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26 February 2010

The Alphabet v The Goddess Wife is reading this and sharing some stuff from it with me.[More:] The basic premise is that, as writing got more common, and words replaces images in human communications, society moved from sexual egalitarianism towards patriarchy and misogyny.

This sort of pinged my "oversimplicity" meter, and I threw out examples of some Polynesian cultures (Hawaii, for one) and some pre-columbian civilizations in which there was no written alphabet, per se, but also in which it was probably not a picnic to be female.

Has anyone read this book, and, if so, what do you think of it?
Sounds like psuedo-psychological BS. I'd be willing to bet that rates of literacy are higher for women than men in most populations. From the overview, it looks like he found a theory and then went and found some history to prop it up.
posted by doctor_negative 26 February | 14:16
Huh, seems interesting. I've also heard that our memories went to hell when we learned to read, although who knows where I read that - my memory sucks.
posted by serazin 26 February | 14:52
I am not ready to call BS on this. I was just wondering whether anyone here had read it or heard of it.

I rattled some shit off the top of my head, and my wife, the day later, asked me about it since she's in a discussion group on this, and I had to admit that I pulled the talking points out of my ass and I really did not have anything cogent to say about the book.

It was actually sort of freeing to admit that.
posted by danf 26 February | 15:21
Disclaimer: I read this when it came out in 1998-1999. My recollection is pretty fuzzy, and I will cheerfully admit that I was then much less critical and adept with scholarly writing and its popular offshoots.

At the time, I thought the idea was intriguing but poorly supported by the author's evidence, that he was a poor researcher (or, worse, a partial researcher), and was far too willing to blandly accept popular or convenient interpretations of historical events if they supported his thesis, and disinclined to spend a lot of time countering those that didn't. At this remove, I can't recall any examples, and I'm curious what I'd think of it now.

I might re-read the book, or at least the first chapter, soon. Thanks for the reminder, danf!
posted by Elsa 26 February | 15:43
Words are masculine and images are feminine? I'm not interested in reading an entire book based on that lame idea no matter how cogently supported.

Wm. S. Burroughs must be turning over in his grave if this is what 'language is a virus' has become.
posted by danostuporstar 26 February | 15:57
I wrote a bunch of off-the-top-of-my-head rambling culled from a bunch of sources, from Anthro 101 to A People's History of the United States that have nothing to do with the actual question about this particular book, which I have not read. The abstract does not look promising. For example, this?
Shlain argues that literacy reinforced the brain's linear, abstract, predominantly masculine left hemisphere at the expense of the holistic, iconic feminine right one.
is pretty much untrue, if it's an accurate summation of the book.

That said, rambly discourse on sexual politics start now:

It seems to me that, prior to any safe and effective birth control, sexual equality is sort of an impossibility. Either inheritance is set up along matrilineal lines and women take men into their families (you see this in some American Indian tribes, and really it makes a lot of sense in the absence of paternity tests), or inheritance is along patrilineal lines and men set up sexual and social controls on women to ensure that they don't procreate with other men.[*] It seems from what I've read that the former is more common in agrarian societies (which favor "separate but equal" gender roles) while the latter is pretty common across the board, but it's really hard to get a read on that sort of thing unless we have either a good written record or immersive anthropological studies (a lot of early anthropological research was incredibly shoddy, and after a couple of years of contact with Western religion and Western cultural values, it's too late to get a read on this stuff). For obvious reasons, it's pretty hard to get either of these when we're talking about pre-written-record cultures.

[*] Of course there's a third option here, for societies with communal land and communal property, but I am totally unqualified to speak on that topic. You know, rather than just being semi-unqualified to speak about sexual egalitarianism in the first place.
posted by muddgirl 26 February | 16:26
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