Terence McKenna’s Disillusioned Perspective on Mass-Consumerist Culture

“We have to create culture, don’t watch TV, don’t read magazines, don’t even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow.”

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.

The late Terence McKenna. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
The late Terence McKenna. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Artist's rendering of Terence McKenna aka "Uncle Terence". Credit: "thöR (Creative Commons)
Artist’s rendering of Terence McKenna aka “Uncle Terence”. Credit: “thöR (Creative Commons)

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 2013. 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

If you enjoyed this piece, you may want to check out the ways to grab free updates from Refine The Mind

P.S. I had a bit of writing published on Tiny Buddha today as well. It’s a more personal piece on being abroad and not overlooking what’s nearest to you. It’s quite relevant to Thanksgiving. You can read it here if you like.

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About Jordan Bates

Jordan Bates is a linguistic sign and the post-American writer/artist who created this place. He has a rapping alter-ego named LOSTBOYEVSKY, writes about 21st-century Asia on Beacon, and also created the music blog, UBERSOUNDS. Read the mission and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


  • Nicholas Gann

    Great piece man! Mckenna is a huge influence in my life as well! Great to see other spreading the word.

    • http://www.refinethemind.com/ Jordan Bates

      Thanks, Nicholas! Awesome to hear from another person who digs McKenna. Regardless of his views, I’ve always found his voice and general persona to be soothing and uplifting.

      I’m glad he existed, and I’m glad I can spread the word about him. Cheers and take care. Stop back sometime if you feel so inclined.

  • Stuart R

    Hello, good piece. Funny, it was sent to me by a guy I met upon my return to Canada – a recruiter who helped me get a job. This is after living in Seoul for nearly 8 years. Funny that I come upon your site and writings after leaving the country.

    I enjoyed the piece and I would argue that to many, this should be common sense – an hour in front of a television is an hour of sitting down to be programmed (watch a few commercials and any “reality tv”). Here in Canada, all you can hear about this week is Black Friday deals! Special this, cheap that, Red Thursday! Tangerine Saturday! Its insulting and a bit humorous – mostly depressing.

    One final thing I would like to add/question – have you heard of Father Anthony DeMello? He was a Jesuit priest who spoke about social conditioning and the importance of awareness. He passed away in the late 80s but a few recordings of his can be found online. He was actually posthumously chastised by (then) cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Ben) for views that threatened “good Catholic principles”.

    I mention him because after studying Buddhism in Korea, his simple lecture was able to summarize everything and enabled me to discard everything. The truth of culture/media as social control is so clear when you are aware.

    As it was so well put years ago: “Don’t buy that Elmer, that’s horseshit”.

    Thanks

    Stuart

    • http://www.refinethemind.com/ Jordan Bates

      Hey Stuart,

      Woah, that is wild that you would come upon the site of a fellow Korea-going ex-pat just after leaving the country. Very cool.

      Glad to hear you enjoyed the piece. As much as I wish this were common sense, it simply isn’t. I feel that the majority of people have very little awareness of the extent to which many, many people are lobbying to place ideas into their mind or to reinforce preexisting ways of thinking. At least in my experience. Gah — the ‘Black Friday’ brouhaha kills me too. It’s humorous on the exterior but it’s deeply pathetic/ironic on the inside. Biggest sales of the year immediately following the day we’re supposed to be most thankful for what we already have? Ptooey. Someone died this year, and there were many fights/injuries in the mania of it all. What a disgrace.

      I have not heard of DeMello, but I will look into him. Sounds like my type of thinker, and I’m glad he had such a positive effect on you. Hardly surprising that he’d be chastised by the church if he was a true champion of awareness. ;) Sad, though.

      Interesting to hear that you studied Buddhism in Korea. Where/how did you study? I read about Buddhism/Zen/Taoism (very informally) and have been really impacted by some of the ideas of those schools of thought.

