Department of Mysteries


Transmissions from Terence McKenna-Land

Item: Terence McKenna's Postmodern Pleroma
Cyber-Gnosticism and the Alien Good

by David M. Larsen

"Right here and now, one quanta away, there is raging a universe of active intelligence that is trans-human, hyper-dimensional, and extremely alien... What is driving religious feeling [today] is a wish for contact [with that] Other."

- Terence McKenna

"The knowledge who we were, what we have become; where we were, wherein we have been thrown; whereto we speed, wherefrom we are redeemed; what is birth, and what rebirth"

- Gnostic Text (Exc. Theod. 78:2)

Terence McKenna, self-proclaimed shamanologist and ethno-pharmacologist of spiritual transformation had for the last decade or so (of his life) peddled his baroque ontologies and epistemologies on the international new age lecture circuit. He spoke of a "resacralization" of the world, of hallucinogenic gnosis, strange teleological attractors at the end of time, a Mayan calendar eschatology at 2012, alien worlds of the "Other" populated by self-transforming machine elves, and Jungian fleets of B-Grade UFO's haunting the collective unconscious of a globalized humanity.

This discourse has engendered a profitable audience cult and, with the death of Timothy Leary, propelled McKenna onto the throne of high priest of psychedelia and guru to the wired denizens of Cyberia.

In this essay I will explore a number of issues raised by the emergence of a discourse such as McKenna's in post-modernity. Firstly, the base fact of an spiritual discourse positing a specific "ontic Logos", and existing in the affluent, modernized and apparently "de-traditionalized" West. In doing so I will attempt to place McKenna in his relation to other Western discourses of "self-exploration", most notably that of Jean Jacques Rousseau, and describe how McKenna's psychedelia departs radically from Rousseau in its anti-materialist, Gnostic strains. Secondly, I will explore the sheer eclecticism of McKenna's universe, placing it in its social context of late capitalist "re-enchantment". I will suggest that its emphasis on specularity relates to its globalizing epistemology of sameness, and demonstrate how its metaphysical subterfuges deify immanent, materially constructed subjectivities.

The Alien Logos and the Ontic Good

The moral and spiritual orientation of the citizens of Western nation-states of late modernity have, according to the conventional narrative spun by social theorists, been freed from the bonds of embedded tradition and outer "sources of the Good". Paul Heelas writes that "de-traditionalisation involves a shift of authority: from "without" to "within". It entails the decline of the belief in pre-given or natural order of things." What is described as the radical thesis situates this de-traditionalisation in a "past to present/future" dynamic, whereby the individual is "freed" from the embeddedness and closure of tradition into a dis-embedded, reflexive selfhood that draws upon its own internal Good for satisfaction. Charles Taylor, describes this change (or rise) in subjectivity in Sources of the Self. He charts a historical shift from the ontic, external Logos (in its Platonic sense), where the source of the Good is found external to the Self and where moral action consists in turning towards this "outer" source, to an emergence in the 18th century of "alternative moral sources."

These newer sources discarded the notion of an outer, transcendent Good and instead repositioned it within the Self: hence Kant's doctrine on the inherent dignity of the (universalised rational-moral) human self, and the Rousseauian notion of the inherent Goodness of nature, as experienced "within", accesible in the welling up of one's own nature, desires, sentiments and feelings. One effect of this "detraditionalization", according to radical Enlightenment thinkers such as Holbach and Helvetius, was to liberate the individual from "the false systems which our imagination has spawned...[the specifically hyper-Augustinian] ....demands of a false transcendance of nature". This rejection of a transcendent outer Good claimed to free man from the damaging efforts to imitate and appease the Divine, and also liberated him to be more affirmative of the experiential, sensual aspects of physical existence. Hence, Holbach's "Voice of Nature" cries... 

"In vain, o superstitious one! do you seek your well-being beyond the limits of the universe where my hand has placed you. In vain do you ask it of these inexorable fantoms which your imagination wishes to establish on my eternal throne.....in vain do you trust in these capricious deities whose beneficence sends you into ecstasy; while they fill your sojourn with dread, with wailing, with illusions."

