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In The Absence Of The Sacred - The Failure of Technology & the Survival of the Indian Nations by Jerry Mander. Sierra Club Books, 730 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109, 1991; 446 pp., $14.00 (paper).
Food Of The Gods: The Search For The Original Tree Of Knowledge by Terence McKenna. Bantam Books, New York, 1992; 3336 pp., $14.95 (paper).
Mander Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)
Difficulty Level: 7 (out of 10)
Recommendation: Worth reading, although somewhat flawed
McKenna Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)
Difficulty Level: 8 (out of 10)
Recommendation: Worthwhile, especially for Terence fans
Does the loss of something "sacred" explain the mad march of history? If so, what might that sacred something be, and how might it be recovered?
At first glance, Jerry Mander's In The Absence Of The Sacred, and Terence McKenna's Food Of The Gods, may seem an unlikely dyad through which to explore these issues. While Mander, a senior fellow at San Francisco's Public Media Center and a former advertising executive, is best known for his Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, McKenna is a (perhaps the) leading spokesperson for the psychedelic and shamanic communities, and has written such books as The Invisible Landscape and Psilocybin: The Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide.
Despite these dissimilarities, a look at their new books reveals some important commonalities. First, both authors acknowledge that we are rapidly heading towards societal and planetary disaster, and that novel, large-scale, corrective measures are immediately required. Second, both are quite wary and critical of technology; for example, they both explicitly recognize that television is a powerful, damaging, mind-controlling narcotic (McKenna even lists Mander's Four Arguments book in his bibliography).
Third, they both have a deep reverence for the understanding and wisdom of native peoples. Mander asks us to reconnect with this wisdom through studying and calling upon the knowledge and traditions of the native peoples themselves, while McKenna calls for an "archaic revival" based on the ego-dissolving powers of psychedelic plants. These books are similar in a fourth and final way: they are both extremely important, although perhaps not ground-breaking, works. The import of Mander's work lies in his willingness to launch a head-on assault against the belief that "technology will ultimately save us,"and McKenna captivates our attention with his characteristically brilliant restatement of an argument that, to the extent it is true, completely confounds the Western mind's typical hysterical reaction to the "problem" of "drugs."
The great strength of Mander's book rests in his multi-level critique of technology. His examination of specific technologies (such as biotechnology, computers, and even nano-technology) and megatechnology (all-pervasive, computer-driven, globally encircling technology) is useful, but his real genius lies in his relentless attack against "technological idealism," --- the belief that ultimately technology will be able to save us and make our lives better. against the belief that ultimately technology will be able to save us and make our lives better. He points out that "we are now embedded in a system of perceptions that makes us blind and passive when it comes to technology," and that, like the deer staring into the headlights of the oncoming car, "we are hypnotized by the newness of the machine, dazzled by its flash and impressed with its promise. We do not have the instinct as yet to be fearful or to doubt."
Living in artificial environments better suited for autos and computers than people, we have been fooled by best-case scenarios, suckered into the belief that technology is neutral, tranquilized by technology's pervasiveness and invisibility, and led astray by the structural limitations of what any one person's perspective can reveal about this mega-monster. Never forget, he tells us, that the military, the corporations, and the governments are those who benefit most from technology, and that "In the face of this reality, to speak of computers helping you edit your copy or run your little business seems a little bit absurd." In short, we are the fish swimming inside the water of technology, unable to realize that technology has its own technique, its own logos, its own will to survive and multiply, and that we, as organic bipeds, may not be all that relevant to its plans.
What, then, does Mander suggest? That we trade in the modern techno-creed, "if it can be done, do it," for David Brower's dictum: "all technologies should be assumed guilty until proven innocent"; that we come up with a new, effective language with which to articulate our critiques of technology; and that we turn to the wisdom of native peoples throughout the globe, that is, to those human beings who are still in contact with the value and reality of our naturally-based lives. What we have lost is the "understanding that existed in all civilizations prior to ours, and that continues to exist on Earth today in societies that live side by side with our own . . . a sense of the sacredness of the natural world." By recognizing the wisdom of the native peoples, perhaps "the new skeptics and advocates of alternative paths [can] become prominent enough to be sufficiently heard, and to create a critical mass of public opinion."
The difficulty with Mander's book is that it attempts to do too much, and in doing so it fails to complete the obvious task that it seems to have for itself. Mander, in his passionate desire to break through the complacent and generally ignorant Western attitude towards native peoples (which he summarizes as "Indians Shmindians"), attempts to present a synopsis of everything that is known about the past and present status of native peoples. Although the links between the formation of the American political system and the Great Binding Law of the Iroquois Confederacy are fascinating, and although it is crucial to realize that native peoples had much better lives (with much more leisure) than we'd like to admit, it is simply too much for one volume to try to review so much about the past and present situation of native peoples throughout the globe.