      You’re right about that last bit–that cultural/media conditioning/control becomes painfully obvious when one is able to take a step back from it all and reach a more reflective place. It is my sincere hope that more people than ever are realizing these things in our epoch, and that this trend will only continue with the rise of the Internet and everything that comes with it in terms of disseminating information. That’s why I feel that creating inviting and credible online spaces for real discourse and honest idea-exchanging is so important. Thus the current Refine The Mind and hopefully furthermore the future versions of Refine The Mind. :)

      Anywho, I appreciate the comment. Drop back from time to time to see what’s going on around here. I’d like to hear from you again. Take care, Stuart.

      Regards,
      Jordan

  • sntaln

    Great stuff. There is a particular lecture you recommend? There are hundred hours of material online, don’t know where to start!

    • http://www.refinethemind.com/ Jordan Bates

      Hey sntaln!

      Thank you. I’d personally recommend ‘Appreciating Imagination’, but McKenna’s corpus is so vast that it’s hard to know what would interest you.

      I’d recommend perusing some of his shorter YouTube clips to see what sparks your interest. Take care, and thanks for dropping a comment!

  • http://tangiblefreedom.com/ Ragnar

    I think that confirmation bias plays a large role in how we perceive things as large and complex as our culture. It’s easy to find and focus on examples of good, and conversely on examples of bad. Although certainly I personally think that the western world as a whole, from my limited knowledge of it’s collective culture, is heading in the wrong direction, I don’t consider it to be quite at the repetitious robotic level yet. I have to say that I agree that the idolization of individuals is ridiculous, and that we should create our own culture. That the ideal of conformity is bullshit. And that the standard measurements of success are far too rigid at best. All in all I think I might have to read some of his material. Anything you would recommend?

    • http://www.refinethemind.com/ Jordan Bates

      Ragnar,

      I think that was an astute assessment of the article. Confirmation bias definitely plays a role.

      Glad to hear that your instinct was to agree with a lot of what was in the post, though. I’ve always found McKenna to be lucid, persuasive, and even prescient. He was a great thinker.

      As far as what I’d recommend for reading, I’ve only read a couple essays online. Most of what I’ve encountered have been his lectures.

      I’d recommend the lecture series ‘Appreciating Imagination’ and would also suggest perusing some shorter clips on YouTube.

      But, I will say that the first book of his that I plan to read is ‘The Archaic Revival’. I’ve heard really good things. Just haven’t gotten to it yet. Cheers.

    • Sean Titan

      Create a rock and roll band with me. That’s what I recommend.

  • http://www.refinethemind.com/ Jordan Bates

    I’m with you (for the most part) on your thoughts on TV. I haven’t watched television for a couple years, though I’m not so quick to completely dismiss people who do. I agree that it can be a lot of mind-numbing drivel, but to label everyone who watches as “sheeple” may be going a touch too far.

    As we’ve agreed, telling people how to live is not something we’d like to do, and dismissing a certain hobby/interest seems akin to saying, “You should not live this way!” It’s another difficult topic, and it’s related to my reply to you on the post on David Foster Wallace. I want people to live however they’d like to live, but if that means that the world implodes while we’re watching re-runs of ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians’ then I’m not sure how I can be in favor.

    I think a problem is that these devices become so much a part of society that for most people, there is no choice. They become an obvious addition to domestic life, which is why, as you mentioned, people are appalled to find that someone wouldn’t own a TV. Ridiculous! When it reaches that point (of compulsion), it seems to me that the status quo hasn’t just told people how to live; it’s conditioned them so fully that they cannot help but live in a particular fashion, which seems to be quite nasty and reeks of dystopian control systems, etc. More difficult questions, few answers.

    All the best.

  • http://www.refinethemind.com/ Jordan Bates

    Thanks, Brandon! I’m such a fan of McKenna that I needed to share some of his ideas. And thanks for linking to the Psychedelic Salon. That’s where I’ve listened to some of Terence’s lectures. Cheers.

