The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image (Elle)
Text #1, 1st Half
September 20, 2004
Text: The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image
Author: Leonard Shalain
Publisher: Viking Penguin, Penguin Putnam Inc. 1998
Major Ideas: Shlain’s thesis is that “Writing of any kind, but especially in its alphabetic form, diminishes feminine values and with them, women’s power in culture”. Shlain goes on to suggest that characteristics of a feminine outlook would include holistic, simultaneous, synthetic and concrete views of the world while masculine characteristics would include linear, sequential, reductionist and abstract. He does, of course, recognize that both men and women have both sets of these characteristics, but that feminine characteristics are more prevalent in women, etc. Shlain goes on to suggest that while literacy created major changes and benefits in society, it also had negative effects. He reviews the Hunter/Gatherer societies looking at the value men and women were given for their roles (pretty equal) and moves into a discussion of right brain/left brain to give the reader understanding of the differences and how the brain works together. From here, Shlain explains the correlation between Males & Death, and Female & Life, and how Greek mythology held women in high esteem. Comparing the Greek mythology, mythology in Mesopotamia and among other primitive civilizations, he concludes that with the creation of a monotheistic faith and Western civilization, Goddesses and the role of women faced certain demise. Shlian reviews this demise and relates how the alphabet and the role of literacy promoted masculine ideals and demoted any suggestion of power, sexuality and women. In addition, the idea that the value of the image has decreased with the growing value of the word is fascinating.
Application Value: As I am only halfway through the book, I am not necessarily sure that I am able to apply the ideas yet however the discussion of women and their role of equal and demotion throughout history-I am not yet convinced that the demotion directly correlates with literacy-is fascinating. I am interested in women, gender roles and society and so this fits in well with my interests. Also because the text comments a great deal on history, philosophy and religion I am able to more clearly understand the roles of women during these times and how gender roles have changed throughout history. I’ve been discussing ideas from the book quite a bit so I think that must have some application value- it is definitely promoting me to think about my beliefs, ideas and understanding. As well, the correlation between image and word is fascinating and may be useful later in my studies. Unfortunately I am not yet sure of a direct application of my reading but clearly it will be useful in my future studies.
Shlain continues to make his case that the alphabet has, in fact, been a detriment to women. Looking at Israelite culture, politics, Greek gods and goddesses, and the evolution of Indian culture moving from Mohenjo-Daro to the ritual of Sati (a widow being expected to take her place on her husbands’ funeral pyre with his corpse). Shlain also addresses time periods, religions and ideas such as Chinese history, Jesus, Buddhism, slavery, Christianity and philosophy (particularly existentialism) in regards to the role that introducing the written word and the subsequent results for women, which were often degrading and demoralizing.
The book concludes that we are moving back into a time of compromise between the right and left brains. Shlain suggests that with the advent of computer (focused on images), television and the great use of images within current culture, the divisions between men and women are closing and that we will, again, see the benefits of a goddess. He does not, of course, mean this literally (that people will start worshiping goddesses again). What he is saying is that we are moving back towards right brained thinking which will have profound changes in personality, including a focus on compassion, with holistic, simultaneous, synthetic and concrete worldviews making a return in the global society.
Shlain states (p.431), “I have tended to characterize the right-hemispheric attributes as purely positive. But it is no less true that relying on them without the ordering balance which is the forte of the left hemisphere leads to a different kind of disarray and can result in mindless anarchy and sensuous excess. Emphasis on one hemispheric mode at the expense of the other is noxious. The human community should strive for a state of complementarity and harmony.”
Overall, I think this book is excellent because it covers such a vast amount of information about historical periods, including discussions of literature, image, culture, and philosophy. The thesis that Shlain presents, that the alphabet and written word have hurt women, is not proven, but I felt his argument is strong. Everything that benefits us also has consequences, and I am not sure if this has been considered before. I even found, in the conclusion, a section that relates to my own research. Shlain suggests that computers are furthering the image (over the written word) which promotes (in his opinion) women and the ideals of the right-brain. This is interesting in light of my interests which focus on college women and their success and persistence in computer science programs which is typically quite low. If the computer is promulgating the image, right-brained ideals and equality between the two hemispheres of the brains, why aren’t women drawn to computers naturally?
In any case, overall I thought the book was really interesting. As I mentioned in class, I ordered a bunch of books that sounded interesting but had no central theme, but even in this book I was able to find information that is applicable to my thesis, so I see this as a good choice. I also think this book was beneficial because I have a hard time choosing one area to be interested in and this book covered so much information that I feel I’ve learned quite a bit from it. I’ve been discussing different things I read in some of the classes I teach, with coworkers, and have been boring anyone else who will listen with different ideas that came from the book.