Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Images, language, women and patriarchy

Late in the 1990s, a groundbreaking interdisciplinary study appeared that shed light on an age-old struggle, and did so in a novel way.

In his book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict between Word and Image (published by Penguin Arkana, New York, 1998), Leonard Shlain, neurologist and neurosurgeon turned philosopher, offers a novel argument against the naive belief that images and words are distinguishable, but equivalent, means of representing things in the world.

In fact, he provides abundant evidence that images and written words represent irreducibly different perceptual modes, which are linked to women and men, respectively, in surprising ways (The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, p5):

“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 alphabet 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.”

Shlain acknowledges that many people would claim the opposite in the light of studies that have attributed better linguistic skills to women than to men, and superior skill at handling three-dimensional objects to men than to women. He reminds his readers that what he is claiming, supported by massive cultural, historical and mythological evidence, is that there is a firm connection between the “feminine principle” and the image, on the one hand, and between writing and the “masculine principle”, on the other.

It is impossible to provide an adequate summary here of everything he proceeds to uncover with astonishing consistency in every historical epoch since the appearance of the first alphabet more than 3 000 years ago. He adduces evidence that the emergence of literacy (especially alphabet literacy) has gone hand in hand with the rise of patriarchy, and that the relatively recent resurgence of an interest in (especially) the electronic distribution of images has been noticeably accompanied by an improvement in women’s social status.

In a nutshell, Shlain was struck by the correlation, in the ancient world, between the transition from goddess-worship to masculine god-worship in various cultures, the simultaneous spread of (especially alphabet) literacy, and the rise of patriarchy and misogyny in the place of the preceding social egalitarianism that had characterised goddess-worshipping communities. This led him to hypothesise that there is a historical link between literacy and patriarchy, which he then set out to test throughout history and in various cultures, every time with resounding confirmation.

In ancient Greece, for example, there was a marked difference between illiterate Sparta, where women had a high social and political status, and (ironically) literate, supposedly “democratic” Athens, where women had no political rights and a much lower social status. Among the extremely writing- and (abstract) law-oriented ancient Hebrews, women similarly enjoyed hardly any social and political rights, while, among the image- or hieroglyph-oriented Egyptians, women had many social, economic and political rights, such as the right to own and administer property.

One of the telling test cases discussed by Shlain pertains to the so-called “dark” middle ages when, after the fall of Rome, illiteracy spread rapidly. In accordance with Shlain’s hypothesis, the status of women rose conspicuously during this era, culminating in a veritable cult of women-worship associated with the medieval knights’ code of chivalry towards women.

When the late middle ages witnessed the return of literacy, and eventually Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, the oppression of women returned with a vengeance, culminating in the horrendous persecution of women as “witches” in the course of the 16th-century Protestant reformation.

Everywhere, the connection is clearly established: literacy promotes the interests of men and undermines those of women, while an appreciation of images promotes the interests of women and of an egalitarian society. Small wonder that the lot of women has improved substantially since the first inventions that made the reproduction of images on a large scale possible.

His explanation of this strange phenomenon is that there is a cortico-cerebral hemispheric connection between images and the values of femininity or women, on the one hand, and between conceptual abstraction (as required for written language) and the interests of masculinity, on the other. This is no neuro-determinism, as some of my philosophical colleagues may suspect, however. It is the values associated with left and right-brain functions, respectively, that make the difference between a patriarchal (left-brain dominant) and an egalitarian (right-brain dominant) society.

One of his “test cases”, apart from those already mentioned, is the fact that there was religious tolerance between Indian Muslims and Hindus during the approximately thousand years when literacy declined substantially, following the Muslim conquest of India in the eighth century, and that internecine religious strife between these two religions only erupted in the wake of the British colonial reintroduction of large-scale literacy to India in the 19th century.

Moreover, during this time of relative illiteracy, the Muslim architectural achievements included the Taj Mahal — a major piece of architecture dedicated to a woman. It is illuminating to compare the relentless patriarchal oppression of women in recently literate, so-called fundamentalist Muslim countries such as Afghanistan under the Taliban (before the recent American occupation and the subsequent reinstatement of women’s right to study and practise certain professions).