Talyor claims that this new exultation of the sensual can been seen as a philosophical expression of the celebration of ordinary life in the 18th century; the rise of the notion that "sensual fulfillment" can be a legitimate and satisfying way to orient an individual life towards the Good. The later rise of consumer capitalism could not have occurred without it; and the Rousseaian romanticism of the 1960's counter-culture - and its notion of the psychedelic experience as being a legitimate experience of the Good - can be seen as a recent re-affirmation of this change in Western cultural attitudes.

Terence McKenna's discourse, however, sits uncomfortably within this tradition. There is an unbridgeable chasm between the mescaline induced sensuality and immanent experiential affirm-ation of an Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception and the transcendental sci-fi narrative of a final triumph of spirit over matter as preached by Esalen's favourite ethnopharmacologist of spiritual transformation. McKenna inherits the affirmative experientialism of Rousseau and the radical Enlightenment, yet undermines its "physicality" via the anti-materialism of classic Gnosticism. On one hand he can claim that "the spiritual quest, becomes one of empowering the felt presence of experience, both psychedelic experience and the normal day-to-day experience living." Yet this felt-experience sits within a gnostic evolutionary schema of spiritual "higher levels" and body-hate. "Matter and the human body is the placenta of the soul and it is certainly true that the earth is the cradle of the human race, but no infant remains in the cradle forever." Holbach's Voice of Nature, indeed even McKenna's own beloved "Gaia", is silenced.

Aspects of Rousseau are more strongly displayed in McKenna's doctrine of the alien, cancerous nature of our psilocybin-free "ego's". Hence, in the grand Rousseauian tradition, an almost axiomatic body of thought in today's culture of "authenticity" and prerequisite for any serious New Age epistemology, McKenna demonizes the misleading wiles of the "ego". McKenna bemoans,

"I really believe that the reason we have language and notions like community, altruism, loyalty, brotherhood, hope - the reason we have these qualities, which are the qualities which we embrace and which are most enobling to us, is because for a period of roughly a hundred thousand years we self-medicated ourselves and suppressed the poisonous presence of the calcareous tumour of ego. Ego is the psychological structure which is propelling us to hell in a handbasket"

This is of course the grand Rousseauian Fall, the sensibility which Edward Shils refers to as "the metaphysical dread of being encumbered by something alien to oneself". McKenna claims that "the whole fall into history, the whole rise of male dominance and patriarchy really can be traced to a broken connection with the living world of the Gaian mind." Rousseau writes that "God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil". The epravity, the messiness, the alienation is blamed on Culture, "the dense web of opinion woven between us in society". The individuas orientation to the Good is effected only by a reconnection with the intuitive voice within, the voice of Nature. Rousseau writes, "Conscience! Conscience! divine instinct, immortal voice from heaven; sure guide for a creature ignorant and finite indeed, yet intelligent and free; infallible judge of good and evil, making man like to God!". In listening to his inner conscience, the individual transcends petty differences and realigns himself with the "common good", and the "general will" is reaffirmed if all are attuned to this inner voice. Taylor points out that all modern philosophies of "self-exploration" begin with Rousseau, and McKenna's eclectic psychedelia is assuredly within this tradition - for example, drawing heavily on Jungian notions in its talk of the Unconscious "Other" and its depth pyschology aesthetic. Yet McKenna departs from Rousseau in the strains of cyber-gnosticism that he weaves into his weltanshauung. McKenna's brand of gnostic anti-materialism, deified humanity and Wagnerian space operatics is unreconcilable with the simple Stoical paganism of the Rousseau who writes, 

"Oh man! live your own life and you will no longer be wretched. Keep to your appointed place in the order of nature and nothing can tear you from it..Your freedom and your power extend as far and no further than your natural strength; anything more is slavery, deciet, and trickery."

