The Crisis and Terence McKenna [Trenchant Edges]

Sip, uh, some water and listen

Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, where we try and make sense of the mess our world is by looking at what weird people say.

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes, 2 seconds. Contains 2008 words.

Today we’ll be focusing a bit on Terence McKenna’s talks, where he’d ramble on a vast array of topics seemingly without effort. Like any great mind, much of the value in listening to him was in expanding the range of references I thought would be interesting.

Other times he’d do an unusually good job of describing our historical condition. Naturally, since these talks mostly happened in the 90s their references can seem dated now. But much of their content remains highly relevant, especially his big-picture ideas.

So here are a few quotes I want to use to both illustrate his relevance to The Crisis I spoke of yesterday and our little project of unpacking Terence Mckenna. This bit is from 1987 in a talk called Imagination in the Light of Nature. And it’s only about an hour and half, short stuff compared to his real endurance lectures.

What I'd like to talk about tonight is: how do we, a self-defined cultural elite as much as anybody hanging out in their office in Century City, how do we, the psychedelically informed post modern neo-shamanic community go, move from being a tolerated and somewhat loathsome fringe population to, uh, a voice in the dialogue, here, in anticipation of the end of the world that can be heard? How do we do that? Well, I think that there are a number of possibilities and I always enjoy making this point in this town particularly because this is the city of, uh, the graven images, not in gold and stone, but in film and light. This is the meme engine of the western world. Those of you who work in media know the power of the word. 'As it is said, so shall it be'.

Now, he was giving this talk in LA. You can read the full transcript here, which is always entertaining.

This bit is mostly self-explanatory and is just an introduction I didn’t think I could really cut from the bit I wanted to get to, though it’s worth noting that Hollywood has been largely replaced by Silicon Valley, the whole world now making its own memes more than otherwise. And charged surveillance rents for the privilege.

And so the tool of the revolutionaries at the end of the millennium is, to my mind, art. Art which connects people, which transcends the mundane and which empowers hope. And of course it can have many forms and occur in many media, but it must be true to itself. It must be true to the thing we were before the descent into history. And I don't see history entirely as a pathology. I see it - the story I like, which seems to me to illuminate the situation, is the story of the prodigal son. We, western civilization, we are the prodigal son. We left the confines of the family of nature and we made a hellish descent into intellectual limitation, into matter, into model building that was deliberately self-limited. We exorcised the spirit from our model building. We exorcised a caring and enfolding matrix of maternal understanding, and what we created were models based on atoms flying through the void. This may have been a necessary precondition to our shedding, uh, the theological misconceptions that occurred when male dominance got a hold of the idea of religion.

Terence had a mild obsession with art as a liberating force I find somewhat naive. He’s certainly right that it can be, but I don’t think it scales up without substantial counter-liberation organization backing it.

Blah blah recuperation.

Now, for individuals, art can be impossibly powerful at the right imprint moments. But that’s another issue.

I picked this quote because I think it illustrates a considerable amount of Terence’s ambivalence towards human nature ground under historical forces, separate from the symbiosis with nature we evolved with. We let counting into our hearts and make that charming vampire muppet from sesame street look perfectly reasonable with how we apply it.

From this bit, one might imagine Terence has a naive view of tribal societies and their politics, which are often as vicious and cruel as our own. But that’s not really his problem with civilizations as much as our huge externality costs on the world at large.

Externalities (costs others pay for) are currently driving most of the world’s industrially produced suffering and all of its global environmental impact.

Every fish, for example, you take out of the ocean is a fish no longer engaging with its environment. Oceans are large and complicated so they can take quite a lot of punishment, but we were naive in assuming we weren’t powerful enough to harm the whole.

And that doesn’t even account for the toxic waste issues created by modern society.

Point is, we’re engaged in a very destructive process and the most hopeful outcome is this process has some intelligence we lack and is leading somewhere. Now, here’s a key bit from another talk, this one in Seattle 1994:

You don’t have to be rocket scientist to see that human society, human history, human art, human literature, represent things for which there is no analog in the world of wasps, groundhogs, killer whales and so forth and so on. In our species, complexity has turned inward upon itself and in our species. Time has accelerated. Time has left the gentle ebb and flow of gene transfer and adaptation that characterizes biological evolution and instead historical time is generated. So I believe that science and its reluctance to deal with the psychedelic experience and the way in which science has used the law to suppress its rival in this case arises out of a profound discomfort on the part of science about this future state of complexification that is clearly the grail, the dwell point, the end point of the human historical process. Not one of us I think can imagine that history could go on for another thousand years. I mean what would it look like? At the current rate of population growth, spread of epidemic disease, rate of invention, connectivity, depletion of resources, the atmosphere – it is impossible to conceive of another thousand years of human history.

