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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Not very magical, still... » » Is there a conflict between “Word” & “Image” and is it a gender conflict as well ? (0 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

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"...Leonard Shlain, author of the bestselling Art & Physics, proposes that the process of learning alphabetic literacy rewired the human brain, with profound consequences for culture. Making remarkable 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 initiating 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."
"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
"The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.
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I would say that in emphasizing alphabetic writing, he has failed to account for ideographically recorded languages, such as Chinese. Most of this sort of thing is based on the supposition of a prehistoric matriarchal hippie-dippie paradise, the evidence for which is largely lacking. Although I am sympathetic to James De Meo's "Saharasia" hypothesis. When Shlain writes about "the feminine right-brained oral teachings of Socrates, Buddha, and Jesus" you know that his work is just taureau-manuro.
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Gee Woland - trying to fight my way through your rhetorical flourish I felt pangs of anxiety as I floundered hopelessly through the maze. Luckily I smelled the BS you left at the end and was able to find my way out.
Magnus Eisengrim
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Woland's main point--that not all writing is alphabetic--is well taken. Apparently Shlain glosses over this with "Writing of any kind, but especially its alphabetic form, diminishes feminine values and with them, women's power in the culture". I would hesitate to prejudge the book, but as I'm unlikely to put the effort into reading it, let's just say I'm skeptical.

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.--Yeats
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Fair enough.
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This will probably appear in my ol' Feminist Legal Theory professor's next syllabus.
"Torture doesn't work" lol
Guess they forgot to tell Bill Buckley.

" we reason and love, we are able to hope. And hope enables us to resist those things that would enslave us."
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Thought you might like to know what the late linguist William Bright (1928-2006) had to say about Leonard Shlain's book in 1998:

However, in his recent book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, Leonard Shlain has hypothesized that the rise of literacy, particularly alphabetic literacy, has been much more powerful than previously supposed; in his view, it has been responsible for reconfiguring the human brain. According to him, preliterate cultures were characterized by "holistic," right-brain thinking, oriented toward feminine values; but in literate cultures, he says, the LINEARITY of writing has fostered analytic, left-brain thinking, oriented toward patriarchy and misogyny. I will present Shlain's argument in brief, and then some criticisms of it. I will argue, in fact, that Shlain's hypothesis has no basis in history, anthropology, or linguistics. Speech and writing each have their own values and shortcomings, but there is no evidence that sexism is involved, or changes in the human brain.
4. Shlain's thesis is as follows. In the evolution of the human species, males became specialized for hunting, females for child-rearing. As part of this process, the left hemisphere of the brain, which controls linear and sequential thinking, became more developed in human males; but the right hemisphere, which controls holistic and concrete thinking, became more developed in females. In the development of writing systems, Shlain says that pictographs represented a right-brain form of expression; but as these evolved into logographic symbols among the Sumerians, the process of abstraction was carried out by left-brain activity. The subsequent development of syllabaries and alphabets in the Ancient Near East represented a still greater degree of abstractness, and was correlated with the increasing importance of masculine, left-brain cognition. As the simplicity and efficiency of alphabet writing enabled it to triumph in the Ancient Near East and in Greece, mother-goddess religions were replaced by the worship of masculine figures such as Yahweh, Zeus, and Allah; at the same time, matriarchal social structures were replaced by patriarchal ones, in which women were subjugated and abused. In a series of chapters, each focusing on a particular culture and historical period, Shlain argues that this situation has continued until modern times. However, he concludes on an optimistic note, suggesting that the proliferation of non-linear images in film, television, graphics, and computers is once again reconfiguring the brain, encouraging right-hemisphere modes of thought and bringing about the re-emergence of the feminine.
5. Critique. It's clear that Shlain's book is addressed not to scholars, but to educated non-specialists. But paradoxically, the work may be MORE difficult for scholars to read than for a lay audience, since specialists in history, anthropology, or linguistics have to stop at nearly every sentence, as a variety of reactions pass through their minds: What on earth does Shlain mean by this? Isn't this a gross oversimplification, or a gross overgeneralization, or a gross exaggeration? What about the counterfactual presuppositions of this statement? Where in the world did Shlain get THIS idea? What about counter-examples X, Y, and Z? What is supposed to be the logical connection of this sentence to the one that precedes it, or the one that follows it? Literally, the mind boggles. It seems that Shlain has read widely, but not too well; he has drawn on many sources, but without discrimination or critical insight.
I illustrate by quoting a passage from Shlain's discussion of spoken Chinese (pp. 181-82), with my own running commentary. He begins by saying that, in English and other Western languages, sentences are composed of WORDS, characterized by semantic constancy: the meaning of a word "is not altered by moving its position in a sentence or inflecting it differently" (Shlain uses "inflection" to mean "changes in pitch"). He continues:

