Vital Materialism and Terence McKenna’s Archaic Revival

Tanner Howard
May 6, 2017 · 9 min read

Vital materialism is a philosophic concept that challenges our basic notions of subject and object, the familiar bounds by which we describe and interpret the world in its everyday actions. Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter is a clarion call for the need to embrace a radically redefined notion of agency and animism in our everyday environments, attenuating ourselves to the ways in which objects typically viewed as inert have a life of their own. She argues, “The ethical task at hand here is to cultivate the ability to discern nonhuman vitality, to become perceptually open to it.”[1] In opening ourselves to the liveliness of commonplace objects, manmade or not, Bennett hopes “to see how analyses of political events might change if we give the force of things more due.”[2]

Nobody captures the play and magic of such a philosophy of vital materialism better than Terence McKenna, the famed (and infamous) proponent of psychedelic substances. Over the course of a lifetime, McKenna explored the human relationship with the many psychedelic substances that inhabit our planet, and the ways in which these seemingly passive materials in fact offer entire worlds of their own. Following his own musings to a dramatic rereading of human history, McKenna’s book Food of the Gods deviates from the commonplace history of evolution. In its place, McKenna’s “Stoned Ape” theory suggests that much of the credit for human’s relative command over other creatures is in part due to the consciousness-expanding powers of the psilocybin mushroom. Absurd on its face, the Stoned Ape version of human progression is so alien to our basic notions of evolution as to render itself unbelievable.

But, understood in a vital materialist framework, and amidst the backdrop of climate catastrophe and earthly power described in Bruno Latour’s essay “Agency in the Time of the Anthropocene,” his vision assumes new meaning, given clarity by the expansive redefinition of what constitutes agential being. As a mere fungus, the psychedelic mushroom is remarkably capable of tearing open the bounds of consciousness in our species, a powerful source of understanding and imagination that has been essential to human culture, even before humans could conceptualize of themselves as such. It disrupts any attempt to grant rational humankind as the only nexus of understanding historical progress, instead distributing powerful action to the various substances that have been central to human societies into our prehistory.

From all of this, McKenna calls for an Archaic Revival to help humans understand the fundamental ground of their being, rooted in plants that have helped alter their consciousness for generations. Latour suggests that “To be a subject is not to act autonomously in front of an objective background, but to share agency with other subjects that have also lost their autonomy.”[3] To grant the psychedelic mushroom its own thing-power (in Bennett’s terminology) is to grasp the ways in which we are co-implicated in its success, understanding that, without its evolutionary assistance, we may not have advanced as far as we have as a species. By returning to a substance which once served to organize and mediate a harmonious relationship with nature, McKenna suggests that a mutually-knowing relationship between human and nature may reemerge, channeled through the radical agency of the hallucinogenic mushroom.

The Stoned Ape theory and the thing-power of mushrooms

At its core, McKenna’s Stoned Ape theory is rather straightforward: psilocybin mushrooms contain chemical properties that impact language-processing centers of the brain, aiding in the evolution of humans from their primate roots into today’s self-conscious species:

Our language-forming ability may have become active through the mutagenic influence of hallucinogens working directly on organelles that are concerned with the processing and generation of signals. These neural substructures are found in various portions of the brain, such as Broca’s area, that govern speech formation. In other words, opening the valve that limits consciousness forces utterance, almost as if the word is a concretion of meaning previously felt but left unarticulated. This active impulse to speak, the “going forth of the word,” is sensed and described in the cosmogonies of many peoples.[4]

Striking in its radical vision, McKenna’s account of psilocybin’s influence on human cognition restores action to the natural world and its influence on not only our tastes, but our minds. McKenna suggests evolution itself is a “you-are-what-you-eat story,” the act of “eating a plant or an animal … a way of claiming its power, a way of assimilating its magic to one’s self.”[5] As the mushroom has the means of stimulating the mind to greater understanding, it pushes cognition, both individually and collectively, through linguistic advancement, giving users “the incontrovertible impression that language possesses an objectified and visible dimension, which is ordinarily hidden from our awareness.” For prehistoric humans, still in the act of developing their linguistic capabilities, this could have been a crucial evolutionary transformation, fostering deeper communication between tribal members, as well as with the natural world.

McKenna builds on his theoretical account of the impact of psilocybin on human consciousness to construct an anthropological tale of human civilization based on its drug cultures. He argues that the emergence of alcohol-based societies created a mindset of domination and patriarchal violence, which destroyed more partnership-based societies geared around the collective use of psychedelic substances. He finds compelling examples of mushroom use in prehistoric imagery of shamanistic societies in Mesopotamia, the haunting image of a humanlike figure with a bee-shaped face, its limbs lined with mushrooms, evidence of the significance of an otherworldly presence brought to life by and through the fungus. He describes the story of Adam and Eve as “the story of a woman who is mistress of the magical plants,” and the banishment of humanity as the actions of a “spiteful and insecure Jehovah,” causing “a Goddess-oriented, partnership society [to be] thrown into disequilibrium.”[6] This analysis culminates in his account of the impact of alcohol, which came to replace ego-destroying psychedelics as the primary consciousness-modifying drug:

Dominator style hatred of women, general sexual ambivalence and anxiety, and alcohol culture conspired to create the peculiarly neurotic approach to sexuality that characterizes European civilization. Gone are the boundary-dissolving hallucinogenic orgies that diminished the ego of the individual and reasserted the values of the extended family and the tribe.[7]