History then is ending. History is a kind of gestation process. It’s a kind of metamorphosis. It’s an episode in the life of a species. If you think of the simple example of metamorphosis, that of caterpillar to butterfly, we all know that there is this intermediate resting stage where the caterpillar is for all practical purposes enzymatically dissolved and then reconstituted and an entirely different kind of organism with different physical structures, different eyes, different legs, a different way of breathing, with wings where no wings were before, with a different kind of feeding apparatus. This is what’s happening to us. History is a process of metamorphosis. It’s a pubescent stage. It begins with naked monkeys and it ends with a human/machine planet-girdling interface capable of releasing the energies that light the stars and it lasts about 15,000 or 20,000 years and during that period, the entire process hangs in the balance.

It’s a period of high risk. It’s like what a butterfly is doing in the cocoon or what is happening to a child in the womb. It’s a gestation process where one form of life is being changed into another. Well, this would all happen naturally and with a great deal of anxiety I imagine as history builds to it’s ever more climatic and horrifying crescendo and we would all be ignorant or very baffled about what’s going on were it not for the institution of psychedelic shamanism. Remember I said that what is dissolved are the crystalline structures of cultural assumption. Well one of the strongest symmetries in our cultural crystal is the symmetry that gathers around the concept of past and future. The shaman actually rises into a domain where past and future are different areas on the same topological manifold. This is not a metaphor. It’s what’s really going on. If you think about shamanism in its classical guise for a moment – it is about predicting weather, predicting game movement and curing disease.

I think this is about the best-case scenario we can hope for. Not a mindless dash for optimal profits that leaves maybe the only biosphere in the universe a total wreck unable to recover before the sun gets too old to support more life, but a dynamic process of transformation from partially sentient animals to some kind of hyperaware posthumanity. Whatever the hell that means.

In my many moments of despair thinking on this question, I’ve found solace in songs like Jason Webley’s Last Song, which takes much the same premise of transformation and birth and runs with it in a kind of pirate shanty. Fucking rad is what.

Otherwise, things look pretty impossibly bleak.

Now, I’m OK with bleak. That’s one of the advantages of a lifetime of depression. Bleak is normal. But I kinda think it’s gonna be weirder than just doom.

Here’s our last bit from Terence from yet another lecture, this one from the Esalen  Institute in 1998: (we should probably have a chat about Esalen at some point)

It’s becoming clearer and clearer that we do not understand the implications of what we’re doing with these technologies. McLuhan always said this, he said that no technology in human history has ever been put in place with even a partial appreciation of its consequences. The unappreciated consequences of what we’re doing is that we’re actually building some kind of a superorganism, and we do not know where we fit into things if this Promethean force that we’re playing with should actually come to life. It’s a globally-distributed intelligence. We can have paranoid fantasies about it, but after a few minutes of thinking about it you realize that you really don’t know what to think about it. The fantasy that it would herd us all into dumpsters seems unlikely. It’s an impossible intel- lectual problem, because the question you’re asking yourself is, “What would a superintelligence be like?” and the reason that’s hard to answer is because you ain’t one. So you’re looking up into the light and saying, “Is it god or demon?” “Is it salvation or extinction?” and the answer is: if you knew that you would be it, and yet what it took us in 100,000 years of evolution, this thing could probably achieve in a long morning on the Net. It would be like a cascade, a chain reaction. From the child’s first cry to the complete coordination of world electrical grids, air traffic control systems and everything else could be a matter of hours. Hans Moravec, who runs the Carnegie Mellon Institute for Machine Intelligence, says we may not know what hit us.

So, we’ve leaped into this abyss of technological implementation. Right now, the logic of it all is dictated by market ideology and the imperatives of surveillance capitalism.

But as we continue building machines we understand less and less through machine learning and its inevitable descendants, all the implicit horror of automated, distributed, and inescapable behavioral control to condition people to be better consumers for their corporate masters may reach such sophistication as to become a different kind of thing.

We can’t really say if this would be good or bad, but it’s certainly, uh, transformative.

(Spoilers for the 1995 anime movie Ghost in the Shell, which you should 100% watch)

I think of the ending of Ghost in the Shell, where the puppet of the state protagonist merges with a rogue AI and becomes a new kind of synthesis of both. They end the story in the body of a child, free of the state’s control. Dead to the world and ready to see what they become.

Civilization as a cyborg again. Major Motoko was already physically a cyborg, but that wasn’t enough. She had to merge with the other at every level. Is this our future?

Humans are impelled forward by forces we don’t understand. It’d be both tragic and kinda funny if they turned out to be for the best after all.