The Inner Voice, the golden logos that must be listened to if humanity is to discard it calcerous ego driven differance, in short - the device that will effect a communion of globalized humanity, is that voice alchemically purified by the psychedelic. McKenna claims that "Culture is other people's trash, you know, the detritus of thousands of years of mistakes, that's what culture is", and the psychedelic substance "dissolves boundaries, they erase differences, they introduce you to the notion that reality is, in the wonderful phrase of Gregory Bateson, "A seamless web", that we are not atomic entities forever imprisoned in our own private Idaho's". "The psychedelics [function] to dissolve boundaries between people. I mean, if you look at 25 thousand psychedelic experiences, the impression that you will have is this experience is one which dissolves peoples boundaries - it doesn't matter whether they're Hassidic Jew, a communist party apparatchik, a rainforest shaman...". Again this is the spectre of Shils "metaphysical dread": of the substantiality of a deeper Self divorced from its "ego", the notion that Culture is alien to oneself, that a more real self exists below "social conditioning". 
Like Rousseau, McKenna, and much other New Age discourse, argues for a homogenous sameness over the chattering, semiotic difference of culture - a transcendental logos that rises phoenix-like above the disorientated postmodern Babel. "This is a problem of language. All codes have relative code qualities, except the Logos. The Logos is perfect and, therefore, partakes of no quality other than itself...As long as one maps with something other than the Logos, there will be problems of code quality". McKenna, similar to classical theorists of Enlightenment and Modernity (such as Kant & Rousseau), advocates a detraditionalization in exchange for a transcendent God-Good of sorts, the phantom of a language or mode of discourse that can trace the "Real" transparently. For all his railing against the patriarchy, McKenna reframes one of its greatest weapons - the myth of a language of presence, a language-logos which once and for all will fix the signified-signifier relationship in an ahistorical concreteness. This logocentric humanism is ofcourse anathema to postmodern theorists such as Derrida, who writes,

"The name of man being the name of that being who, throughout the history of metaphysics or of ontotheology - in other words, throughout his entire history - has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of play."

A New Age discourse such as McKenna's, however much a creature of late capitalism and hyperreal specularity, is not postmodern in the "no more meta-narratives" sense. In "dissolving difference", McKenna's mushroom logos erects a fascistic and illusory objectivity. The Truth (with a capital T) is out there. "Under the influence of psilocybin there is an experience of contact with a speaking entity - an interior voice that I call the Logos. The Logos spoke the Truth - an incontrovertible Truth." "I take very seriously the idea that the Logos is real, that there is a guiding Mind - an Oversoul - that inhabits the biome of the planet, and that human balance, dignity, and religiousity depend on having direct contact with this realm." 
The connections between this organicism and its embedded-ness in the historical fact of globalized information cultures will be explored below, yet here I wish to highlight its essential similarities with all the great meta-narratives of Western metaphysics. The tradition of inwardness, of a turning within to align oneself with the Good, flows through the mainstream rivers of Western thought: via Augustine, Descartes, and Locke, and finding its exemplary expressions in Kant and Rousseau. McKenna presents his own version of this tradition, cribbing from the depth psychology of Jung, and present's the psychedelic experience as the great leveller, the obliterator of embedded difference and the activator of a globalized community and a language of objectivity. 
McKenna offers a psychedelic take on the Pauline model of a new community, a detraditionalization of ethnicity and gender reconstituted in Christ as the New Israel (Galatians 3:28). This notion of communion was furthered by the early Church father Augustine. "In Augustine, the separate individuals are to be reconstructed, through the mysterium (mystery) of the sacrament of the Mass, into the unity of the body of Christ, so that each single one participates by overcoming his isolation in the single communion body." McKenna rephrases this: in the body of the mushroom, we all are one. The hallucinogenic sacrament activates a going inward, a jettisoning of tradition, ethnos, gender, a discovery of the Good in the Alien gnosis, and a drastic recommunalization. In the "depths" of the human psyche, the "Other" is discovered, an unconscious "elf hive, a colony of self-transforming, hyperdimensional machine creatures who are squealing and squeaking in a visible glossolalia that falls like rain on the interior landscape". The gnosis is presented to the ego-transcending Self. McKenna's version of the new communion has a cybergnostic slant, 

