A PROVOCATIVE RESPONSE TO THE SIMPLE QUESTION. What is to be done? from way–way back (1988) DON’T — ‘I think the answer to this is not only nothing but considerably less, than nothing … and what I mean by that is that the real solutions to our problems lie in a series of negatives.’ Terrence McKenna (apart from being an amazing entertainer) was an American ethnobotanist, mystic, psychonaut, lecturer, author, and an advocate for the responsible use of naturally occurring psychedelic plants. He spoke and wrote about a variety of subjects, including psychedelic drugs, plant-based entheogens, shamanism, metaphysics, alchemy, language, philosophy, culture, technology, environmentalism, and the theoretical origins of human consciousness. In this short extract from a lecture, he eloquently argues for a complete dissolution of meaningless boundaries and release from phony beliefs systems.
These Systems are often malevolent forces that we impose on ourselves, and in extreme cases try to impose on, some might say, innocent passers by. Lockdown, Prohibition, War on Drugs and the Intellectual Dark Web are historical examples of one group trying to impose a view on another with disastrous effects.
In our SMART world ‘don’t follow’ and ‘don’t watch’ strike at the fundamental and powerfully addictive set of ideologies built into most devices. They are often a by–product of ownership and technology has gone way beyond the function of a ‘phone’. Back in the day of physical wires connecting people, we used to get crossed–wires, random events when more than two people end up talking on the phone. Now we make a call and the whole world picks up. Social media promotes continuous attention and consumes us through our consumption with a reward system of following (BELIEVING) and followers (WATCHING). What on earth would Terrence make of the terrifying spectacle of self–absorption and psychological crisis playing out online, and subsequently in our homes. We (as a society emerging) need to up our game, and continue to support the creation of meaningful conversations that don’t rely on side–eyes and false conflicts.
Yes we want to escape.
We want to escape all the bad-actors and their harbingers. We need people that hold multiple (sometimes opposing) ideas simultaneously and are able to express them with clarity and style. People that follow (ERR DOUBLETHINK) in the rainbow of Terrence McKenna’s genius, poetic and mind altering thoughts.
Vertigo At History’s Edge
Well, I believe (following the dictum that nothing is unannounced) that we can—from what is happening to us now—extrapolate toward this adventure in transformational novelty that is now looming ahead of us with such presence that it casts an enormous shadow over the three-dimensional landscape of historical becoming. And we, as moderns, are very conflicted about this because the only vocabulary we have to deal with something like this is the vocabulary of discredited religions. Before the rise of science, before the rise of technology, when religions presided over a much more slow-moving and easily-managed world, great thinkers of all persuasions—through meditation and divine inspiration, whatever—saw that man’s journey was a journey from the demonic to the divine and that history was somehow the stage of human redemption. That view died with the rise of secular capitalism and industrial democracy.
And yet, here at the height of the trajectory of the enterprise of science and materialism, news comes from the rainforests, from the aboriginal peoples of the world that there are technologies of a different sort that have been in place since at least the last ice age. These are neuro-technologies, quasi-symbiotic relationships with plants, pharmacological approaches to manipulating human memory, aspiration, aesthetic concerns, so forth and so on. These psychedelic intimations have been presented to us as the naïve suppositions of primitives, the landscape of the Jungian unconscious, chaotic events happening in the human brain-mind system, so forth and so on. These are all reductionist explanations. I believe that what these psychedelic states are, are actually a sense to a higher order of information. And by ‘a sense’ I mean the word in the dimensional context as a mathematical idea. That, here we are deployed in a three-dimensional matrix: the past fades into unknowability, the future fades into unknowability, and only the crudest and least interesting of processes—like the rising of the sun and the tides—can be propagated into the future with confidence.
What shamans see in contrast to this is a hyperdimensional universe of information. They see the past, the origins, and they see the goal, the culmination, the place where the ouroboric snake takes its tail in its mouth. We—who are locked in linear history—don’t have this perspective. And what we have in its stead is immense anxiety. Immense anxiety about the future. We map the unknowable future onto the presumed experience of our own death and vice versa, and we build up a universe that is characterized by existential abysses: the unknown future, the inevitability of death, and the impossibility of intellectually assimilating what that means.
Shamanism isn’t like this.
