Psychic Neon, Anyone?

December 22, 2008

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In his book, The Alphabet Versus The Goddess, Leonard Shlain presents a compelling argument that identifies alphabetic literacy as the chief factor in the transformation of Western civilization from pre-Judaic Goddess-based cultures to today’s masculinized, reason-entrenched world. The introduction of the alphabet, through the Jews and subsequently the Greeks, Romans, Moslems and other forebearers of the modern world, caused a radical shift in values. With a keen eye for detail, Shlain demonstrates how every single culture that has been exposed to alphabetic literacy underwent a period of radical, often violent reorientation at the advent of the new medium. This reorientation has invariably led to the hyper-development of attributes of human consciousness primarily associated with the left brain—logic, linearity, sequential thinking, intellect—at the expense of right-brain aspects—empathy, nurturing, holistic thinking, intuition.

Shlain identifies the former attributes as being those that aid a “hunter-killer” in his task of subduing and killing an animal to provide for his tribe’s physical well-being, and the latter as belonging to the “gatherer-nurturer” modality whose participants rely more on understanding of relationships within a given field to provide for the welfare of the collective. For obvious reasons, these two modalities are associated with masculine and feminine values. For millennia from the advent of modern man until around 1100 BC, a certain balance was struck between these two modes. The introduction of agriculture allowed for nomadic tribes to settle in a single area and focus on expanding the reach of their culture into both the outer world through the development of increasingly sophisticated technology and into the inner reaches of the psyche through ritual, ceremony and worship. Almost all of the world’s preliterate cultures practiced a form of worship of the Divine Mother, an originating and abiding deity who was closely associated with the earth. The fecundity of the harvest, the success of conjugal unions, and the life of the tribe as a whole depended upon this feminine embodiment of the transcendent power of Creation.

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In an amazingly brief span, alphabetic literacy—the rendering of speech in phonetic symbols that have no visual relation to the objects they signify—deposed the Goddess and her colorful retinue of spirits, consorts and gods, and placed in her stead a single imageless male deity that occupied a space not on this earth but beyond it. In lockstep with this usurpation throughout history, we witness a denigration of the role of women in society and of the holistic values associated with femininity.

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Shlain demonstrates clearly the link between feminine values and images. When we view something, our right brain is activated. We experience it as a field, a collection of parts that relate to one another in multiple ways. Through an ingenious, often instantaneous synthesis, we determine how those parts interrelate in a way that is meaningful. This act is very right-brain. When we read alphabetic text, however, our left brain is activated. Rationality and linear, sequential thought are stressed. We are deeply engaged in the act of interpreting, of converting symbols with no direct relation to the manifest world into intelligible packets of information. This act, in Shlain’s view, generates a profound veneration of left-brain modes of thought at the expense of right-brain modes. The hunter-killer comes to the fore, and the gatherer-nurturer is banished to the distant horizon. As Shlain puts it, “The abstract alphabet encouraged abstract thinking. People who used an alphabet began to see beyond what was particular in nature and sought out what was universal” (66).
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Shlain’s argument is sound. He makes excellent use of his vast historical and scientific knowledge to demonstrate the inextricable link between alphabetic literacy and a marked proclivity toward the rational faculties. I have no doubts that we, as an inchoate global civilization, live in the wake of the traumatic advent of the alphabet. Individuals have lost the ability to experience themselves as integrated parts of a larger whole, and instead go about their lives like amateur mash-up artists, haphazardly pasting meaning onto their voided existences. At this juncture in human evolution, we can no longer afford to assume this viewpoint. The emergence of the field of deep ecology and a revival of interest in indigenous spirituality and archaic forms of worship are beginning to reveal to an ever-widening web of humans that we are embedded in and interconnected with our physical and psychic surroundings in ways that cannot be explained by sequential logic and linear reason. The internet is facilitating this reconciliation of our two hemispheres by creating a space where text and image can flow together in a unified language. No matter what web page one is viewing, there are bound to be pictures distributed amongst the text on that page. The text-saturated page is obsolete. With both hemispheres lighting up simultaneously, the human brain is edging toward the deeper synthesis of holistic and analytical modes of consciousness that is required of every being interested in continuing the human project into this millennium. I believe that this integration, when achieved on a global scale, will lead to the emergence of a new mode of communication as radical and as transformative in its effect on the instant-by-instant experience of being human as alphabetic text. We are headed toward not just a redefinition of our identity and responsibilities as a self-aware species embedded in a rapidly transforming planetary ecology, but a re-imagining of what effects language can have on reality itself.

The Queen of Marmalade

October 28, 2008

Sometimes, between bouts of lucidity, I am visited by curious beings who mercilessly tease the tip of my pen. I chase after them with whorls and slashes, trying to capture their essence so I might examine it outside the confines of language, but often all I’m left with is the graphic legend of their miraculous escape. This is not such an instance. I hope you enjoy it.

And so from source she strayed                                                                                               The Queen of Marmalade                                                                                                          To the broken docks                                                                                                                  Did her carriage roll                                                                                                               Where the frothdogs howl                                                                                                        In their offkey way                                                                                                                 Like a beaten blade                                                                                                             Dipped in marmalade

To the docks she swayed                                                                                                         In her lofty way                                                                                                                       Where a ship was built                                                                                                              From the blood she’d spilt                                                                                                         And the land she split                                                                                                             With her hair bouqet’d                                                                                                              All in marmalade

When she was yet a maid                                                                                                        She was strong and staid                                                                                                        And had already set                                                                                                                   Her will to Never Let                                                                                                                  The enemy persuade                                                                                                             Your love to gently fade                                                                                                             Beneath a canopy                                                                                                                      Of gently fading trees                                                                                                                 But stand instead against                                                                                                        The tide of circumstance                                                                                                            And with your diamond spade                                                                                            Devour Marmalade

She wandered wide and far                                                                                                       Toward that broken sky                                                                                                             That mocks the sparrows cry                                                                                                    To draw the honey of                                                                                                               The lifeless kind of love                                                                                                          She sought but never found                                                                                                      In all that broken ground                                                                                                        And so to source returned                                                                                                        The queen, now wiser learned                                                                                                  In all the woeful ways                                                                                                             That decorate our days                                                                                                              And offer up their shade