  • MRockatansky

    Features like this, directing interest and attention to ‘Terence McKenna’s perspective’ (i.e. ‘theorizing’ and ‘philosophy’ etc) abound on internet. Seems they mainly reflect his persisting influence and impact in ‘fringe communitarian’ subculture, the psychedelic movement, per se, and the ambiguities of his legacy and significance, socially and culturally. As TM said: “If psychedelics don’t secure a moral community … we’re just another cult.” That highlights questions I find in evidence, if through a glass darkly. As realized, one after another – they prove to be mainly questions of doubt (not faith). Even concern (not excitement). But amid lots of portentous-pronouncements, and generally intellectual sounding prattle – his trademark and product – I think he touched a key nerve in saying that. Never mind all that supposed genius – what is the moral foundation, the ethos of the TM subculture? Not that he was seriously posing that as a question. He framed it as a declarative rather than putting it up for discussion. Which goes, verify, right to the point itself, perhaps … and how he kind of passed over it in a hurry, as if on clear understanding implicit – We Are Moral, We Are Not A Cult. Sort of like protestething too much – in preemptive “perish the thought” fashion. Taking the lead, a good offense is the best defense (against anyone raising such question?)

    • http://www.refinethemind.com/ Jordan Bates

      MRockatansky,

      Thank you for the insightful comment. I think the continuing amount of attention paid to McKenna does reflect his persisting influence, but I wouldn’t necessarily limit it to those associated with psychedelia. I think McKenna’s reach was broader than that, though that was certainly his primary sphere of influence.

      I don’t necessarily feel like people are more missionary-like in their promotion of McKenna than, say, those who promote Alan Watts. Perhaps people more emphatically promote McKenna because he talked about so many things that seemed unique to him. And he said it all in such a Terence-esque way. Listening to him is an experience, even if you disagree with everything he says.

      You raise a fascinating question about the ethos of the TM subculture. My personal opinion? Terence and those who cared about his work stood for free inquiry and freedom to live in any way one wants, granted it’s not harming anyone. That was the core ethos. Perhaps this is just a baseless assumption I’m making. I don’t think McKenna was trying to avoid discussion on this point. I think everything he said was always open to questioning, but of course his lectures consisted mainly of exposition from him.

      For me, McKenna was always just explaining his ideas, and I think his doing so was a great service to humanity. The people who followed him were not being manipulated or brainwashed. They were just seeking answers of their own volition.

      • MRockatansky

        Thanks for your cordiality and clarity, Jordan. Over decades of encounter with folks who ‘followed him’ (as you forthrightly put it) something else completely different usually comes out to meet any questions of doubt not faith, about TM’s Perspective. I feel your comment does present some key points, potential seeds of vital inquiry – alas phrased not as questions, but answers, in “I think” idiom. Agreement to disagree, amicably close question not open, seems the best TM-inspiration has for the inquiring mind’s harder not softer questions. What sort of service to humanity, and how great, was TM’s ‘always just explaining’ his ‘ideas’ – or was it something else. To what extent if any, can we discover manipulation as a factor in the TM subculture? I (one guy) fin d myriad questions of critical import, that stand tall in evidence. But hasty answers in “here’s what I think” terms – before the questions even get asked, or critically clarified – seems customary and usual. As if to preclude dire answers that might emerge, by more critically probing exploration. There seems a fundamental incompatibility between TMism’s storyline – of a great service to humanity (not some pet cultic obsession of by and for psychedelia) – and ‘the scientific revolution’s legacy. “Nobody is smarter than you” and “Culture is not your friend” and – etc – transmits not so much a meaning (like, intellectual or ideational) as a signal (ideological, psychological): it comes out as a defiantly coy opposition to the ‘Enlightenment’ – the paradigm of W. Civilization’ as TM called it (meaning to ‘cast doubt upon’ it, via ‘consciously propaganda’ …). The greatest regret may be that perfectly intelligent people, who as you note, seek answers of their own volition – are no longer within reach of rational purpose, reasoned discussion – across wide, deep chasms of critical issues and theoretical questions. Points you touch eloquently – but, as I assume (please correct me Jordan) – only up for ‘softball’ discussion, in shared ‘wow’ terms. High regards, and acceptant regrets.

