Tuesday, September 28, 2021

The image and feminine values / masculine values and the written word

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. ...

The introduction of the written word, and then the alphabet, into the social intercourse of humans initiated a fundamental change in the way newly literate cultures understood their reality. It was this dramatic change in mindset … that was primarily responsible for fostering patriarchy. ...

The Old Testament was the first alphabetic written work to influence future ages. Attesting to its gravitas, multitudes still read it three thousand years later. The words on its pages anchor three powerful religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Each is an exemplar of patriarchy. Each monotheistic religion features an imageless Father deity whose authority shines through His revealed Word, sanctified in its written form. Conceiving of a deity who has no concrete image prepares the way for the kind of abstract thinking that inevitably leads to law codes, dualistic philosophy, and objective science, the signature triad of Western culture. I propose that the profound impact these ancient scriptures had upon the development of the West depended as much on their being written in an alphabet as on the moral lessons they contained.

Goddess worship, feminine values, and women’s power depend on the ubiquity of the image . God worship, masculine values, and men’s domination of women are bound to the written word. Word and image, like masculine and feminine, are complementary opposites. Whenever a culture elevates the written word at the expense of the image, patriarchy dominates. When the importance of the image supersedes the written word, feminine values and egalitarianism flourish.

- from The Alphabet Versus the Goddess by Leonard Shlain


  1. I understand that you, the owner of this blog, are just reposting an interesting excerpt from a book written by someone else, and that perhaps your hopes for your posts that they will, as you say in your about page, provoke and inspire. I hope you'll take my disagreement with the argument given in this excerpt as an example of someone engaging with your post, not as someone missing the point of the blog entirely. Please forgive the messy nature of this reply; it’s just a series of arguments against the excerpt’s claims, without much in the way of organization.

    In the first place, I question the author’s preoccupation with alphabets. Are alphabets in some way more masculine and patriarchal than syllabaries or logographic? Were/are the culture of the Far East significantly less patriarchal than those in the West simply because their writing is logosyllabic? The author might argue that since these writing systems are centered around images, they are more feminine, but on the contrary, if abstraction is taken to be masculine, the few lines that often are made to represent much more complex physical objects in logographies (look for instance at the development of early Chinese character) are much more abstract than early alphabets, where each symbol is nothing more than a sound one makes with one’s mouth.

    Second and most importantly, there are serious problems with the claim expressed here: “Conceiving of a deity who has no concrete image prepares the way for the kind of abstract thinking that inevitably leads to law codes, dualistic philosophy, and objective science, the signature triad of Western culture.” Does the author forget that the first culture who had all of these, indeed the culture which we commonly credit with their invention and codification, and which we sometimes consider the best example of all three, the Ancient Greeks, had deities with concrete images? That the Romans did as well? That the Egyptians in their religion, which had visible and concrete images of their gods, maintained an implicit material dualism? And that the Mesopotamians did as well? (Consult Encyclopedia Britannica: “Historical varieties of religious dualism”). This claim seems remarkably ill-founded: the development of all of these concepts (which the author links with the conception of an abstract deity) was done almost entirely by societies that did not have such a conception.

    Thirdly, it seems to me that the author is failing to engage with the long philosophical tradition examining the relationship between speech and writing. Derrida interacts extensively with Rousseau’s argument about the primacy of the spoken word in his Grammatology, but the author doesn't write like he’s familiar with this at all. Perhaps this is covered in a separate section, but in this case the author’s insistence on the complimentary-oppositeness of speech and writing seems to me very vulnerable to a postmodern critique. And this is especially surprising to me since Feminist thought seems to have so much embraced deconstructionist methods over the past few years.

    [1/2, this post is quite long :P]

  2. [2/2, long post :P ]

    Fourth, it seems strange to suggest that the written word induces the adoption of a new societal mindset that is "primarily responsible for fostering patriarchy" in newly literate societies. In what sense is this influence “primary” (that is, the influence of the mindset created by the written word over the construction of societies the author considers patriarchal)? Is the author suggesting that pre-literate societies were not patriarchal, but that the influence of this mindset made them so? that the mere mindset of such a literate society makes it patriarchal? that societal changes that coincided with the adoption of this mindset may have produced either an egalitarian or patriarchal society but that the influence of this mindset caused society to lean to the latter? Perhaps the answer is hidden in the ellipsis, but all these interpretations seem problematic to me: The first seems contradicted by what we know about prehistoric societies, or at the very least undermines the authors point; if prehistoric societies are admitted to be patriarchal, they must have a patriarchal mindset independent of writing, which certainly discounts the primacy of the writing-induced mindset. The second makes the statement somewhat meaningless (literate societies’ mindsets induce patriarchy because the mindset a society obtains from literacy is patriarchal?). The third seems to discount the interrelatedness of the societal advancements that coincided with writing. Land must be managed by bureaucracy, which needs record keeping and therefore writing; large trade routes require currency and debt, which relies on record keeping; the examples are legion here: the elevation of writing is not a single act—it is also the elevation of centralization, business, and other things I don’t doubt this author would class as patriarchy. But it is not clear that the latter results from the former; if anything, it seems easier to argue that the elevation of writing is a result of a system of “patriarchy,” the opposite of the author’s point.

    On the other hand, perhaps the author is not interested in studying the development of writing in societies. The last paragraph seems to offer some of this: “Whenever a culture elevates the written word at the expense of the image, patriarchy dominates. When the importance of the image supersedes the written word, feminine values and egalitarianism flourish.” I think this kind of dichotomy has become relatively accepted in recent years: masculine values imply inequality, feminine values imply equality. But personally I don’t think this is true. Women may call the drive towards material and social success in societies where men dictate cultural currents “oppressive” or “patriarchal.” They may not be incorrect; this drive is certainly part of the male psyche in a way it isn’t in the female psyche. But it is just as certain that men would call the lack of such a drive in a society where women dictate culture currents “oppressive” or “matriarchal.” If we are to admit that the two genders have different values, as this author does, it seems ridiculous and somewhat offensive to presume that one gender has values that when implemented lead to the suffering of a part of humanity and that the other has values that would not do so. Short of extraordinary evidence to support the author’s claim, this argument is the same as the argument once made by reactionaries: that women don’t know what’s good for them and that it’s better they be placed under the control of men. In an industrialized society, where societal roles are not determined by body composition, it seems to me ridiculous to suggest anything other than compromise between the genders.

  3. Thank you for engaging with this post. Lots to think about...