Shamanism is a fractal point of view. What fractals are, are structures that have their subsets embedded in them. Subsets embedded in them. So the course of the history of an entire people can be known by looking at the history of an individual or a family. All subsets refer to levels above and below them. This is entirely different from the kind of linear history that we get in a hierarchical scientific society. It is more characteristic of experience.
And this is a very important point, because the two phenomena that I tried to call your attention to that argue for hope are: the self-evident accumulation of novelty and the self-evident acceleration of that accumulation of novelty. Well, now: notice the phrase ‘self-evident’. These are not things that you have to study advanced mathematics to perceive, these are not things revealed to the holders of advanced degrees. This is stuff that one can tell by feeling into the world. The structure of linear society has disempowered the individual. We are all now—we have bought the Hobbesian notion that we are social atoms in a vaster machine than ourselves with a greater purpose than we can know. This is actually hogwash. As you move away from the human individual, the consciousness about what is happening becomes more and more low-grade and amoeba-like. You have the consciousness of the Giuliani administration, the consciousness of the American government. You see, as you widen the Venn, it becomes more and more primitive, more and more simply a matter of stimulus and response. But you—the supposed irrelevant atom at the center of this process—make very subtle judgments, take in information of all sorts, compare, contrast, weigh, understand, seek evidence. This is the subtlest thinking that’s going on. But we don’t reclaim our own minds. We look for institutional guidance. And yet, it was institutions that guided us to this moment.
So the character, then, of this next advance into novelty is, from my point of view, now easily discerned. It is boundary dissolution. This is what is happening. This is why great wealth and great poverty must come to terms with each other, it’s why the First World and the Third World must come to terms with each other, it’s why gays and straights must come to terms with each other. Boundary dissolution is what is happening. And this has been going on for a long time, but it affected our peripheral technologies first, almost without us noticing it. We’ve gone from a world where information moved at the speed of a horse’s gallop to a world where all information is cotangent. Space is only an illusion of the plebs. Everyone else—with their computer networks and their connections—knows that the world has become a kind of virtual point. And yet, still we maintain the most toxic of all the fictions to come out of the dominator experience: the fiction of the individual ego.
This maintenance of the fiction of ego is what is exacerbating a smooth transition into a new world order, because people have one foot in the dematerialized, collectivist, virtual, feeling-toned, experience-based future, but they also have one foot in the consumer-fetish, objectified, constipated, linear, acquisitive, class-conscious, sex-conscious, race-conscious past. And each one of us is a union of these opposites. Each one of us is trying to make some kind of an alloy of our hideously dysfunctional cultural past and the incredibly compelling, yet frightening dimensionless, boundaryless, polymorphic, polyamorous future. And, to my mind, then, the role that psychedelics play in all this is critical because they are catalysts for change. If you are not moving as fast as the general wave of novelty, psychedelics will bring you up to speed. Society will go from being utterly incomprehensible and horrifying to simply being horrifying. If you are up to speed with the cultural way, and you then avail yourself of psychedelics, you become a force for spreading calm, spreading understanding. Because make no mistake about it: as we close distance with the transcendental object at the end of time, there’s going to be a lot of vibration accumulate on the superstructures of the social airfoil. If the airfoil cannot be redesigned in flight as we approach this barrier, we will be ripped to pieces. H. G. Wells said in 1905, ‘History is a race between education and catastrophe.’ And it is going to be a photo finish.
If we end up a smear through the shale and nature concludes that intelligence is something never again to put into the hopper, then it will be an enormous tragedy because we didn’t go down without a struggle. We have the technologies, the ideology, the compassion for each other, and caring world. We are not a lost cause—yet. But we may end up a lost cause. And people then say, ‘Well, what should be done?’ You know? The Tolstoyan question: what, then, should be done?
Well, I came up through the whole Berkeley-thing in the 1960s and all that, and I’m very weary of hortatory political prescriptions for what should be done. I mean, we saw that the best impulses in Marxism turn into the most horrifyingly regimented and totalitarian societies. Goodwill is not enough. So what is to be done? I think the answer to this is not only ‘nothing,’ but considerably less than ‘nothing’. And what I mean by that is that the real solutions to our problems lie in a series of negatives.
