Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Brain to Remember, Rest in Peace Leonard Shlain

I heard the news today, that Leonard Shlain has passed away, and you can read all about it, and about Leonard, on the site his family set up: Leonard Shlain's Brain. All I want to do is say a few words about my fellow media ecologist here on Blog Time Passing. Coincidentally, I recently mentioned his daughter Tiffany Shlain in a blog post entitled A Special Day.

Leonard Shlain was a passionate and insightful intellectual, and in addition to his regular job as a surgeon, he was a media ecologist. His first book, Art and Physics, explored the parallel ways in which standard Newtonian and Euclidean notions of time and space were rejected in the early 20th century, in physics by scientists such as Einstein, in art by painters such as Picasso. This follows up on a marvelous insight that McLuhan had about this common thread of discontinuity in our culture, both of which relate back to the introduction of telegraph in the mid-19th century, the first electrical communication technology, which essentially abolished time and space as factors in communication.

Perhaps Shlain's best known book was The Alphabet vs. the Goddess, where he brought his expertise in biology to bear on the notion that monotheism was a consequence of alphabetic literacy, arguing that it also constituted a shift from the feminine-dominated goddess worship of nonliterate cultures to the patriarchal ideologies and theologies of the west. His strong alignment with feminism carried over in his next book, Sex, Time, and Power, where he argued that women had a central role in the development of time-keeping, and with it civilization. And his final book, which will be published posthumously, is Leonardo’s Brain, where he argues that the genius of Leonardo da Vinci is linked to his being feminine, homosexual, left-handed, and right-brained.

As you can no doubt tell from these short descriptions, Leonard did not shy away from controversial topics, and he was not averse to the big ideas, grand historical worldview, and wilingness to engage in probes and explorations that is characteristics of so much of media ecological work. He was a true public intellectual.

Moreover, it was a pleasure to be in the audience for his featured presentations at three Media Ecology Association conventions--indeed, we were fortunate to have him with us just a little less than a year ago at our last meeting at Santa Clara University. He was a marvelous speaker, and one of the few individuals I have seen who knew how to use PowerPoint effectively. Len also gave the 2007 Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture for the Institute of General Semantics, which was published in our journal, ETC, on our website, and in our annual, the General Semantics Bulletin. Here's a photograph of Leonard Shlain from that event:

His works represent significant contributions to the media ecology and general semantics literature, and take their place in our canon next to those of Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis, Walter Ong, Lewis Mumford, Alfred Korzybski, Susanne Langer, and Neil Postman. We will miss his intellectual acuity, his powerful multidisciplinary methods, his keen understanding of the human organism and its extensions, both aesthetic and utilitarian, and his creative flair.

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