I love Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings. But this morning I had to check the calendar to make sure April 1st hadn’t come early this year. This review of Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image sounded absolutely fascinating. Titled “How the Invention of the Alphabet Usurped Female Power in Society and Sparked the Rise of Patriarchy in Human Culture,” it promised “a pause-giving look at the relationship between literacy and patriarchy.”
Well sign me up–I love literacy and hate patriarchy and am only too happy to rant about either. I also may have given a presentation in my high school Theory of Knowledge class wherein I posited that man’s eating from the tree of knowledge, falling from grace, and getting exiled from the Garden of Eden were but a poetic expression for the ways in which human knowledge screws us over. After all, our smarts gave rise to our propensity for using fossil fuels, driving around creating greenhouse gases and precipitating our own demise as a species. I hadn’t, however, yet become the strident feminist I am today, and as such had declined to comment on the fact that it was Eve who gave Adam the apple.
So I was eager to see how our human hubris, when it is derived from our deep fetishization of our impressive logical and reasoning capabilities, arose from our system of communication. I see the hubris as testosterone-driven, while many may see the logic and reason itself as testosterone-driven. Instead, I found myself wading through a review that sins in a way I’m sure I’ve been guilty of before: it gets ahead of itself. It explores the ostensibly scientific implications of some intriguing claims that are, at best, folklore.
There are three main problem areas here: 1) The unquestioned “women are like this, men are like that” claims. 2) The claims about hemispheric specialization propagate these problematic claims about gender, and 3) The claims about handedness, in turn, propagate the problematic claims about hemispheric specialization. I’m not sure whether the review glazes over some actually intelligent explanations that may lie buried in the book, but for now I’ll assume that the review is an accurate representation of the book’s contents and just direct my criticisms, admittedly somewhat ballsily, to a book I haven’t read.
The spark of a question for the book seems to be this (quoth Popova):
Shlain was touring Mediterranean archeological sites in the early 1990s and realized that the majority of shrines had been originally consecrated to female deities, only to be converted to male-deity worship later, for unknown reasons.
Fascinating. Tell me more. Quoth Schlain via Popova:
One pernicious effect of literacy has gone largely unnoticed: writing subliminally fosters a patriarchal outlook. Writing of any kind, but especially its alphabetic form, diminishes feminine values and with them, women’s power in the culture.
Really. OK, let’s delve into the historical argument. He seems to base this on the fact that pre-literate agrarian societies were more egalitarian, and once writing came about, the balance of yin and yang was thrown out of whack.
He defines the feminine outlook as a “holistic, simultaneous, synthetic, and concrete view of the world” and the masculine as a “linear, sequential, reductionist” one characterized by abstract thinking, while recognizing — as Susan Sontag did decades earlier in condemning our culture’s artificial polarities — that “every individual is generously endowed with all the features of both.”
It seems like the author makes a good faith effort to acknowledge that gender characteristics are not deterministic and that we all can have characteristics that are traditionally classified as more male or more female. But the problem lies in the fact that we’re not being asked to consider why the feminine and masculine came to be defined in this way. As I read on, I was sorely disappointed at implicitly being asked to accept this as ground truth, rather than watching this dichotomy get dismantled. The argument seems to proceed with “Literacy reinforces the masculine outlook,” but I’m not seeing an explanation of how these characteristics came to be considered masculine in the first place. He argues that literacy gives rise to hierarchies, to masters and slaves, to haves and have-nots. I’m no historian so I’ll assume the correlation is there, but I’m incredulous at the idea that writing somehow perpetrated this. Couldn’t it be the case that extant power dynamics incorporated writing as a tool of subjugation? Couldn’t it be true that there’s a lurking variable that gave rise to slavery, gender-based oppression, and hierarchies in general? Perhaps writing, like brute strength, engineering, agriculture, the scientific method, capitalism, and any number of useful inventions that changed the landscape of power, was merely a tool whose utility fueled an already rising tide of patriarchal power?
But the argument goes on to make the case that writing is somehow male. Looking at pictures, conversely, is somehow female. Because (quoth Schlain via Popova):
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.
Again: no historian here. Not here to question the ethnographic data on how these things are classified by societies. And, it would seem, if you’ve written a book aimed at explaining where patriarchy came from, you at least acknowledge that patriarchy is a thing, so we’re on the same team here, right?
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.