Since the invention of photography and the discovery of electromagnetism in the course of the 19th century, there has been a succession of improvements in the social and political status of women — events between which Shlain persuasively establishes correlations; the point being that photography introduced the circulation of images on a scale never experienced before, and that electromagnetism laid the basis for other inventions such as the telephone, the phonograph, the radio, cinema and film, television, tape recorders, video recorders and the personal computer, all of which promoted right-hemispheric activity and the feminine values associated with it, and reduced the hegemony of the masculine values associated with left-brain abstraction as embodied in the printed word.

Shlain is optimistic about the prospect of a relationship of harmony and equality between women and men, given the current pervasiveness of images and icons of all kinds in the media — it is no less than a return of the “goddess” as metaphor for feminine values to temper the patriarchal masculine values that have been dominant in society for thousands of years. What the world needs, he argues, is a balance between the two, instead of either being dominant; humanity needs images and the accompanying feminine values, as well as writing and its concomitant masculine values — we cannot do without either.

If Shlain is right about this, the long reign of the dominance of the written, printed word, and the suppression of images, together with the oppression of women, may just be over at last. To be sure, as Susan Faludi has argued in Backlash, there has been a conservative reaction by many men and men’s organisations to the gains on the part of women, but ultimately men, too, are influenced (as Shlain shows in the final chapters of his book) by the ascendancy of the women-promoting image.

  • Jon

    If you read DH Lawrence and James Joyce, people will think you’re a bit of an intellectual. If you look at the pictures in Penthouse, you’re going to be called a lowbrow lowlife perv. It’s even worse — much worse — if you actually go out and pay to get yourself first-hand practical experience at what those other libidinous people did on the printed page. Strange, isn’t it?

  • Jocelyn Newmarch

    Hi Bert

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post. The correlation is intriguing, but I can’t grasp the mechanics. I’m struggling to understand how literacy would promote masculine values and images promote feminine values – and why there would be a correlation in the first place, since, as you noted, femininity is associated with linguistic competences and masculinity with spatial competence.

    (And I’d also like to add that I think the similarities between men and women far outweigh the much-hyped differences.)

  • Odette

    Hi Bert

    An interesting and thought provoking post – thank you.

    Like Jocelyn, I am also struggling with the mechanics but I would venture the opinion that a blog post can only give a very basic outline of Leonard Shlain’s book so it would probably pay to read the book. Is it an accessible read for non-academics?

    But then again, this post doesn’t contain images so maybe my female brain is struggling to process it. :-)

  • Lyndall Beddy

    The test would be China and Japan where the languages have always been pictoral.What does he say about them?

    The resaons for the clash between Hindu and Muslim in post-colonial India is much more complex than that !