Daily conversation offers sedatives such as, ‘You can’t always get what you want’ ‘Life has its ups and downs,’ and other cliches of the secular religion of survival. ‘Common Sense’ is just the non–sense of common alienation. Every day people are denied (and deny themselves) an authentic life and are sold back its representation. Nihilists constantly feel the urge to destroy the system which destroys them. They cannot go on living as they are. Soon, most realize that they must devise a coherent set of tactics in order to transform the world.
Do not believe. Ideology has poisoned this planet. Ideology is bankrupt. It’s a skin-game. It’s a shell-game. It’s only for Marx—and Marks—it’s beneath your dignity as a body to get mixed up in ideology. I mean, after all, where is it writ large that talking monkeys should understand the nature of being anyway? So belief is an incredible cop-out on intellectual truth-seeking because belief precludes believing in its opposite. And so this is a self-limitation. You become your own cop. And the ideologies of the 20th century are so shoddy and hobbled together or toxic to human values, they’re not worth believing in anyway.
So: deconditioning ourselves from belief. Some people call it cynicism. I call it good sense. I’m not a cynical person, but I know shit from Shinola. And I don’t expect people who don’t to get a lot of respect from the rest of us. I mean, what does it mean if you’re an optimist and that means you can’t proclaim the difference between boot polish and excreta. It’s ridiculous.
Okay. Don’t believe.
The next thing which comes out of that and is an even stronger prohibition: don’t follow. Following is a tasteless position to find yourself in. Pets follow, vice presidents follow, and bad acts follow! So why follow? All of these gurus, geisha’s, roshis, and rishis are simply flim-flam artists. They’ve had thousands of years to get these cons together and run them on you. Believe me, I know—I’m a recovering Catholic! You have to fight your way free of the lead and then do not follow. Do. Not. Follow. It’s an obsolete, tasteless thing and there’s no human dignity in it whatsoever.
Then a harder one, a more radical one, the one that might get me shot: do not—in some profoundly metaphysical sense—consume. Do not consume! For obvious reasons, and then not-so-obvious reasons. The obvious reasons are that the fetish for objects made of matter is wrecking the planet. If everybody on earth had what the people in the front row here have, there wouldn’t be enough metal, glass, plastic, and petroleum in the planet to provide that kind of lifestyle to the billions of people who now aspire it. None of this stuff brings happiness, anyway.
I recently had the experience of having my 1975 Ford Granada blow up on me in the middle of the night, and so I had to buy a new car. So I went down a year and up a brand, and I got a 1974 BMW. And it cost me two grand. And I guarantee you, once you have the little thing on the steering wheel—the quaternity sign—you don’t need the $90,000 model.
What we should all do is buy antiques. Don’t consume anything which hasn’t already been made. There’s a lot of shit that’s been made; it’s all over the place. I see it in Manhattan going for a bundle! If we—what we need to do, you see, is retool our values so that what is new is odious, tasteless, déclassé, embarrassing, and not to be found in the better homes. The older things are, the better they are. Here’s a fifty-year-old chair, fine. Here’s a five-hundred-year-old chair, how much better! We need to cease to consume. And I’m somewhat facetious in suggesting that we all become aficionados of Chippendale furniture and that sort of thing. That isn’t the plan, either. But the endless fetishism for consumer objects is wrecking the planet.
And then, finally—well, no, not finally. There’s one after this. But another negative—and this is slightly more difficult to follow, requires a little cogitation; it’s insidious—we shouldn’t watch. We shouldn’t watch. Watching is some kind of voyeuristic, sadomasochistic peculiarity that we are permitting ourselves because we think there are too many of us to do. But I don’t think this is true. I think watching is an incredibly disempowering thing. Millions of people live half-awake larval lives watching 6.5 hours of TV a day. And as long as they stay in their homes—you know, shopping by phone and fax—everybody is happy. But they participate not at all in the society. They’re the Marks, and they consume. They consume the media, the entertainment, the clothes, the styles, the brands. They are the morons who are keeping this system running. And I assume, largely, that the people here tonight are not. We’re the people who grind out all this stuff.
I mean, I feel like I do this. I write books, I produce ideas. They are grist for the marketplace. Harper and Bantam don’t care what I’m saying, what they care about is how the books are selling. You know? Product number 3245AF: how is it doing in the marketplace?