But I’m not sold on the idea that ethnographic data is what matter here. It seems that Schlain is trying to argue that this dichotomy plus the introduction of writing led to male power. Because somehow the advent of writing led society in a direction which came to prize sequence, analysis, and abstraction. Which I buy. But there’s a circularity here: if these mental processes are so male, couldn’t you say that if women had has more power to begin with, we would now be an imagery-based society, reliant on pictures rather than words? Popova even goes on to speculate that the rise of the internet, which gives arguably equal value to images and words, may be a great leveler of playing fields. But I’m still stuck on this notion that words are male, images are female. Without proving that these dichotomous cultural associations with femininity and masculinity are rooted in a deeper, more innate (let’s say biological) difference, it’s not clear that you can establish that the emergence of writing as an sequential, analytical process of abstraction contributed causally to the rise of patriarchy.
For, you see, apparently around the time of WWII, the twin influences of photography and television had a feminizing influence on our thought. One theme I’m seeing here, too, is that it’s the more passive forms of consumption that are deemed “feminine” here. And conflating femininity with passivity is, well, just great. My favorite. Fortunately, Schlain backs this up with a brain-based explanation. A reading brain, monitored with EEG, is abuzz with concentration that manifests as beta waves, while a brain viewing television is awash in passive contemplation, manifested by alpha waves. Am I supposed to be extra convinced that image viewing is a feminine skill because it requires mindlessness?
Task-oriented beta waves activate the hunter/killer side of the brain as alpha and theta waves emanate more from the gatherer/nurturer side.
Right. Got it.
So, for those of you keeping track of my undercaffeinated, skeptical displeasures thus far: The ethnographic explanation of ethnographic phenomena leaves me feeling coldly abandoned in a circularity trap. I’m not keen on innateness arguments, in general, so I don’t buy the imagery:female::writing:male analogy. And I’m not convinced by the brainwaves argument, because it merely propagates this fallacious analogy.
But, fortunately, Schlain isn’t relying too heavily on either argument. Unfortunately, he’s relying on one I dislike perhaps just as much: the rampantly misused notion of hemispheric specialization.
Television, being a flickering image-based medium, derails the masculine-left-linear strategy, just as in parallel, the written word had earlier disoriented the gestalt-feminine-right one.
You’ve all seen the quizzes: Are you right-brained, or left-brained? Well, it turns out these are utter horseshit, in that they merely peg math-y types as left-brained and creative types as right-brained. But there is a kernel of truth to them. Some of our faculties do seem to be lateralized, but this hardly breaks down along these lines.
Cognitive neuroscientists seem to be comfortable with the consensus statement that our language abilities “live” in the left hemisphere, while our spatial reasoning abilities “live” in the right. It may not even be prudent to present these facts in the same breath, as they’re not meant to be complementary or contrasting–being good at language doesn’t mean you’re necessarily bad at spatial reasoning. But mainly, it seems to be the case that you can injure a given brain area on either the left hand or right hand side, and witness differing consequences, and that’s where we get this idea. Lesioning certain areas in the left hemisphere, for example, yields catastrophic language deficits, while lesioning the exact same spot in the right hemisphere will have little or no effect on language. A similar principle applies to spatial reasoning in the right hemisphere. For more information, I like these explanations of where this notion comes from.
But this split between language in the left hemisphere and spatial reasoning in the right hemisphere doesn’t seem to neatly break down along gender lines. Even if you believe that women are great listeners and communicators, while men have great spatial reasoning and navigation skills, this would seem to suggest superior left brain function in women. But even if you believe in such differences, these are not the differences Schlain seems to be emphasizing.
He wants to say that the advent of the television and, later, of the computer, diminished male left hemisphere dominance.
The computer was originally designed to aid scientists, most of whom were male. Since the 1970s, therefore, males have rushed in droves to learn what their fathers and grandfathers contemptuously dismissed as a skill for women and sissies — typing. Unlike all the scribes of past cultures, men now routinely write using both hands instead of only the dominant one. The entry into the communication equation of millions of men’s left hands, directed by millions of male right brains tapping out one half of every computer-generated written message, is, I believe, an unrecognized factor in the diminution of patriarchy.
Weirdly, there were no left-handed males before this? I believe I’ve read somewhere that left-handers were burned at the stake or something, so I’ll buy this, tentatively, for the purpose of argument. But OK. First, I should point out the simple fact of decussation, which refers to the fact that our wires are crossed. The right side of the body is controlled by the left half of the brain and vice versa (we are here excluding the cerebellum, which is double-crossed, because it’s presumably not who we’re talking about when we talk about hemispheric specialization, which is another chip for another shoulder). So let’s say all of a sudden males start using computers and are now using their right brains to control their left hands like never before. Schlain ascribes the rise of dyslexia, a condition that appears predominantly in male children, to the awakening of the right brain:
Dyslexic children, predominantly male (9:1), have difficulty deciphering the alphabet. One credible theory proposes that it is due to a failure of hemispheric dominance. Ninety percent of the language centers traditionally reside in the left hemisphere of right-handed people. In the right-handed dyslexic, the distribution of language centers may be more on the order of 80/20 or 70/30. Although we cannot be sure that dyslexia was not always among us, it seems to have erupted at the very moment that an entire generation was devaluing the left hemispheric mode of knowing. Perhaps television is the agent equilibrating the human brain’s two differing modes of perception.