  • Bert

    Thanks for the responses – and yes, it is quite a volumimous book, which is difficult to do justice to in such little space. Shlain writes beautifully; his book reads like a novel, and once you start you can hardly put it down – it is worth reading it in its entirety. About the ‘mechanics’ – he starts his book with a thorough explanation of the functions of the right and left hemispheres, respectively, as well as of the differences between images and alphabet-based writing, then spends substantial time on hunter-gatherer societies, specifically on how the allocation of different responsibilities to men and women (resp.) laid the basis for the correlation between certain brain functions and certain social functions. For example, men were generally assigned the task of hunting, while women did the gathering and child-minding. This explains why the left-brain function of objectifying something, as well as the related function of abstracting (‘thinking away’) everything that might interfere with the task at hand, that of bringing down the hunted animal, was endowed with ‘masculine’ value over a long time of reinforcing activity. On the other hand, the activities of women required a great deal of emotional giving or sheltering; hence the right-brain function of affectivity was gradually given a predominantly feminine connotation, for example (and importantly, images also have their seat in the right hemisphere). Although there are clear neurological and sensory remnants in men and women, resp., of this ancient division of labour – e.g. the fact that women have better peripheral vision than men because they have more rods in their eyes, while men have better focal vision because of the larger number of cones in their eyes (differences that Shlain relates to their different tasks in hunter-gatherer societies: women had to practice surround-vision to keep an eye on children while simultaneously foraging, and men had to concentrate their vision on one thing) – it should be noted that you are quite right that the similarities, in terms of specific abilities, between men and women outweigh the differences. Shlain stresses throughout the book that men and women can generally do the same things, even if there are these differences. The important thing as far as his thesis goes is this, however: because of hundreds of thousands of years of reinforcement of the connection between certain brain-functions (abstraction and objectifying, for instance) and masculine values, the advent of the alphabet (which requires massive abstraction) gave this connection a huge boost, to the detriment of feminine values. And Lyndall, you’re right about the linguistic test – you’ll remember that I referred to the ancient Egyptians, who were not patriarchal at all, for instance. Shlain looks at the Chinese, too, and finds that there were certain influences that undermined the salutary neurological effects of their kind of writing (if I remember correctly Confucianism was one of them, which neutralized the counter-patriarchal influence of their mode of writing. I would have to look at that part again to give you a more specific answer; he does examine patriarchal practices such as footbinding, though, and it does fit into his schema. Nor does Shlain claim that his hypothesis is the only explanatory framework; he would agree with you that thinmgs are complex; all he does in the book is to point out the remarkable correlations between alphabet literacy and the advent of patriarchy. And they work out all right. His other books are just as interesting. I’ll write something about them some other time. Google him – you’ll find quite a lot of information.

  • Jeanette

    I agree that this is really fascinating. I would love to know more about the use of symbols in writing (such as those used by the Chinese and Japanese) and their link or relationship with numeracy skills, which are purportedly superior to those of the western cultures who use the alphabet.

  • http://hhtp;? Lyndall Beddy

    Have not visited here for a while. I think you will find their numeracy skills link to the use of the abacus and have nothing to do with the alphabet.

  • samuel

    That is such an interesting issue,you talk about the patriachal society whereby men are dominant,i had a good example that in Tanzania there are some tribes still practising the patriachal or i can say that left brain and right brain( maasai)women are given domestic work while men are hunting etc
    My point is that although nowdays women are well educated and they are doing some works which were supposed to be done by men(i can say there is equal)but still there some places men are still conservative.

  • samuel

    That is such an interesting issue,you talk about the patriachal society whereby men are dominant,i had a good example of that in Tanzania there are some tribes still practising the patriachal or i can say that left brain and right brain( maasai)women are given domestic work while men are hunting etc
    My point is that although nowdays women are well educated and they are doing some works which were supposed to be done by men(i can say there is equal)but still there some places men are still conservative.

  • Talitha

    “What the world needs is a balance between the two (woman & men), instead of either being dominant; humanity needs images and the accompanying feminine values, as well as writing and its concomitant masculine values – we cannot do without either.”

    I agree with this statement and I do believe that the world (or at least part of it) has realized this way back when… When I read this article it made me think of a scene in the film “300”, which I think is still relevant today. a Persian messenger comes to Sparta to address the Spartan King, as the King walks up to the Persian the Spartan Queen follows. The messenger then requests an audience with the King, and again the Queen follows, she also makes remarks and states her opinion – the Persian, angered by this then says: “What makes this woman think she can speak amongst men?” The Queen then steps forward and firmly replies: “Because only Spartan woman give birth to real men…” Throughout the film this Spartan Queen plays a dominant role and together they, King & Queen, rule Sparta – making use of the mans physical strength & the woman’s emotional vigour.

  • Matthew Evans

    It makes wonder what lies for us on the horion. When i try place myself in this timeline, I see huge progress in terms of human equality, but on the other hand we still have an equally long way to go.
    I feel that female imagery has been exploited a touch to much with the advent of such things as the internet, MMS and reality TV. But who am i to complain.
    In the words of my grandma “When i was your age…”
    You’ve heard it all before!
    that story will never grow old cause change is inevitable!