In conversation with Terence McKenna
From Idler 1, August 1993
Idler editor Tom Hodgkinson writes:
Terence McKenna died earlier this year. I feel particularly affectionate towards him as he was our first ever interview. I went to see him at the offices of Mute, the record company which put out Shamen stuff. The Shamen had made a connection with him, attracted as they were to his shamanistic ideas.
I was amazed by his articulacy, and by the eloquent way he put into words many of the ideas I had only half-formed. His comments about idleness seem to me to be bang on, and just as relevant today as in 1993 when the interview took place.
There is a Terence McKenna website at http://deoxy.org/mckenna.htm
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
He’s been sampled by The Shamen; he believes that magic mushrooms were the evolutionary missing link between ape and man. He has been called “the culture’s foremost spokesman for the psychedelic experience. ” He is also an idler.
It was with not inconsiderable apprehension that I sat down to my meeting with Terence McKenna. His reputation as a crackpot – whose most sane idea is that magic mushrooms are the evolutionary missing link between ape and man which has puzzled our scientific community for so long – preceded him. However, The Idler is always ready to approach on equal terms those whose world view has ostracised them from the mainstream. McKenna turned out, as is so often the case with the figures castigated by the establishment as misfits only suitable for ridicule, to be a most charming and stimulating companion. Eloquent (though sometimes his speeches have the air of rote recitation), witty, ironic, and intense, he threw up such a whirlwind of unfamiliar ideas that by the end of our two hours together I was quite exhausted.
For those unfamiliar with McKenna and his work, let me add a few comments. He is 46, sports a raggedy beard and speaks in clipped, high pitched Californian accents. This distinctive voice has been sampled by multi-media dance stars The Shamen. Colin from this group has been influenced greatly by McKenna’s thought. McKenna is an anti- rationalist McLuhanite, with a shamanistic impulse, whose favourite philosopher (and this may surprise some people) is Alfred North Whitehead, friend of Bertrand Russell. McKenna is best known for his espousal of the magic mushroom (or, more specifically, the psilocybin this intriguing plant contains). He believes that it is only through experiencing the effects of such drugs that we can begin to approach an understanding of how the world works, and of our place in it. But enough, let’s hear what the fuzzy faced Frisco philosopher has to say. I started my interview by telling McKenna about the philosophy of The Idler
McKENNA: You should take a look at Whitehead. He wrote books like Science in the modern World, Adventures of Ideas, brilliant essays. As far as his relationship with Bertrand Russell goes, had Russell been a bit more idle it would have gone on a much longer, as it was, he had an affair with Evelyn Whitehead, and that tore it. Bertie, what a rake he was.
IDLER: Russell wrote an essay called “In Praise of Idleness”, where he argued that a new machine in a factory should lead not to the redundancy of half the workers, but to a reduction by half of the working day. I wonder why we haven’t managed to organise society along those lines.
McKENNA: I think the reason we don’t organise society in that way can be summed up in the aphorism, idle hands are the devil’s tool. In other words, institutions fear idle populations because an idler is a thinker and thinkers are not a welcome addition to most social situations. Thinkers become malcontents, that’s almost a substitute word for idle, “malcontent”. Essentially, we are all kept very busy, and if you do have a moment of leisure time, then you’re expected to imbibe the sanitised data stream that the cultural imprimatur has been placed upon [I believe here that McKenna is referring to watching TV]. Under no circumstances are you to actually quietly inspect the contents of your own mind. Freud called introspection “morbid” – unhealthy, introverted, anti-social, possible neurotic, potentially pathological.
IDLER: Tell us about your Bohemian institute in Prague.
McKENNA: Prague is now experiencing a kind of golden moment. It’s a wonderful place for the Germans, the Japanese and the Americans all to meet on an equal footing, because it’s nobody’s home turf. And it’s the cradle of the notion that we preserve in our language with the word “Bohemia”. The reason you and I could be called Bohemians is because we’re interested in unconventional behaviour and a radical definition of freedom. This is because these ideas were concretized in Bohemia, in phenomena like the Hussite rebellion, various heresies and Millinarian and Utopian schemes that were hatched before the Thirty Years War.
You see, before the Thirty Years War, the European mentality was thoroughly magical, alchemical, hermetic, and then at the close of the Thirty Years War, it was thoroughly modern. Newton followed just a few years later, and modern science, experimentalism arose. What happened to Prague – being on the losing side – when the map was drawn was that they were shoved into the Slavic language zone. Previously, the language of Prague was Italian spoken in the court. This had the effect of marginalising this alchemical and magical point of view.
The idea of the Bohemian Institute is to establish a conference centre, rave club, publishing house, video production facility, and to create an international critique of global culture from Prague, under the aegis of what is one of the most enlightened, if not the most enlightened government in the world. What’s complicating it is what’s going on in Yugoslavia, because people aren’t entirely clear what’s what. I’m sure Prague will be one of the last places to succumb to brutality and chaos in Europe. Even at that, it may come soon, because I am frankly in dread of something, let’s call it the Pan-Slavic War, and I think the Eurasian land mass could soon become a sea of fire, and that Yugoslavia will look like a Sunday school picnic, once you have the Ukraine, Kaszakistan, Turkey, Greece – all hurling themselves into the mass. It’s going to bring untold suffering to millions and millions of people, and where Prague will stand in all that, is not clear.