There’s a major leap here in the assumption that our hands’ actions on either a pen or a keyboard somehow sculpt our thought. It also seems to fail to account for the phenomenon of interhemispheric inhibition–even when making movements with one hand, the two sides of the brain seem to interact such that the hemisphere “controlling” the hand receives inhibition from the opposite hemisphere. This may have to do with maintaining independence of the two hands, facilitating symmetric movements, or some trade-off between the two, either temporally or spatially.
I’m not familiar with the literature of hemispheric imbalance for language in dyslexics, but even so, it seems like another huge leap to say that the acquisition of linguistic skills (namely, typing) in the left hand led to a disruption in somehow inherently gendered patterns of lateralization. I’ll acknowledge that there is some controversy surrounding the notion that women are more bilateral in their recruitment of hemispheres for language. So, assuming the move from pen to keyboard resulted in the left hand recruiting more right brain areas, perhaps you are saying that dyslexia is really a problem of right-handed male brains becoming inappropriately feminized?
Well let’s return to the idea that writing is masculine and images are feminine. It would seem to be the case, then, that men are more left-brained while women are more right-brained, according to the language/spatial reasoning divide. Isn’t he sort of contradicting this notion anyway by painting written language (which relies on the left brain) as male and imagery (which, as it relies on the extraction of information from spatial relationships, relies on the right brain) as female?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at a conference and seen some poster in which a researcher compares, say, parallel parking abilities in men and in women as a measure of spatial reasoning, going on to triumphantly either corroborate or disprove the claim that men are superior navigators, spatial reasoners, explorers of space, or whatever you want to call it. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched the sitcom trope of women as attentive listeners and communicators play out. So in the end, I guess I would have been disappointed had Schlain been pointing to these stereotypes, as I believe any differences here result from differences in socialization.
To recap: My main gripe here is that I don’t understand where in the hell this idea that “language is male, imagery is female” comes from. That it fails to map neatly onto our understanding of hemispheric specialization is a letdown; that it fails to relate back to extant disappointing stereotypes stemming from hemispheric specialization is just plain confusing. So hey, maybe someone can explain all of this to me. It’s early, I haven’t looked up the battery of citations that I’d like to be providing here on a less busy Monday, and I’m just going off of a book review, not the book itself. I would LOVE to come to a greater understanding of the role of language, specifically written language, in cementing patriarchy, and I’m sure there’s a story there. Maybe it involves the role of scribes in society and the master-slave dialectic, even. But, as it stands, I’m just not convinced.
I sort of hope Schlain has some chunk of the book that actually debunks the “women are good listeners, men are good navigators” stereotype, because if so, I won’t be mad about his hemispheric specialization claims contradicting stereotypes I don’t believe in ANYWAY. Freed from reliance on such stereotypes, I’m left to gripe about the central claim that language is masculine and imagery is feminine. It’s not invalid to point, as Schlain does, to the temporal coincidence of the emergence of writing and of predominantly male deities. It just isn’t giving me any satisfactory causal explanation. Popova points out:
He takes great care to avoid the trap of correlation vs. causation and offers a wonderfully poetic formulation of the danger of conflating the two: “Correlation … does not prove causality — the disappearance of the stars at dawn does not cause the sun to rise.”
It’s possible that, in the interest of exploring the fascinating implications of Schlain’s claims, Popova has simply declined to illustrate how, exactly, Schlain frees himself from this trap. The only citation I see Schlain giving for his gender-based claims is this:
They coexist as two closely overlapping bell-shaped curves with no feature superior to its reciprocal. These complementary methods of comprehending reality resemble the ancient Taoist circle symbol of integration and symmetry in which the tension between the energy of the feminine yin and the masculine yang is exactly balanced. One side without the other is incomplete; together, they form a unified whole that is stronger than either half. First writing, and then the alphabet, upset this balance. Affected cultures, especially in the West, acquired a strong yang thrust.
While I appreciate the acknowledgment that these traits are a continuum and that one is not superior to the other, I’m going to require harder scientific evidence than Taoism is offering in this snippet, and I’m skeptical that this evidence is out there. I’m skeptical that analysis, sequencing, and abstraction are masculine. I’m skeptical that words draw on this kind of processing in ways that images don’t. And, to put those two together, I’m skeptical that writing requires masculinity (Full disclosure: I’ve only read one of Hemingway’s books and I hated it). But who knows, maybe all this skepticism is just my overactive yang thrust at work.