"We [humanity] are like an enormous collective organism with our data banks, our forecasting agencies, and our computer networks, and the many levels at which we are connected into the universe...I take the flying saucer to be an image of the future state of humanity. It is a kind of millenarian transformation of the human where the soul is exteriorized as the apotheosis of technology. It is the eschatological event that is casting enormous shadows backward through time over the historical landscape. That is the siren singing at the end of time, calling all humanity across the last hundred millennia toward it. Calling us out of the trees and into history, and through this series of multilevelled cultural transitions to the point that the thing within the monkeys - the creature of pure language and pure imagination whose aspirations are entirely titanic in terms of self-transformation - that thing is now emerging, and it will emerge as humanity leaves the planet. (Italics mine)"

"In the twentieth century all this knits together into some kind of global organism...We are moving toward the most profound event a planetary ecology can encounter. We are about to witness the freeing of life from the chrysalis of matter. This is what our privilege and our destiny is, is to be the final generation of people with one foot in the material realm of the battered primate and one foot on the ladder to godhood."

"Essentially, we are going to shed the monkey, the linguistic creature that is symbiotic with these monkeys is about to disentangle itself from physis and realise some kind of angelic transformation."

McKenna's re-engineering of the Christian community involves a gnostic "return to source", the freeing of the trapped sparks of Spirit from sinister matter and the obliteration of difference in the reformation of the fallen, splintered Godhead. McKenna, in classic Gnostic style, claims "we are completely alientated, so alienated from ourselves are we that when we encounter our own souls in the psychedelic dimension, we mistake it for a UFO. This is serious alienations folks, I think we have to get back into the inner jeweled realm and make ourselves at home there." Hans Jonas points out that the gnostic rhetoric of anti-materialism, its extreme rejection of the world was the reflection of the mood of the early Christian centuries: "a deeply agitated state of mind, a great tension of the soul, a disposition towards radicalism, hyperbolic expectations, total solutions". 
The gnostic strains in McKenna perhaps reflect a similar tension in the postmodern mind of the West; plagued by the moral malaise of intrumental reason and the "culture of narcissism", alienated by environmental despoilation, radical subjectivism and the fall of public life, the nuclear threat and the capitalist exploitation of the third world. The moral failure of the Enlightenment project, the vulgarity of late capitalist culture, all these "contemporary malaises" could be seen to generate a physis rejecting, anti-materialist spiritual discourse such as McKenna's. His traditional gnostic doctrine of a fall into matter and a future reconstitution in the Godhead may act as a narcissistic panacea for those who feel an existential alienation from their environment: the anomie of disembeddedment. The dangers of McKenna's discourse is that they merely replay the dualistic dichotomies that fostered the malaise; and worse, they detract from more prosaic, yet infinitely more important, localised political action. Priestly in the worst possible sense, McKenna discards reflexive thinking in favour of a naive "sacralising" of such historically immanent phenomena as information technology, the Internet, the capitalist "time-space compressions" of modernity and postmodernity. I will explore this aspect more fully below.

