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The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image (Compass)

This groundbreaking book proposes that the rise of alphabetic literacy reconfigured the human brain and brought about profound changes in history, religion, and gender relations. Making remarkable connections across brain function, myth, and anthropology, Dr. Shlain shows why pre-literate cultures were principally informed by holistic, right-brain modes that venerated the Goddess, images, and feminine values. Writing drove cultures toward linear left-brain thinking and this shift upset the balance between men and women, initiating the decline of the feminine and ushering in patriarchal rule. Examining the cultures of the Israelites, Greeks, Christians, and Muslims, Shlain reinterprets ancient myths and parables in light of his theory. Provocative and inspiring, this book is a paradigm-shattering work that will transform your view of history and the mind.

“Literacy has promoted the subjugation of women by men throughout all but the very recent history of the West,” writes Leonard Shlain. “Misogyny and patriarchy rise and fall with the fortunes of the alphabetic written word.”

That’s a pretty audacious claim, one that The Alphabet Versus the Goddess provides extensive historical and cultural correlations to support. Shlain’s thesis takes readers from the evolutionary steps that distinguish the human brain from that of the primates to the development of the Internet. The very act of learning written language, he argues, exercises the human brain’s left hemisphere–the half that handles linear, abstract thought–and enforces its dominance over the right hemisphere, which thinks holistically and visually. If you accept the idea that linear abstraction is a masculine trait, and that holistic visualization is feminine, the rest of the theory falls into place. The flip side is that as visual orientation returns to prominence within society through film, television, and cyberspace, the status of women increases, soon to return to the equilibrium of the earliest human cultures. Shlain wisely presents this view of history as plausible rather than definite, but whether you agree with his wide-ranging speculations or not, he provides readers eager to “understand it all” with much to consider. –Ron Hogan

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2 Responses

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  1. David Natharius says

    A fascinating read! First of all, I absolutely loved this book. It is a fascinating and beautifully written book, encompassing history, science, and religion studies. I’d like to clear up some confusion and misconceptions about the book, however. (At least, how I see it) The Alphabet versus the Goddess is NOT an argument against literacy or writing. (It’s ridiculous to even entertain such an idea, considering the medium we are talking about!) Nor is it an arrogant, sweeping statement of how things are absolutely. It is simply an observation of how male/female values have changed throughout history as the advent of the alphabet is experienced by cultures around the world. The author is always careful to acknowledge that there are other theories, and that this is only his opinion, based on the facts that are presented.

  2. Caroline Garrett says

    Provocative Connections As a professor of communication, humanities and gender studies, I am fascinated by AVG. My teaching perspective has always been to guide students towards discovering connections between and among seemingly disparate aspects of human communication behaviors. In this provocative book, Shlain offers a three stage analysis for connecting the rise and fall and rise of feminine perceptual processing. The first stage is his review of early, nonliterate cultures in which the goddess was revered and feminine ways of knowing were important aspects in many of these cultures. There is a great deal of interpretive evidence from archaeology and cultural anthropology suggesting that these preliterate cultures were often matriarchal and it was the women who guided and directed the movement, settlement and structure of the culture. Shlain offers a representative view of this evidence. The second stage is the development of written languages and the alphabet. Again, there is a significant amount of evidence that all cultures, when becoming literate, shift to or maintain patriarchal control and Shlain offers a selective review of this evidence. The third stage, or the one we are moving into now, according to Shlain, is the return to feminine ways of knowing, created by the shift in information processing created by the increase of electronic visual imagery in our society. It is this suggestion that creates the most intriguing and provocative part of the book. His argument is based, partly, of his knowledge of the neurological processes of the brain – the researched different functions of the right and left brain. His thesis, that feminine (or right brain) ways of perceiving will again become prominant in our culture, is a profound assertion worthy of continued discussion and examination. I am also fascinated by some of the remarks of his negative critics who argue that, from their perspective (though they do not claim it as a perspective but rather as the “truth”) Shlain’s research is “sloppy scholarship,” “full of unsupported assertions,” “psuedo history.” They also find specific errors which, in their opinion, negate the entire thesis of the book. In an interesting way, many of the negative comments reflect the biases towards masculine, patriarchal, compartmentalized thinking – exactly the kind of linearity explored in AVG. If Shlain’s critics had, indeed, read his book carefully, I suspect they would have realized that he offers ONE perspective (NOT the “truth”) that invites the reader to think about the connections between written literacy, linear thinking, and the diminishment of feminine perceptual processes in our past and present cultures. From my perspective, he gives us a lot to think about even if some of his evidence does not pass the test of scholarly precision.

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