"Spoken Chinese differs, however, in that it has NO distinct parts."
[False. If this were true, it would not possible for elements in Spoken Chinese to correspond to the discrete symbols of Written Chinese; a literate Chinese could not read his language aloud, or write it from spoken dictation.]
"Depending on the dialect, Chinese contains 400 to 800 monosyllabic sounds or, as linguists call them, "vocables," none of which signifies a specific word."
[False and/or meaningless. The count of 400 to 800 syllabic units ignores the relevance of TONE in Chinese, which I will discuss later. The phrase "monosyllabic sounds" is confusing; a syllable in Chinese, or any language, typically consists of a sequence of sounds, as in a Chinese surname such as Wang. The term "vocables" is not commonly used by linguists. Apart from the existence of HOMONYMS, such as exist in all languages (as in English h-e-r-e vs. h-e-a-r), it's true in general that each Chinese syllabic unit has a phonetic, grammatical, and semantic identity of the type that linguists label with the term "word" in describing any language.]
"Instead, the meaning of each syllable depends ENTIRELY on the place (syntax) it occupies in relation to the preceding and following vocables."
[False. All words in all languages have variations of meaning associated with context; a desk dictionary of English lists 24 senses for the word hit, and 40 for the word put. But Shlain must have read somewhere, and misunderstood, a statement that the ROLE played by a Chinese word in the sentence - e.g. as grammatical subject or object - is determined by its syntactic position. This is also true of English and many other languages, in which a noun preceding the verb is usually the subject, and a noun following the verb is usually the object (as contrasted with other languages like Latin and Russian, in which the role of words is marked more by suffixes).
"There is no word for the word word in Chinese, because the Chinese language has no words!"
[Doubly false. English-Chinese dictionaries list several equivalents for the English term word; these partly overlap in meaning with terms referring to the syllable and the written character, since these elements tend to coincide in Chinese. Linguists have universally recognized that Spoken Chinese has WORDS in the same sense that other languages do.]
"Besides the holistic nature of its syntax, spoken Chinese depends heavily on musicality. Each Chinese vocable has four to nine 'tones'. The meaning of each vocable can vary according to the singsong manner in which it is spoken."
[Highly misleading. Shlain's term "singsong" appears to trivialize the role of pitch, or tone, in Spoken Chinese. The fact is that each Chinese syllabic unit consists inherently of a combination of consonants and vowels with a specific pitch contour, and this tone is just as important to the meaning of that unit as a consonant or a vowel. Such tonal contours distinguish meaning in languages all over the world, including most African languages, Navajo, Swedish, Lithuanian, and some dialects of Dutch.]

