Thursday, September 23, 2004

Alphabets and Goddesses Continued

And now, I continue with my quibbling over Alphabet Versus the Goddess. Shlain zooms through human evolution, stopping where it pleases him and using what is useful while ignoring what is not. On his way through human development he takes a huge detour to talk about brain development and the whole left brain/right brain thing. Shlain blames the left brain for ruining the right brain's sense of wholeness and oneness with nature. The left brain created the ego and the ego created dualistic thinking which then led us to reasoning and logic. In the other hemisphere, the right brain deals with emotions and images and "holism." This is all generally acceptable. What I have difficulty with is how Shlain sets up the right side of the brain as belonging to the feminine and a romantically conceptualized idyllic past where the Goddess ruled and the world was at peace. Shlain places the left brain squarely to the masculine which relishes war and blood and death. I am always bothered when arguments are based on essentialism and the traditional split between masculine and feminine. It's as if there are no women who are not logical or blood thirsty and no men who are nurturing emotional. Shlain also places handedness into the mix by first stating that the vast majority of humans are right handed. So what has that got to do with things? Well, the right hand is controlled by the masculine left brain and the left hand is controlled by the feminine right brain. The right hand is the hand that throws the spear and kills. The left hand is the one that holds the babies and nurtures. Can I just say that from a personal experience perspective my left hand has nothing to do with nurturing? Yes, if I hold a baby it gets held in my left hand but then so does the laundry basket. I am a right handed person, of course the baby or the basket goes into my left hand so it leaves my right hand free to do things like hold a bottle for the baby which takes considerably more hand control than holding the baby or open doors or manipulate the washing machine controls. Neurologist Marsel Mesulam says that science has not figured out handedness in humans. Our hands have identical genetic composition and there should be no reason why one is favored over the other. But apparently Shlain has figured out handedness. Maybe he should tell the neurologists. Shlain goes on to talk about speech which is primarily a left brain function. Speaking, however, does engage the right brain in listening for the emotional content of words and evaluating nonverbal cues from the speaker. Shlain insists that the spoken word is "the result of delicately balanced assignments of the feminine and the masculine sides of the brain" and that the invention of writing "completely upset this balance." While both sides of the brain are engaged in the process of speech, Shlain posits that writing is almost entirely left brained. Writing is linear, logical and abstract and engages our right hand only. In writing and reading the right brain is not engaged in interpreting nonverbal clues. "Writing made the left brain," suggests Shlain, "and the aggressive right hand, dominant over the right. The triumphant march of literacy that began five thousand years ago conquered right-brain values, and with them, the Goddess. Patriarchy and misogyny have been the inevitable result." Inevitable? Somehow I don't think so. Before Shlain launched into his whole left brain/right brain foray he should have done a bit more research. In her book The Midnight Disease, Alice Flaherty, a neurologist, also gives a lesson about brain function. She explains that a modular hypothesis of the brain isn't actually valid. It was originally created back before we were able to really explain what the brain was doing and was useful for explaining brain injuries to only one part of the brain. These days we have a more "connectionist" way of looking at the brain. We have learned that skills are not isolated modules in the brain but exist as a network inside a network that "can be divided up as finely as patience will tolerate." When it comes to writing, it takes more than the left brain to do it. Flaherty explains:

The task of writing, for instance, beyond the desire to write the sentence, requires the ability to generate an appropriate idea, to translate it from "mentalese" into English, to generate words in their written form, to find a pen, to hold it correctly on the paper, to respond to the fact that at first nothing comes out of the pen by shaking it a few times, to do so without getting ink on your clothes, to form the letters correctly, and to simultaneously read the sentence for errors. As all this is going on, the next sentence probably is already being generated.
And while it is true that writing and reading do not engage the right hemisphere of the brain in interpretations of vocal inflections like speech does, many people, especially when they read, "add imaginary vocal inflections to the text." Still others will read under their breath. Most of us have at the least a "faint inner voice and ear when we read and write." Literacy also didn't become widespread until about the time of the ancient Greek alphabet. And it wasn't until about the 19th century that reading was done silently. I'd like to fault Shlain for falling into the trap of dualistic thinking himself by assigning masculine and feminine traits to the right and left sides of the brain. Every single one of his chapters are also broken into dueling aspects image/word, hunter/gatherers, verbal/nonverbal. He continues to perpetuate either/or thinking. He needs to brush up on his feminist and post-structuralist theory both of which work to break down a dualistic world view. It is possible to say that writing eliminated the Goddess. But I don't believe it can be said that writing was the cause. I think writing was more of an instrument. In my perspective writing, is non-gendered and value neutral. It can be used for good and it can be used for ill. It can be used to foster communication and it can be used to lie. I think Shlain is approaching writing and the Goddess from the wrong direction. He should be looking at it as a piece of a larger puzzle instead of the answer to the puzzle. As I said yesterday, I have only read through chapter six. I shall continue on and let you know if Shlain manages to convince me to change my position. Stay tuned.