Wednesday, June 20, 2007

a tranformative hierophany of integrated perception

A collection of talks, essays, and interviews by the late Terence McKenna, who was smarter than Timothy Leary and more sensible about the importance of psychedelics. Instead of advocating their use by every 18 year old on the planet, McKenna thought Huxley was right: give psilocybin to artists, philosophers, poets, and scientists and allow the influence of plant intelligences to germinate through the culture. Had McKenna and Leary switched degrees of influence, our plant teachers may still be legal in the US of A.

McKenna is quite entertaining because he advocates remarkably far-out imaginative hypothesizing, but filters the resultant radical production through a rather astute scientific mind. When he blasts his brain with yage he returns from his trip not to follow the Dead coast to coast but to try out new theories about the nature of time using fractal-generating computer programs. When he talks to an alien intelligence inhabiting stropharia cubensis, he dialogues with the likes of Francis Crick and James Lovelock to see if mushroom spores could indeed survive interstellar travel. When the mood strikes him he engages in clever speculation about John Dee and the true origins of the Voynich Manuscript. He's a lot like Robert Graves, who was also a brilliant thinker fond of wholly unconventional methods.

In a nutshell, McKenna believes psychoactive plants are intelligent races from either another planet or another dimension. It is their influence that turned us from scavaging monkeys into self-aware humans. He cites abundant research in making his claim, while acknowledging it's all speculation. His writing and manner of speech are quite clever, and even if you think he's gone round not just one but a half-dozen bends, he rarely fails to entertain.

Given that there are several interviews and talks included here, the occasional redundancies are forgivable. I believe this is the third of McKenna's books I've read, and I'll continue mining this vein.

In the book McKenna proposes an ideal evolution for language into a kind of visual three-dimensional form of speech. He uses the example of octopi. The following passage is not from the book, but it gives you the flavor of his style and range:

This is a segue from yesterday's discussion about visible language. The notion being that, well let me review what yesterday was about. It was about the idea that if we could see language, if language were a project of understanding that used the eyes for the extraction of meaning rather than the ears, that it would be a kind of telepathy. There would be both a fusion of the observer with the object observed, and with the person communicated with. The place in nature where something like this has actually evolved and occurred is in the cephalopods; the squid and the circoliveral (sp) octopii. These are animals that divided from the line of development that leads to human beings over six hundred million years ago. They're mollusks, they're related to escargot, it's an organism very different from ourselves. Nevertheless, one of the things that evolutionary biologists always talk about is the convergent evolution between the eyes of cephalopods and the eyes of higher mammals. This is because the cephalopods live in an extremely complex visual environment and in fact, they have evolved a form of communication that approximates this visible language that I'm talking about because these octopii have chromataphores all over the exterior of their bodies. Chromataphores are cells that can change color. Now many people know that octopii can change color but they think it's for camoflage, for blending in with the environment; this is not at all the case. The reason octopii change colors in a very large repatoire of stripes, dots, blushes, travelling shades and tonal shifts is because this is for them a channel of linguistic communication. In other words they don't transduce their linguistic intentionality into small mouth noises like we do. Small mouth noises which then move as sound across space in the form of vibrations of the air. Rather, they actually change their appearance in accordance with their linguistic intent. What this boils down to is they physically become their meaning, and one octopus observing another is watching the unfolding of internalized neurological states within the organism being reflected in color changes on the surface of the skin. Now these octopii not only can change their color because they're soft-bodied creatures. They can also change the texture of their surface from smooth to rugose and folded. They can also, because they're soft-bodied, fold and unfold and reveal and conceal, very rapidly, different parts of their body. So they're capable of a visual dance of communication that is an extremely dense kind of visual signal and in the so-called benthic octopii, the species that have evolved in very deep water where very little light reaches, they have evolved light-emitting phosphorescent organs, some of them with membranes like eyelids over them, so that even in the darkness of the abyssal depth of the ocean they can carry out this dance of light, self-enfoldment, color change and surface texture which is their linguistic style. In fact the only way an octopus can experience a private thought is to release a cloud of ink into the water into which it can retreat briefly and hide its mental nakedness from its followers. This kind of biologically intrinsic wiring into the potential of language is something that we may be able to mimic and achieve using psychedelic drugs as the inspiration for the direction given to a virtual reality development program. In other words we might be able to create kinds of visibly beheld syntax that would be the human equivalent of the dance of light, texture and positioning that constitutes the grammer and syntax of squids and octopii.

McKenna is part Slavoj Zizek, part John Zerzan, part Isaac Newton, part Krishnamurti. He's all fun.


Anonymous said...

Nice to have come across your blog! I was reading an essay of McKenna's online when I was reminded of a quote by Sarkozy. I consulted Google to find the Sarkozy quote and I found both McKenna and the Sarkozy quote on your blog, and the McKenna passage about octopi you quoted related to my paper journal in a way I found pretty eerie. I thought I ought to say hi, and here is my journal. I can't promise you'll find it as interesting as I have so far found your content.

geoff said...

I believe I was typing a comment at your site as you were typing a comment at mine. I saw your link on Technorati and followed it back.

Whitehead and McKenna will give you interesting avenues of exploration.

Anonymous said...

I'll be sure to pursue them. Interesting profile you have, by the way. We would probably get along.