Following these arguments, McKenna calls for humans to follow an Archaic Revival, to return to the values of the partnership society, as enacted through the use of psychedelic mushrooms. In this way, McKenna and Latour’s work harmonize: the desire to mediate a relationship with Earth itself, in a period of climactic transformation. We may read McKenna’s Archaic Revival as one attempt to enact Latour’s “crucial political task,” a quest to “distribute agency as far and in as differentiated a way as possible — until, that is, we have thoroughly lost any relation between those two concepts of object and subject that are no longer of any interest.”[8] McKenna goes so far to say that the mushroom could serve as a vehicle for earthly contact with the human species, a tool used not to modify the world around us, but to alter our understanding of our relationship to that world. Rather than a simple form of ceaseless competition fueling evolution, McKenna calls interspecies relations “an endless dance of diplomacy,” a task calling for advances in communication that can help “maximize mutual cooperation and mutual coordination of goals” between species sharing an environment.[9]

In this sense, the mushroom is reanimated as a communication vessel, an earthly tool to help humans dissolve a narrow-minded emphasis on human supremacy over the natural world. The mushroom exudes a self-evident vitalism, a vibrant energy that cannot be ignored. In her book Vibrant Matter, Bennett argues that “The philosophical project of naming where subjectivity begins and ends is too often bound up with fantasies of a human uniqueness in the eyes of God.” She continues, “The figure of an intrinsically inanimate matter may be one of the impediments to the emergence of more ecological and more materially sustainable modes of production and consumption.”[10] By understanding the power of the mushroom, and its unique capacity to aid in interpersonal and extra-species communication, we may move away from a narrowly-focused, ego-dominant way of being as a species. If indeed the mushroom is meant to mediate a relationship between humans and the natural world, Bennett’s vital materialism would take on even greater dimensions, this particular vibrant matter connecting us to our purpose on Earth. McKenna suggests as much when he says, “If the ego is not regularly and repeatedly dissolved in the unbounded hyperspace of the Transcendent Other, there will always be slow drift away from the sense of self as part of nature’s larger whole.”[11]

He describes the Archaic Revival as our “next evolutionary step,” a return to a “vegetable mind”: making this return “means trading the point of view of the egoistic dominator for the intuitional, feeling-toned understanding of the maternal matrix.” Through a widespread return to the values promoted by the mushroom and other psychedelic drugs, McKenna alerts us to the vitality of the substances that help to mediate our relationship to the earth and one another. No longer inert objects, consumed by us as active agents, we may understand McKenna’s vitalism as a means to “understanding of planetary purpose” severely lacking in our current moment of political and ecological crisis.[12]

Even as a McKenna fan, I understand that his arguments read at best as speculative, at worst as unintelligible. There’s a built-in absurdity to his work that is certainly somewhat of an acquired taste, something most prevalent in his many lectures, where his distinctive, playful voice carries forth his mysterious theories. But as someone who has found significant emotional and spiritual insight in the psychedelic experience, it is precisely McKenna’s otherworldliness that marks him as special, his willingness to break with conventional Western epistemologies and ontologies offering a sideways window into other possibilities. Through his idiosyncratic presence, McKenna’s ideas sought to dissolve the fabric of our taken-for-granted reality, just as psychedelic drugs themselves offer evidence to a vital energy that extends far beyond human control and everyday perception, still accessible to us in the consumption of a fungus that’s been with humans for millennia. McKenna saw the power of plant-life as a catalyst to break down established order, challenging humans to return to a state of being that may offer insight into the complex interrelations we are capable of achieving with the natural word. In Food of the Gods, Mckenna wrote:

Like sexuality, altered states of consciousness are taboo because they are consciously or unconsciously sensed to be entwined with the mysteries of our origin-with where we came from and how we got to be the way we are. Such experiences dissolve boundaries and threaten the order of the reigning patriarchy and the domination of society by the unreflecting expression of ego.

Amidst so much other political turmoil, bound up in histories of oppression that are so rooted as to appear inevitable, the looming, seemingly inexorable return of the Earth as its own agent, its destructive powers cycling further and further from human control, can create an undeniable sensation of hopelessness. Bruno Latour asks, “How can we simultaneously be part of such a long history, have such an important influence, and yet be so late in realizing what has happened and so utterly impotent in our attempts to fix it?”[13] Although the present and future horrors of climate change should give reason for deep pause, perhaps a fresh look at Terence McKenna and his vision for a renewed relationship with the natural world can provide us the possibility of a better future. With a fresh eye to the intersecting political and environmental catastrophes that now belie their long-gestating emergence, now seemingly beyond action or comprehension, McKenna’s particular articulation of Bennett’s vital materialism may be the absurd, incomprehensible, unimaginable solution to match this historical moment in kind.

[1] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2010), 14.

[2] Bennett, Vibrant Matter, viii.

[3] Bruno Latour, “Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene,” New Literary History 45, no. 1 (April 23, 2014): 1–18, doi:10.1353/nlh.2014.0003, 5.

[4] Terence McKenna, Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution, Reprint edition (New York: Bantam, 1993), 51.

[5] McKenna, Food of the Gods, 16.

[6] McKenna, Food of the Gods, 76.

[7] Ibid, 148.

[8] Latour, “Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene,” 15.

[9] McKenna, Food of the Gods, 40.

[10] Bennett, Vibrant Matter, ix

[11] McKenna, Food of the Gods, 52.

[12] McKenna, Food of the Gods, 92.

[13] Latour, “Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene,” 1.

Tanner Howard

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Chicagoan, current editorial intern at @inthesetimesmag. Recent grad @northwesternu, words in @jacobinmag, @chicago_reader, @nylonmag, @colorlines and more.