find myself obsessed with the writing of Frederick Douglass, the former slave who taught himself to read and eventually escaped his oppressors. Somehow, this quote from “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” seems appropriate. It illustrates the mixed blessing in the written word, which is equally true of other things as well. That said, there are things we need and things we can do without:
“The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery. I loathed them as being the meanest as well as the most wicked of men. As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come, to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish. As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. it opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. . . It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me. There was no getting rid of it. It was pressed upon me by every object within sight or hearing, animate or inanimate. The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.”
Take care, Jeanie.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic, Sophia. Thank you for the link to the Guardian article. And I especially liked Frederick Douglass’s quote. Facing the realities of both our outer and inner worlds, whether via word, image, or both, is terrifying and depressing. Much easier to project our fears on to others, call them the enemy, and wage war against them with the hope of beating them. Plus, it takes our minds off the painful realities of our feared and unknown selves. I believe our fear of facing our deepest fears is the cause of all prejudice, violence, and war.
I have to broaden my view of television and the role it played in the world and my life. Of course, I remember the Lone Ranger and Tonto and other series such as Howdy Doody. So much of this was first on the radio in my grandparent’s kitchen. Later, my mother wouldn’t think of skipping Walter Cronkite’s news during the Vietnam War and the shared images of violence and destruction turned many Americans against that war. I also think of my children growing up with a few positive TV influences such as Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street and tolerant values that became part of their world (along with spending time with the Dalai Lama when he came to this country). I don’t have a television now, but have a computer. Images are usually focused on advertiser’s income rather than a positive influence on hearts and minds. Still, it’s good to remember how our horizons were broadened by the introduction of those tiny black and white screens in our living rooms.
I’m glad to reconsider the influence of television. About Sophia’s comment: I also love Frederick Douglas and walked to his grave every day when my husband Vic was hospitalized for long periods. The hospital was in Rochester, NY and this area close to where I live was a big part of the Underground Railway and the women’s right’s movement. Besides Frederick Douglas, many women in the movement such as Susan B. Anthony were buried in that huge cemetery. Visiting their graves felt like a pilgrimage and an honoring of their belief in the possibility of good for “minorities” and women. Thank you, Jeanie, for opening new doors.