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Chapter 1: Image / Word

Of all the sacred cows allowed to roam unimpeded in our culture, few are as revered as literacy. Its benefits have been so incontestable that in the five millennia since the advent of the written word numerous poets and writers have extolled its virtues. Few paused to consider its costs. Sophocles once warned, "Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse." The invention of writing was vast; this book will investigate the curse.

There exists ample evidence that any society acquiring the written word experiences explosive changes. For the most part, these changes can be characterized as progress. But one pernicious effect of literacy has gone largely unnoticed: writing subliminally fosters a patriarchal outlook. Writing of any kind, but especially its alphabetic form, diminishes feminine values and with them, women's power in the culture. The reasons for this shift will be elaborated in the coming pages. For now, I propose that a holistic, simultaneous, synthetic, and concrete view of the world are the essential characteristics of a feminine outlook; linear, sequential, reductionist, and abstract thinking defines the masculine. Although these represent opposite perceptual modes, every individual is generously endowed with all the features of both. They coexist as two closely overlapping bell-shaped curves with no feature superior to its reciprocal.

These complementary methods of comprehending reality resemble the ancient Taoist circle symbol of integration and symmetry in which the tension between the energy of the feminine yin and the masculine yang is exactly balanced. One side without the other is incomplete; together, they form a unified whole that is stronger than either half. First writing, and then the alphabet, upset this balance. Affected cultures, especially in the West, acquired a strong yang thrust.

In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan proposed that a civilization's principal means of communication molds it more than the content of that communication. McLuhan classified speech, pictographs, ideographs, alphabets, print, radio, film, and television as distinctive information-conveying media, each with its own technology of transmission. He declared that these technologies insinuate themselves into the collective psyche of any society that uses them, and once embedded, stealthily exert a powerful influence on cultural perceptions. McLuhan's aphorism, "the medium is the message," is the leitmotif of this book. Robert Logan, the author of The Alphabet Effect, expounded on this idea.

A medium of communication is not merely a passive conduit for the transmission of information but rather an active force in creating new social patterns and new perceptual realities. A person who is literate has a different world view than one who receives information exclusively through oral communication. The alphabet, independent of the spoken languages it transcribes or the information it makes available, has its own intrinsic impacts.
Chapter 1: Image / Word

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