I’ve been there several times. I’m intending to go back for another look, and if it’s still viable I hope to move there in the Fall with my son, and begin to focus for this kind of think-tank at the end of history.
IDLER: Prague seems to be very popular with idlers at the moment.
McKENNA: The place is incredible. I haven’t had the feeling I get in Prague since I looked out over Berkeley in 1967 and said “This is the place, this is the new Jerusalem, we can do it here.” You can’t afford Paris, Berlin, Rome – those places are nightmares for people for people on limited income, Prague is open, available, it must support 20 or 30 rave clubs, country music bars, all kinds of music. The talent is pouring in there from all over the world, and it’s mostly young talent.
IDLER: What have you been thinking about recently?
McKENNA: I have a theory, a very radical theory, about what is time and how it works. I see it as a war, a Manichean struggle between habit and novelty. In any given span of time from a millisecond to millions of years, one can say whether habit or novelty is dominating.
It’s a very radical theory, though it may not at first appear so, because it attacks the very core of scientific rationalism, which is based on what’s called Probability Theory. Probability Theory assumes that processes are time-independent; in other words, if we are flipping a coin, science assures us that we will not get a greater preponderance of heads over tails if we do it only Tuesdays at 10 o’clock. That’s considered preposterous. But I believe that Probability Theory is in fact a red herring or a wrong turning and that in fact there are moments when the improbable is more probable, and there are moments when the probable is less probable. If it were really true that when you flip a coin the odds of it coming up heads or tails were truly 50/50, then the coin would land on its edge every single time. Well, that’s the rarest outcome of a coin toss imaginable. I’m 46 years old, I’ve never seen it happen.
Science is essentially the area of human concern that tells us what is possible – if you want to know if something is possible, you ask a scientist. But what we lack, and have never even articulated the need for, is : how is it, out of the class of the possible, which is vast, certain things are selected for what Whitehead calls the “formality of actually occurring”? I maintain that you have to picture time differently not as a featureless, Platonically smooth surface, which is how Newton saw time – he called it “pure duration” – but that actually time has a texture at every level. With my computer programme I can look at a few billion years or a few minutes.
IDLER: How do you know where it’s going to go?
McKENNA: It’s late in our interview to get into this… but once I had the wave, I had two phenomena. Here is the wave, here is what is known of human history. I’m suggesting that the wave describes novelty and habit, so then we have to take the best fit between theory and data. At that point, the thing becomes a tremendously powerful predictive engine, because you can look up any moment in time and get the novelty graph and check it against your own intuitions.
IDLER: Are you looking at a cultural movement in time?
McKENNA: I’m interested in doing it globally. High novelty moments like the Greek Golden Age, the Renaissance, the 20th century, must be low points on the graph. The graph works somewhat counter – intuitively in that novelty is increasing when the line goes down, and habit is increasing when the line goes up. And then you get turning points, where habit is suddenly overcome by novelty and then you get regression points, where novelty suddenly comes to a halt and traditional pattern, habit, reasserts itself. It was Rupert Sheldrake who suggested that I call it habit. Novelty I think of as something like a density of connection or complexity of a system, and the more complex a system is, the more novel it is.
Viewed from that perspective it’s pretty clear that the universe is a kind of novelty-conserving engine; it produces novelty, and then it builds yet greater novelty on the previously achieved level of novelty. So for instance, human culture rests on social organisation before writing and language, which rests on primate and mammalian organisation, which rests on complex molecular systems, which are made of atoms, which are made of protons, electrons, neutrons. Every time novelty is achieved, it is then set in concrete and becomes the basis for a further ascent into novelty.
And eventually, I believe fairly soon, novelty will be maximised. Human history is not something that goes on endlessly into the future: it’s something that lasts about 25,000 years and then so much novelty has accumulated that essentially every point in the system becomes co – tangent with every other.
At that point, that’s as much novelty as you can have, and that’s what I call the transcendental attractor at the end of time. It’s the novelty of novelty. It radiates its influence into the past making historical time as we approach the transcendental object more and more novel and complex, and breakthroughs and so on and so forth happen at an ever faster rate.
And this has now reached the point at which it is asymptotically accelerating, and I believe some time around 2012 AD novelty will actually reach its maxima.
IDLER: What happens then?
McKENNA: That’s a good question. We can’t see it because it lies below the event horizon of rational apprehendability – at this point. It’s like being at 1am and asking what the sun will look like when it rises. We don’t know because it’s still below the horizon of our intellectual modelling. But long before we get to 2012, we’ll have an intimation of what this ingression into novelty, or what Whitehead calls conscrecence
The flying saucer, in fact, is an image of conscrecence that ricochets through time like a scintilla of light thrown from one of those mirrored balls that you see in discos.
IDLER: Is nuclear destruction a possibility?
McKENNA: No, I don’t think so. I view it as an ontological transformation of the nature of reality, not in a political context at all, but that we’re actually involved in a kind of drama of the change of physics. Whitehead talks about what he calls epochs of natural laws, but now we’re actually approaching a phase transition.
We have an appointment with transformation or extinction. There’s no third possibility. Business as usual is off the menu.