Late Capitalist Eclecticism & Spiritualized Specularities

In executing his "archaic revival" McKenna eclectically draws on the Western metaphysical tradition of ahistorical "hyperreal" realms, Gnostic teleologies of a fall into matter and the promise of a final human communion - the "strange attractor at the end of time", and dualistic dichotomies between the body-soul; with an extreme bias towards the latter - crafting an almost cariactured "meta-narrative" of the final triumph of spirit over matter. Reframing this traditional rhetoric is a science fiction aesthetic that "appropriates" the above elements out of their traditional settings and remolds them via a cyberpunk semiotic of nano and information technology. Hence, the globalized, holistic humm of an electrically illumed Gaian "world-soul", a Burroughsian insectoid sensibility of the chattering "Other", and a 2001: A Space Odyssey feeling for the grande historical. In good New Age style, although here McKenna would prefer to refer to it as an "archaic revival", indigenous shamanic cosmologies and techniques are also co-opted from "premodern" cultures and added to this ontological soup. The axial point around which this meta-narrative of presence revolves is the hallucinogenic psilocybin: the sacred "food of the Gods", communicator of the secret Gnosis, and, according to McKenna, the substance single handedly responsible for the divine sparks of human intelligence. The historical lack of a symbiotic relationship with the mushroom has ejected Western man from the Dionysian, orgiastic, "partnership" culture, the original "Garden of Eden", and into the terrible "fall" of history: ie a Gaian hustling ruse run by a mob of nomadic Indo-European arch-patriarchs. 
Hans Jonas presents the eclecticism of the early gnostics, their derivative, cavalier and impious use of tradition, as a product of its historical period. The early Christian centuries are described as "late" (post-classical), distinctly literate, and thoroughly syncretistic. Jonas writes of "the freefloating availability of traditions that [were] no longer binding, but pregnant with redefinable meaning". A parallel can be drawn between the conscious construction of gnostic allegory, its knowing subversion of and resituation of Jewish and Platonic semiotic, and the postmodern eclecticism of McKenna. In a time of "detrad-itionalization", yet also a time of the waning of post-Enlightenment ireligiousity where many are calling for a "reenchantment" of the life world, the New Age can engage in a impious, post-colonial plundering of any and all religious traditions. Hybridised in the blender of late capitalist media technologies, forced to appease the demand for novelty in the check-out lines of the "spiritual supermarkets", the New Age discourses construct eclectic artifice on order. New Agers literally "create their own reality", and it is no coincidence that McKenna is fascinated by the possibilities of capitalist virtual reality technologies. 
David Harvey describes the last two decades of the twentieth century as having undergone intense "time-space compression". Citing the transition from Fordism to "flexible accumulation" style capitalism as one causative factor, he observes that this shift has entailed the encroachment of capitalism into the marketing of "life-styles and recreation activities". This change in capitalism has engendered a new consumer subjectivity. Mike Featherstone writes, 

"It is common in depictions of postmodern experiences to find references to: the disorientating melee of signs and images, stylistic eclecticism, sign-play, the mixing of codes, depthlessness, pastiche, simulations, hyperreal-ity, immediacy, a melange of fiction and strange values, intense affect-charged experiences, the collapse of the boundaries between art and everyday life, an emphasis upon images over words, the playful immersion in unconscious processes as opposed to detached conscious appreciation, the loss of a sense of the reality of history and tradition; the de-centering of the subject"

The hyperreal, specular aspects of McKenna's discourse - the emphasis on visuality and sci-fi spectacle - could be argued to court cogently the "society of the spectacle", an aspect of the postmodern "emphasis of images over words". The cinematic, hallucinatory qualities of the psychedelic experience are constantly posited as a spiritual Truth. The reduction of a supposed religiousity to mere bedazzlement by the bizarrely optical could be seen - similar to the Impressionist's modernist fascination with evanescence and flickering optical phenomena - as a flattening of content before the great leveller of opticality, complicit with "a world where use-value has been banished and exchange value - which posits the universal equality of things - enshrined instead". Eschewing cultural difference, the (self-proclaimed) detradition-alized, globalized McKenna speaks of "a commitment to a return to the atavistic through the direct tranformation of experience...This is not an ideology, there is no dogma, there are no rules, this is not a menu of moral prescription, this is something that happens between you and this transcendental reality."
The eclectic and specular aspects of McKenna's discourse are also haunted by another definer of the "Real" in postmodernity - the spectre of the television set, and, more recently, the World Wide Web. The combination of satellite communications, installed in the 1970s, with mass television ownership means that it is now "possible to experience a rush of images from different spaces almost simultaneously, collapsing the world's spaces into a series of images on a screen". The rise of mass television ownership and mediated spectacle in the 1960s coincided with the use of hallucinogenics by counter culturalists, and a spiritual discourse that downplays specific moral or ethical orientations in favour of a celebration of the sense of "oneness" engendered by hallucin-ogenic opticality sits suspiciously close to the sense of global sameness and unity inspired by television, that other great optical leveller. 
Indeed, McKenna's juggernaut sensibilities appear to naively legitimate specific, historically imbedded social transformations by recasting their reconstruction of human subjectivity into an non-reflexive, spiritualized discourse. His metaphysical subterfuges perpetuate and deify immanent historical economic processes involving ecological and human exploitation. Hence, McKenna's take on time-space compressions of modernity,