Do not watch. Because when you’re watching you’re not at the center of things. Largely, what I’m talking about here is reclaiming experience. Reclaiming experience. This is what’s been taken from us. This is why the new music and dance culture is so important. This is why drug culture is so important. This is why the celebration of sexual minorities is so important. This is all about coming to grips with who you really are, and how you really feel—and then experiencing it.
You know, you are not owned. It is not he or she or them or it that you belong to. And we have been told that we have to fit in, that we have to make sense. This. Is. Not. True. We are creating a world that celebrates diversity, that celebrates the uniqueness of every person. The complexification of our species is a process directly dependent on the complexity that we each bring to the process. The diversity that is spreading through society is concomitant to the boundary dissolution. And I really believe that science’s inability to make sense of human beings in the world as part of nature—to make sense of art, love, hate, aspiration, fear—the failure to make sense of this is the failure to come to terms with the transcendental aspect of reality. We are the best evidence there is that something extraordinarily unusual is happening on this planet, and that it’s not something which will go on for millions of years.
It began about 20,000 years ago. It’s a self-advancing, self-expanding, self-defining process. And it takes no prisoners. You know? There is no going back. There is no going back from the momentum that history has imparted to the human imagination. There is only a going forward into what is called a forward escape: through art, through design, through management and integration, that we have to push the art-pedal to the floor. We have never designed our societies. We have never managed our societies, or our lives. We have never tried to make what we were serve an aesthetic agenda, and that’s why we’ve created a mess. In the absence of an aesthetic agenda, what we’ve created is Animal House on a global scale. So now it’s time to pay the piper.
And (just in closing) the catalyst, now, is a combination of technologies—solid-state technologies—and pharmacology. The world that we are leaving behind, the world that failed us, was a world of ideologies and mechanical technologies. And the ideologies, one by one, are going down the tubes. Marxism. Freudianism. Fascism. They, one by one, will be discredited. They cannot sustain. And the mechanical technologies cannot be sustained. They pollute, they dehumanize, they wreck the planet. What is coming into place is a world where drugs replace ideology. That’s why drugs are so terrifying to those who oppose them. That’s why they say ‘You want to escape.‘ ‘You want to take drugs to escape.‘ That’s right! You want to escape! You want to escape fascism, communism, socialism, existentialism, phenomenology, positivism, all of this stuff. You want to escape ideology into the felt presence of the body. Which means drugs, and sex,and syncopated music!
And parallel to this development, and happening in different sectors of society, is the hardwiring of our imagination. The building of databases that we can access instantaneously that make the human past co-present with the now. The boundary dissolution that I’m talking about includes the division between past, present, and future. This is what it means to end Newtonian time. It means that the past, the present, and the future become a co-extensive domain where everyone, then, awakens to the fact—which was always there to be observed—that there is not simply one past. There is nothing called ‘the past.‘ I have a past, you have a past. It’s not the same past. Consequently, the futures we are going to are different. We create our own realities as a species and as an individual. And so what we’re passing through here—in the now, in this lecture in the 20th century—is a moment of community. A gam, as Melville would say. A gam is where two sailing ships, two whaling ships, meet at sea. That’s what we have here: a gam; a moment of dialogue. And then we will each go back to our own private Idahos.
But the thing to take back to those private Idahos is the awareness that human history secures the central importance of human beings. We are part of a universal adventure. What happens to us decrees the fate of a vast set of universal processes and circumstances. We are not ephemeral, irrelevant—to each other or to the greater whole. This is the truth of psychedelics that aboriginal societies have always known, and it’s the truth that we had to sacrifice in order to make the prodigal journey into matter. But the prodigal journey into matter has now been concluded. We found the top quark, we shut down the supercollider. Now we need to go back to the problems of the human soul. And there isn’t much time. But the tools that have been put into our hands are the most powerful tools there have ever been. The Gaian connection into the vegetable mind of the planet that we are trying to mirror and hardwire on a human scale. Nature is full of interest and affection for humanity. It’s up to us to discover that humanity in ourselves—because we have gone so sour along the rational path—and connect it up with the rest of nature. This is a process which is happening. But it’s a birth. It can go with ease because we help it from this side, or it can be traumatic because we resist and, as McLuhan said, insist on driving the automobile of history using only the rear-view mirror. That’s no way to proceed. We need to wake up, smell the coffee, turn on the lights, get loaded, and direct the human future toward a mirroring of aspirations such that we are pleased, then, to turn the enterprise over to those who follow us.