With his effort spread so thin, it is no wonder that Mander is unable to connect his excellent critique of technology with his knowledge of native peoples to show just how their sacred wisdom can break through our hypnotized techno-mindset. While native peoples may have more contact with the sacred than Westerners generally do, Mander fails to convey exactly what this sacred knowledge is or how it might really be brought to bear. He points to an important source, but he does not bridge the gap between that source and our current predicament in a convincing and galvanizing way.
Somewhat strangely, Mander completely fails to mention the one source of sacred knowledge and inspiration that, to Terence McKenna, is incredibly obvious: naturally occurring plant psychedelics. McKenna tells us that "at the dawn of history we lost something precious, the absence of which has made us ill with narcissism. Only a recovery of the relationship that we evolved with nature through use of psychoactive plants before the fall into history offers us hope of a humane and open-ended future." Further, "once the centrality of the hallucinogen-mediated human-plant symbiosis in the scenario of our origins is understood, we are then in a position to appreciate our current state of neurosis." In short, "our breach of faith with the symbiotic relationship to the plant hallucinogens has made us susceptible to an ever-more neurotic response to each other and the world around us. Several thousand years of such bereavement have left us the nearly psychotic inheritors of a planet festering with the toxic by-products of scientific industrialism."
Although McKenna would probably accept most of Mander's critique of technology, he also wants to do something about it with the one "technology" he feels is capable of making a difference. Psychoactive plants, he says, have the unique ability to dissolve ego-structures and decondition the human mind. The entire structure of the "dominator culture" (a term McKenna consciously borrows from Riane Eisler) is based upon "our alienation from nature, from ourselves and from each other," an alienation which can be overcome with the use of these plants. It is the very power of these substances which explains why the Western mind turns suddenly anxious and repressive when contemplating "drugs": "Substance-induced changes in consciousness dramatically reveal the physical foundations of mental life. Psychoactive drugs thus challenge the Christian assumption of the inviolability and special ontological status of the soul. Similarly, for moderns, the ego and its inviolability and control structures are put at risk. In short, encounters with psychedelic plants throw into question the entire world view of the dominator culture."
What, then, does McKenna call for? McKenna is far from naive, and recognizes that "the 1960s proved that we are not wise enough to take the psychedelic tools into our hands without a social and intellectual transformation." Therefore, "this transformation must begin now and with each of us," and one of the first steps is that "the quality of rhetoric emanating from the psychedelic community must improve radically." Another constant theme of McKenna's is that the "psychedelic issue is a civil rights and civil liberties issue. It is an issue concerned with the most basic of human freedoms: religious practices and the privacy of the individual mind." For McKenna, then, the "propsychedelic position is most fundamentally threatening to the Establishment because when fully and logically through through, it is an antidrug, antiaddiction position. And make no mistake about it; the issue is drugs. How drugged shall you be. Or to put it another way, how conscious shall you be? Who shall be conscious? Who shall be unconscious?"
As McKenna reviews the entire history of human use of plants-as-drugs, from mushrooms and vines to sugar and coffee, he touches on fascinating points of botany, biology, anthropology, and economics. However, while it becomes clear that plants, especially psychoactive plants, have played a necessary role in the development of human consciousness, language, and society, it is by no means clear that they were sufficient to produce humanity as we know it.
This suggests that while the reintroduction of psychedelic plants may play a necessary role in solving humanity's current predicament, they would probably not be sufficient. McKenna's answer is a starting point in the recovery of the sacred, but it is not, by itself, enough. While psychedelic plants may, in fact, be reliable and extremely powerful tools for dissolving the conditioning of ordinarily dominator consciousness, perhaps there are other means that can be used in conjunction with or in substitution for them. Perhaps some explorers of psycho-transformational tools that are "drug" free, such as directed breathwork or virtual reality or cutting-edge forms of experiential therapy or group work, will make great breakthroughs that could set the stage for the reintroduction and legalization of psychedelic plants.
Jerry Mander, because his views are uncomfortably close to what is thought of as "Ludditism," is unlikely to be taken seriously by those who dominate the worldwide military-industrial complex, or by the average citizen who (according to Mander's own analysis) has been so thoroughly brainwashed. And Terence McKenna, because he has broached a taboo subject with single-minded laser-like intensity, will scare off all but the most intrepid. He merely wishes, perhaps, that others could see what he has seen, that is, the crucial role that psychedelic plants have played, and could still play, in humanity's development. Again, however, it seems unlikely that the type of societal openness that McKenna urges is likely to occur in the near future, especially in the United States.
The difficulty, then, is that while both of these thinkers present memes which forcefully cut against the dominant paradigm, memes which must be seriously explored and disseminated, neither offers a realistic program for integrating their insights into the current psycho-political framework in which we find ourselves. Nonetheless, both of these books are well-worth buying, reading, and contemplating.
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