Terence McKenna is one of those cult-famous, societal-fringe figures of whom the majority of people have never heard. He’s also someone whose views probably have a polarizing effect on anyone who encounters them. At the very least, though, Terence was an exceptionally original thinker, and those who explore a fraction of his work will note his erudition and incredible ability to articulate his thoughts.
McKenna was an American philosopher and ethnobotanist who passed away in the year 2000. He was known for possessing expertise on a broad range of subjects including history, biology, geology, botany, and ecology. He toured and lectured extensively on everything from language and science to shamanism and extraterrestrials, developing a sizable and enthusiastic following.
His controversial status is in large part due to his vocal advocacy of mind-altering substances. McKenna was a well-known psychonaut–one who explores consciousness through the ingestion of psychedelic hallucinogens–and a staunch proponent of the use of naturally occurring psychoactive compounds.
Obviously this latter aspect of McKenna’s legacy is an immediate turn-off to many. For a major sector of the population, the colossal stigma surrounding psychedelic substances is sufficient reason to lambaste the views of a well-known user. I, however, am not so quick to dismiss such a person, especially one as lucid, compelling, internally consistent, and dedicated to free inquiry as Terence McKenna.
McKenna’s Views on Mass-Consumerist Culture
I’ve delved into hours of McKenna’s lectures, and I am particularly interested in his ideas on culture. When McKenna speaks of culture, he seems to refer primarily to modern, mass-consumerist culture, so keep that in mind.
McKenna held a rather unfriendly position toward culture that can be summed up succinctly by one of his most famous quotations: “Culture is not your friend.” McKenna saw modern culture as a sort of engine detached from the interests of the individual and serving the manipulative, power-focused agendas of various institutions and wealthy individuals.
The following short video contains a portion of one of his lectures in which he addresses culture. I encourage you to watch it now (I will transcribe and elaborate on its central ideas below):
What Civilization is and What it Could be
McKenna certainly had a way of poetically articulating his ideas, and the video opens with what I feel is one of Terence’s most memorable metaphors:
“What civilization is is 6 billion people trying to make themselves happy by standing on each other’s shoulders and kicking each other’s teeth in. It’s not a pleasant situation. And yet you can stand back and look at this planet and see that we have the money, the power, the medical understanding, the scientific know-how, the love, and the community to produce a kind of human paradise.”
With this statement McKenna addresses the hyper-competitive environment that is symptomatic of the modern capitalistic socioeconomic paradigm. Our culture has a tendency to glorify competition, and many would argue that competition drives innovation and “progress” (a slippery word). I doubt McKenna would argue that competition has not been essential to the invention of our modern world, but he seems to step back and ask, “Yes, but when will it be enough?”
McKenna suggests that we’ve reached a stage of technological advancement and knowledge that would allow us to “produce a kind of human paradise.” This declaration sounds vague and idealistic, but based upon what I know of McKenna, I assume that by “human paradise” he envisioned something like a drastic change in the work paradigm, an elimination of poverty and starvation, a great reduction in disease and illness-related death, the end of war, and a much more palpable sense of a world community.
“Culture is Not Your Friend”
These items might sound far-fetched, but McKenna is not the first to suggest that such a situation is possible with our modern technology. R. Buckminster Fuller comes to mind as another prominent thinker who held similar views. After making this statement, McKenna elaborates on what he believes prevents us from attaining this state of affairs–namely, a lack of significant resistance to the poor leadership, dehumanizing values, and damaging cultural “control icons” that he perceives in the world. He states:
“Culture is not your friend. Culture is for other peoples’ convenience and the convenience of various institutions, churches, companies, tax collection schemes, what have you. It is not your friend. It insults you. It disempowers you. It uses and abuses you. None of us are well-treated by culture.”
But the culture is a perversion. It fetishizes objects. It creates consumer mania. It preaches endless forms of false happiness, endless forms of false understanding in the form of squirrelly religions and silly cults. It invites people to diminish themselves and dehumanize themselves by behaving like machines.”
Modern World as Dystopia?
McKenna holds that modern culture is centered around the agendas of those who are almost certainly not you. He believes that culture diminishes and dehumanizes the vast majority of the population by inviting them to unreflectively reinforce its models.
McKenna seems to suggest that instead of focusing on creating the type of world that is possible, we are caught up in a game of culture–a robotic pursuit of fetishized objects and false visions of a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
To some, this view may seem rather grim and dystopian. I don’t see it that way. I see it as a warning that remains pertinent in 2015. The culture McKenna refers to does exist, and its effects are far-reaching and potentially insidious. However, I know that there are many, many people who are aware of this cultural game and do not conform to its status quo, who resolve to try to choose their own way of life and who see through the glitzy media-images.
Simply by being among this latter group of people, I think we’re doing the work that McKenna believed needed to be done–the work of resisting the damaging and dehumanizing aspects of modern consumerist culture. The mere realization that we are culturally conditioned to behave in certain ways is a sufficient catalyst to begin assuming a more active and reflective role in deciding how to live and act.
I see nothing wrong with being a cultural participant, but it should be our goal to develop a deeper awareness of the ideals our culture would have us pursue. When we understand the culture’s vision for our lives, we can continue to exist within our given society while challenging its flaws in subtle ways. We can deliberately express ourselves in forms that disrupt its norms, and we can consciously choose which aspects of it are worth partaking in. In this way, we become active constituents of culture, shifting and re-imagining its values, contributing to the gradual creation of a culture that we can call our “friend”.
McKenna Suggests We Must Create Culture
McKenna was certainly a vocal critic of mass culture, but to his credit, he was also quite vocal about offering alternatives. He believed strongly in the importance and utility of art, the primacy of felt experience, and the need to create our own values and alternative spaces for expression.
I’ll leave you with one last quote from another of Terence’s lectures that is especially poignant here. He was a frank and opinionated speaker, to be sure, but don’t let his style put you off. Terence was also always quick to check his own views and make light of his position. He didn’t want to insult people–he just wanted us to ask questions. This message from beyond the grave is valuable to each of us; ponder it with an open mind:
“We have to create culture, don’t watch TV, don’t read magazines, don’t even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow. The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe, and if you’re worrying about Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton or somebody else, then you are disempowered, you’re giving it all away to icons, icons which are maintained by an electronic media so that you want to dress like X or have lips like Y. This is shit-brained, this kind of thinking. That is all cultural diversion, and what is real is you and your friends and your associations, your highs, your orgasms, your hopes, your plans, your fears. And we are told ‘no’, we’re unimportant, we’re peripheral. ‘Get a degree, get a job, get a this, get a that.’ And then you’re a player, you don’t want to even play in that game. You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that’s being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.”
― Terence McKenna