Alphabets – Dualism and Digitality – The Encoding of Experience
Thoughts on the alphabet’s role in shaping human perception and the evolution of society
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God
Language and the written word are a defining foundation of society. Communication led to collaboration which led to productivity which led to invention which led to knowledge which perhaps one day will lead to wisdom. We would be lost without the written word; it lies at the core of what it is to be human and yet we scarcely stop to question the patterns, the effects and the meanings behind the orgy of words poured out into the stratosphere.
The written word evolved through two distinct strains, both of which sought to frame communicative verbal language in the most logical terms. These roughly break down into conceptual and mathematical. The conceptual uses ‘onomatopoeic’ images such as hieroglyphics and Chinese style characters to convey meaning and concepts in their entirety while the mathematical invented an entirely artificial code, or alphabet. This series of abstract symbols could be used as ingredients in a wider formula of digital language where the order of the code equated to its meaning.
We in the West are immersed in the mathematical, and use letters to construct words on a daily basis without even considering that we are using algebra to express human action and emotion. That it works as communication and documentation is indisputable, but if we probe deeper into the ramifications of representing reality through pure mathematics, we begin to uncover some intriguing questions.
Most of us will be familiar with the ‘Left Brain, Right Brain’ dichotomy where the left hemisphere of the brain is responsible for linear reasoning, mathematical structure and the evolution of ‘logical function’ while the right hemisphere is associated with intuition, spirituality, imagery and holistic perception. This conflicted unity is represented throughout cultural history through symbolism like yin and yang, Gaia and Jupiter; male and female. And while no individual can operate purely on one side of the brain, individuals and whole cultures can be defined through which of the hemispheres is dominant – at least metaphorically.
The right brain is usually symbolised by female iconography, for example Mother Earth, while the left brain is almost inevitably manifested in masculinity, male gods and patriarchal societies. With many of the earliest documented belief systems indicating a tendency toward the holistic, at some point a shift occurred that saw the female infused view of the world usurped by the brutal patriarchy that most of our blood stained history chronicles. Within that conquest of the female by the male, the matriarchal by the patriarchal, the right brain by the left brain, we find the development of the formulaic alphabet playing a subversive role.
There is a compelling argument to be made that as language moved from imagery representing concept to an abstract formula super imposed on reality, the analytical, ‘male’ element of consciousness and culture began its ascendancy. The alphabet’s linear code broke the connection between representation and reality and saw a critical schism take root between mankind and an intuitive understanding of the world around him.
As the linear alphabet began to take hold, humanity effectively began an evolutionary process where brain function and the nervous system were shaped by rationalism. Humans use different neural pathways and different areas of the brain to interpret pictograms than they do the alphabet. The dominance of one leads to a self fulfilling prophecy as those pathways come to the fore in both the understanding and communication of reality. The methods we use to define the world around us actively shape our perception of it.
Developing societies began to retreat behind an almost synthetic construct of reality where language and writing became a purely human code with no discernible relationship with the world it was describing.
Holistic, ‘feminine’ forms of expression and figurative methods of representation were ousted by the literal and the formulaic. The advent of the written alphabet saw a new generation of male deities sweep across the ancient world wreaking havoc in their wake and slowly eroding the rights, the role and the respect of the female, both in human and symbolic form. The very nature of the code’s complexities excluded almost all from literacy, as people could no longer look at a character on the wall and understand what it described by its appearance alone.
Thus, a closed elite of the literate was created, and as the great religions began to establish themselves, it rapidly became apparent that only such institutions could afford to educate their own scribes in the alphabet, while the average peasant was bound to the land for food, and the landowner interested only in warmongering and profit.
Slowly but surely, the patriarchal religions developed a monopoly on literacy, and consequently on truth. If you were an illiterate peasant, ‘truth’ and ‘God’s Word’ would only ever be communicated through the filter of an all too human member of the clergy. Such extraordinary power embodied in fallible men and powerful institutions inevitably led to extraordinary abuses.
Many of us have wondered how on earth the scriptures – be they Bible, Koran or Torah were warped into such oppressive instruments of patriarchy. There’s very little Jesus or Mohammed said that most of us would disagree with – even taking into account the context of contemporary custom. So many institutionalized positions of religion are directly at odds with the original scriptures – and one of the principle reasons is that for well over a thousand years, the power structure had an unfettered ability to manufacture truth without fear of question – as literacy was a fortified sacristy. For centuries in Europe, translating the Bible into the vernacular and out of Latin was deemed heresy, punishable by death, and the Reformation, for all its homicidal zeal, was rooted in the injustice of Catholicism’s strongarm monopoly on truth.
Thus reading, writing and thereby truth remained firmly in the hands of a masculine cabal that taught only the strictest adherence to the approved word and had a disturbing propensity toward slaughtering those whose leant towards a more holistic outlook. Even the Virgin Mary who is worshipped again and again in Christian iconography is stripped of all feminine qualities and reduced to a chaste vehicle for a male god. Mary Magdalene is only accepted in mainstream Christianity once she has truly repented of her sexuality, and the cults that sprang up worshipping her in her own right were swiftly put to the doctrinal sword. The Cathars, who in 12th Century France developed a far more feminine and gnostic version of Christianity that traced its roots back to the dualism of pagan Mithraism, were the first Christians a formal crusade was sent against, lest their dangerously non conformist world view leak into a wider dialogue.
Even when the visual arts began their ascent into propagandist glory during the Early Renaissance, they used an inflexible language of composition and colour, reducing painting to a linear formula that artists had to work subtly and subversively to infuse with any true depth. In the Islamic world where figurative art had been put to the patriarchal sword of the Hadiths, the alphabet itself became a visual art as calligraphy sanctified the the written word alongside geometry in the pantheon of sacred beauty. Our thought processes themselves, even at their most subconscious, are so often framed in the abstract formulas that the patriarchal alphabet imposed on intuitive reality.
None of this is to question the sublime lyrical beauty of the written word or its ability to whisper delicate nuance or tumultuous emotion. One cannot discount the finite nature of the pictogram and the multiplicity of meaning bestowed by multiples of 26. These are merely thoughts on evolutionary consciousness and how alphabets shaped human history and social characteristics. It is arguable that on a subliminal level, charting reality in our own code rather than in nature’s symbols has slowly detached us from the rhythms of the natural world.
It is however an interesting contribution to questions concerning patriarchy and the historical role of women in society. If one accepts the dualism that underpins almost all archetype, it is more than clear that male and female have long been in imbalance. It goes deeper than issues like the status of women and into behavioral patterns and systems of perception – pathways in our brain that interpret reality through imperceptible prisms.
There are myriad channels in our history that evolutionary currents flowed through, and while the development of the alphabet was but one, while religions and beliefs and social norms may come and go, writing is so inexorably bound up with our human experience that it is impossible to analyse its impact without that analysis passing through the prism of its own subject. Now there’s a fucking irony 😉
BLACK AND RED CALLIGRAPHY – SHAHRZAD GHAFFARI
CHURCH IMAGE – TREY RATCLIFF
CALIGRAFFITI – EL SEED
FINAL IMAGE – RETNA