Apart from these general characteristics of Shlain's argumentation, I'll refer to some more specific problems.
(1) Shlain continually makes claims of universality for his statements; e.g., "Anthropological studies of non-literate agricultural societies show that ... relations between men and women have been more egalitarian than in more developed societies" (p. 3). But he devotes almost all his attention to the Ancient Near East and Europe; less than 50 pages are devoted to India and China together, and the pre-contact New World is ignored.
(2) The essence of Shlain's method is binarization, to the point where every one of his 35 chapter titles is formulated as a pair of terms, usually in opposition: "Image/Word," "Right Brain/Left Brain," and even the double pair "Males:Death / Females:Life." Shlain then lines up his binaries and correlates them: Image is to Left Brain is to Females is to Life ... and so on, chapter after chapter ... as Word is to Right Brain is to Males is to Death ... etcetera, etcetera. He is not interested in ambiguities, or in fuzzy boundaries, or in tensions between opposites, or in syntheses, or in possible paradoxes. Women are nurturing and men are violent, and that suffices for what Shlain calls his "barnyard commonsense" (p. 131). This is not respect for women; it is mere cocktail-party feminism, which once more thrusts women into the prison of hackneyed dichtomies. In fact, a major paradox in the book is one of which Shlain seems unaware: in spite of the overwhelming duality of his own thinking, he twice refers specifically to duality as a negative consequence of alphabetic writing (pp. 7, 22).
(3) In terms of biological evolution, Shlain seems to be a not-so-covert Lamarckian. He states, "When written words began to supersede spoken words, the left brain's dominance markedly increased" (p. 40). That is, he sees dominance of the left brain in Western culture as having been transmitted, not merely by borrowing - by Roman from Greek, by Greek from Phoenician, and by Phoenician from Mesopotamian - but as part of the genetic heritage of the European and Near Eastern peoples. It should be noted that biologists no longer believe in such inheritance of acquired traits.
(4) Shlain is fond of grand abstractions, and he likes to anthropomorphize or personify them: "Nature tried to solve the problem" [of frequent death in childbirth among human females" (p. 12); "Culture was ladled into the baby's brain through the agency of ... language" [ibid.]; "Evolution came up with the economical idea of using the human tongue for communication" (p. 14); "The brain, like a patient Olympics coach, taught the tongue to perform a wide range of acrobatic gymnastics" (ibid.); "Nature redesigned the human nervous system ..." (p. 16); "By listening carefully to the FORMS of speech ..., the right hemisphere is expert at ferreting out hidden messages ..." (p. 20)
Occasional statements by Shlain are so completely off the wall as to leave one's jaw hanging. Here are some of my favorites.
(1) A crucial step in Shlain's presentation has to do with the relationship of the brain hemispheres to the structure of the human eye, as understood in terms of RODS, which are sensitive to brightness, and CONES, which perceive color. He states (24): "like rods, cones report to both hemispheres" – which is correct – but then he adds: "the left [hemisphere] is METAPHORICALLY best suited [my emphasis] to process [the cones'] output." But what does metaphor have to do with the neurology of vision? Shlain seems to recognize the problem with his argument here, because he adds a footnote: "there are no specific neuronal pathways YET IDENTIFIED [my emphasis] that connect ... the cones preferentiallyj with the left brain." A more honest statement would be: "There is NO EVIDENCE of neuronal pathways that connect the cones preferentially with the left brain."
(2) A little later, Shlain writes (p. 26): "The specialization of visual functions within each human eye corresponded to the lateralization of the cerebral hemispheres and the bifurcation of the human sexes. The holistic vision of the rods assisted the right brain in gathering and nurturing. Tunnel vision [i.e. focus vision] was primarily subordinated to the unique demands of the hunting left brain." This is a gross oversimplification. Peripheral vision is essential not only to the female who is gathering wild plants, but to the male hunter who is scanning a landscape for game; and focus vision is essential not only to the male who is hunting or fighting, but to the female who is sewing, weaving, or cooking.
(3) According to Shlain, "Writing involves the muscles of ONLY one side of the body" (p. 44). This will come as a surprise to left-handed typists.
(4) Shlain states: "An alphabet by definition is any form of writing that contains fewer than thirty signs" (p. 65). Whose definition can this be? The Devanagari alphabet, used for writing Sanskrit and Hindi, contains 44 signs; some other alphabets of South and Southeast Asia contain even more.
(5) In ancient Greece, the city of Thebes is said to have been founded by the mythic hero Cadmus, who slew a dragon and sowed its teeth; and he is also said to have introduced the alphabet to Greece. Shlain writes: "A human has twenty-eight teeth ... There is approximately the same number of letters in any alphabet [recall my previous note] ... Metaphorically, letters perform the same function as teeth. Writing can tear the wholeness of nature into small bites ..." (p. 122). I can only say that I find this an astonishing leap of imagination.
(6) Shlain's brief discussion of Southeast Asia is inaccurate in such complex ways that I'll need once more to make sentence-by-sentence comments:

"Southeast Asians lived primarily in a tribal manner until the English, French, and Dutch carved out abritrary 'spheres of influence' in the eighteenth century." (421)
[False. Although so-called "tribal" peoples have long lived in the hill country of Southeast Asia, the mainstream civilizations of Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia had been integral parts of the Buddhist world for centuries before Europeans arrived. Their scholars studied Sanskrit and Pali (the language of the Buddhist scriptures), and they wrote their languages in alphabetic scripts derived from those of India. During the same period, Vietnam was predominantly under the influence of Buddhist China, and wrote its language in an adaptation of Chinese characters.]
"By the middle of the nineteenth century, Christian missionaries had adapted a form of Indian script to Southeast Asian vernaculars." (421)
[False on several counts. Nineteenth-century Christian missionaries in Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia continued to use the existing Indic scripts for the mainstream languages, and adapted them to some tribal languages. In Vietnam, by contrast, a roman-based writing system was introduced by European missionaries much earlier, in the 18th century; and this replaced the earlier Chinese-based script.]
"The Vietnamese overthrew their ancient traditions and their French colonialist masters at the same time as they entered the fanatical, blindly doctrinal stage of early alphabet literacy." (422)
[False again. As I've indicated, the Vietnamese had alphabetic literacy for about 200 years before they successfully revolted against the French.]
"[In the war between Vietnam and the US,] one army [that of the Vietnamese] was at the height of alphabet-induced determination and the other [that of the US] was bewitched by a new communicative medium that ultimately sapped its will to win."
[I assume that Shlain is referring to television. Elsewhere, however, he seems to regard TV positively, as a holistic medium which can save literate society from itself.]
"After each of the other Southeast Asian nations adopted their new alphabetic language, they became haunted by extremes in human behavior ... In Thailand, women's status fell precipitously and prostitution became a national industry. Burma, once a self-sufficient country, ... fell into economic decay ..." (422)
[As for Thailand, it might be suggested that the main factor fostering prostitution was the influx of American soldiers on "rest and recreation" leave from Vietnam. Both Thailand and Burma continued, throughout the period in question, to use the same alphabetic scripts that they had derived from India centuries earlier.]

In summary, Shlain states: "the essential character of the twentieth-century Southeast Asian was utterly transmuted by the rapid spread of alphabet literacy in the nineteenth century" (423). I insist that there is absolutely no evidence for such a claim. In fact, I'm flabbergasted by Shlain's argument that the tragic events of recent times in Southeast Asia were brought about by an increase of literacy. How can he ignore the role played by the foreign policy of the Western powers, and specifically by the military intervention of the United States?
6. Conclusion. Shlain ends his book by looking optimistically toward Marshall McLuhan's dream of the 1960s, in which TV was supposed to transform our consciousness by returning us to visual images as our major modality for communication. "I am convinced," Shlain says (432), "that we are entering a new Golden Age – one in which the right-hemispheric values of tolerance, caring, and respect for nature will begin to ameliorate the conditions that have prevailed for the too-long period during which left-hemispheric values were dominant." I too hope for a world in which humans display greater tolerance, caring, and respect for nature. However, I also hope for a world in which society will have greater respect for logic, clarity, and truth. Any writing that purports to be non-fiction – whether scholarly books, technical reports, journalism, or business documents – is supposed to meet a basic criterion: You're not allowed to just MAKE IT UP. Shlain's work fails to meet this criterion.
Big Jeff
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By knowing how to type this, I'm keeping women down. Does that make me a sexist?

Funny thing is, a WOMAN taught me how to spell, read, speak english etc.
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