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.