"We human beings are reacting to the siren song of the transcendental object at the end of time....we are on a collision course with a temporal vortex of some sort. It has become a cliche of modern parlance and journalism that time is speeding up, that history is moving faster and faster...What is happening on this planet is that time is speeding up in our species, we are under the influence of a kind of strange attractor which is moving us through the temporal medium at an ever-faster accelerating rate. This is a law of the universe, though not one recognised by science..We are wrapping ourselves around a cosmic endpoint of some sort...It beckons across the dimensions, it throws an enormous shadow over the enterprise of human history"

More prosaically, discarding essentialist notions of time, scientific laws, and baroque teleologies, the subjective experience of the acceleration of temporality has been described by sociologists as a specific, immanent phenomena of capitalist modernity. Unfortunately this insight rails against McKenna, and his followers, need for a metaphysics of presence. Rather than possessing an ahistorical essence or ontology; human subjectivity is revealed to be constructed by "exterior" social mechanisms: on this occasion their sense of accelerating temporality effected by the mechanisms of late capitalism in the West. David Harvey's intense "time-space compression", rather than having transc-endent, eschatological meaning, is merely the subjective corollary of the constant acceleration of consumer commodities around the global marketplace. Harvey also speaks of a global vertigo where "the future collapses into the present", of the "annihilation of space through time", instead citing the improved systems of communication and information flow, and improvements in distribution, as important factors in this sense of acceleration. 

In Conclusion: A Priest of Postmodernity

McKenna's discourse is somewhat of an anomaly on the New Age circuit, in the sense that it takes self-religiousity and ego derision to such an extreme that its representation of the Deep Self becomes the gnostic "alien Other". Whilst a descendant of Romanticism, one of the great origins of the modern culture of authenticity, its presentation of the "true" Self is far from the stoical, materialist paganism of Rousseau, or the more conventional New Age presentations of "self-religiousity". In fusing Rousseauian "self-knowledge" with the extremes of gnostic body-hate and anti-materialism, McKenna reengineers our deeper Self, transforming it into the alien UFO. This is science-fiction gnostic alienation taken to the nth degree.

Whilst situated within the rubric of postmodernity, partaking in late capitalist eclecticism and "reenchantment", and emphasising a universal specularity over embedded tradition, McKenna's discourse is vehemently anti-postmodern. Its insistence on an ontology of presence, its meta-narrative of a transcendence of matter and the alchemical fusion of a cyber-communion at the End of Time, situate it clearly within the tradition of a knowable, objective "ontic Logos". "We, we the people of the high-tech civilisations, are like the prodigal son. We made a descent into matter. We have wandered many years in the wilderness. Now, in a time of great planetery crisis, we must return to the tribal fold."

McKenna's popularity, especially amongst the citizens of the supposedly "detraditionalized" Western State, reveals a desire for a Logos of presence, an embedded Good, that transcends the anomie, discontinuties and free-play of signifiers that characterises the postmodern Babel. Postmodernity creates the de-centred subject, the subject that has "disintegrated into a flux of euphoric intensities, fragmented and disconnected", whereas McKenna and cohorts construct a deeper unification of Self; and recommunalisation with an organic Gaian entelechy. The globalizing rhetoric of McKenna, his insistence on sameness, is expressed both in his doctrine of the true Logos, and in his insistence on the levelling effect of psychedelic opticality. In this sense he is in league with the great spectre haunting recent rhetoric of global homogeneity - the spectre of information technology. In short, McKenna is a priest of postmodernity (in the worst sense of the word). His "sacralising" discourse, rather than being an "archaic revival", is clearly one of our times, providing transcendental legitimations of historically specific, capitalist constructed subjectivities.



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