        • http://www.refinethemind.com/ Jordan Bates

          It’s too bad that you’ve encountered hostility from McKenna fans. Sorry if I answered in such a way as to preclude further inquiry. That wasn’t, and never is, my intent, but it’s difficult in a medium like this to know if the original commenter will reply (they rarely do). Also, alas, since I am the resident “expert” (rolls eyes) on my blog, I think I have a certain unconscious slant toward wanting to have an opinion, have a final answer, etc., even when I really don’t. Thanks for pointing that out. Unfortunately I’ll probably do more of that in the following response, as it’s the easiest way I know how to communicate.

          To my mind, anyone who peacefully and openly shares their ideas with the world is serving humanity in that most people don’t do that, and if everyone did (key word: peacefully), we could end war and instead focus on solving global crises (obviously quite an idealized sentiment). Hard to judge how “great” Terence’s service was, I guess: qualitative judgment. Personally I haven’t seen evidence of exploitation or manipulation in Terence’s subculture (I wouldn’t use those words at least). Some might consider a brilliant rhetorician (which perhaps we can agree he was) to be a brilliant manipulator, which I suppose to some extent they are, but ‘manipulator’ has some nasty connotations, and I don’t see how anyone can attract patrons, fans, etc. without some tight rhetoric, especially in a world where so many people are already thoroughly entrenched in various ideologies. I think McKenna understood that and knew he needed a “bag of tricks”, if you will.

          As far as science goes, Terence certainly wasn’t a hard scientist. I was interested to find that he was well-versed in several scientific fields, but he was also heavily influenced by scientific skepticism. I mostly see Terence as one of those thinkers who does some rather radical and imaginative things and thus gives a bunch of other people permission to do likewise. In such a rigid world, I seem to gravitate toward figures like that—people who suggest that we can actually just say “fuck everything, I’m going to do something totally different”. His ideas (some of which I certainly disagree with/am skeptical of) are, at least for me, less important than his status as a mythologized figure of counterculture, a smart dude who told people that to do things their own way wasn’t just okay—it was wonderful.

          I apologize if I’m losing your thread here and doing some rambling. I’m not trying to lay out the capital-T truth or close off discussion here or dismiss your questions. I think everything you’re saying is valid. McKenna was often a riddler. I’ve found a lot of his messages to be lucid, but I also think of him as a sort of trickster character who didn’t want to be fully understood—wanted to befuddle and culture-jam even his ‘followers’. He himself suggested many times that he should not be taken very seriously, that he wasn’t a guru, etc. Some of the TM ‘catch-phrases’, if I may, are tantalizing mantras that, I agree, seem so final and triumphantly phrased as to preclude inquiry, like he just wanted to hook people. And, I’m sure, to some extent, he did. I think he probably felt that gaining ‘followers’ was the best thing he could do to combat what he saw as a diseased civilization, but who can know what he really felt. A lot of his stuff may well be a sort of groovy-sounding pop-philosophy, but perhaps we need more ‘philosophers’ saying things that are intelligible to the everyman, if only to reveal to more people the importance/beauty of ‘philosophy’, almost how catchy pop songs in various music genres often serve as entrance points to the ‘better stuff’ that is only appreciated once the ear is refined. I don’t know.

          I’ve been writing this while reading through your comment and just got to the part where you mentioned ‘permission’. Ironic and perhaps telling that I said something very similar to the ‘he gives people permission to think’ thing, though for me the distinction lies in whether you were given permission to assimilate to Terence’s views or to question for yourself everything that you were told to believe. Also whether or not McKenna was The One who gave you permission or one of many. McKenna is one in a long line of figures/thinkers who I’ve felt have given me permission to live/inquire freely and in a way that is true to myself, and as I said, I disagree with and question many of McKenna’s ideas. But maybe I’m kidding myself. Maybe I eagerly assimilated many of his ideas as well and am unable to see that. I promise you I do not consider my opinions (any in these comments or the above article) to be case-closers. Thank you for this reality check on McKenna. Please do reply again if you’d like to continue/respond to what I’ve said.