Loving the Cyborg and the Mushroom


Two things:  Terence Mckenna’s insistence on the human desire to “shed the monkey body”  always scared me and then paradoxically  the cybernetically enhanced Borg of  Star Trek always seemed rather sexy.

Early one morning as I trawled fakecrack I found a friend’s post: an O’Reilly webcast by Amber Case entitled “Cyborg Anthropology: A Short Introduction”. Anthropology’s subject matter has leapt a paradigm since I sat in Joel Kahn’s class watching him smoke a million cigs as I tried to grasp his Marxist analysis of pre-capitalist states but I’ve never stopped being fascinated by the discipline’s theoretic overlay: the attempt to look, without ethnocentric bias, at human societies through a pseudo- philosophical/scientific lens, identifying social phemonena and describing cultural production protocols.  Nowadays cyborg anthropologists are looking at us human cyborgs, those of us (and that’s most of us) who are organisms, “to which exogenous components have been added for the purpose of adapting to new environments.”

As far back as 1941 at the inaugural Macy Conference, cultural theorists, including luminaries like Margaret Mead, discussed the potential impact of evolving technology on cultural reality.

Fast forward to 2010  where our cyborgian reality has developed to consume many of our conscious hours interacting through our exogenous devices, not just for work but also for play. Admittedly we are low-tech cyborgs, most of us are not permanently augmented by our technology- although  many smart phone users seem unwilling  to relinquish the close physical companionship of their hand-held devices. In 1985 in an eerie and precocious essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto,”  Donna Haraway wrote that as “hybrids of machine and organism” we were creatures of both fictive and lived social reality.

This rings very true in regard to online social networking  which is reaching endemic proportions in western society and let me make this quite clear — cyberspace connectivity is intrinsically different to our previous social pathways. Cyborg anthropologists theorize that online we create a “second self”, this is an identity generated in relation to others: if our body in virtual space is appealing to others they will approve and give our second self  “gravity”, for example a status update on Facebook which is “liked” by many increases gravity while being “de-friended” takes away from gravitational credibility. In cyberspace we sample ourselves and the bytes that we report are the ones which shape our identity. We consider our social networking to be useful for promoting ourselves and seek to appeal in our network, this means that we often make decisions not to articulate negative, contentious or questionable items which might also be described as personal truths.  Research from Intel suggests that current social networking protocols don’t often initiate successful new relationships but rather make those relationships  which already exist more visible. This visibility can become problematic, being peer-judged for the opinions of one’s  ‘second self’ might also impact your social reality in the offline world. I feel lucky that I’ve made one new friend through social networking,  I saw his comments on a mutual friend’s page & sent a request to be friended,  this positively counters my overwhelming personal trend of  getting turned off by network personas . Online our second selves are immature and tendencies toward discrimination, passive-aggressiveness and narcissism are often inadvertently exposed or created through sloppy memes, either way the outcome is as obnoxious  as halitosis in real-time.

I hear people offering up the platitude, “Facebook isn’t real” but I utterly disagree, it is hyperreal and what goes down on social networks can have grave implications: fifteen year old Phoebe Prince  killed herself last year after being harassed and abused on Facebook. Personally I feel that my second self and I are still very much conjoined and I don’t like exposure to haters on any platform. When I start to feel uncomfortable with an online friend I “hide” them and try and win a little distance back, after all, we have never been in such a high order of inter-connectivity as a species and while  most people are attractive at some distance, magnified and unedited they often become less appealing.  This kind of social interaction seems distorting and dangerous, the time-honored offline social etiquette which formerly mediated our social relationships is being thrown aside and emerging protocols are not yet beta-tested. Our lives online exist in an ocean of interactive sensations: ideas about time and space (we think nothing  of having multiple simultaneous conversations in different time zones), production of value (ever felt overwhelmed by opportunities to add more 99 cent apps?) social punctuation (like texting in company) or ambient online intimacy (the heady sensation of the collective now).  Offline life is changed by our increased connectivity too, public space now becomes private space when you are chatting on your mobile and places themselves can become “non-places” if we don’t have enough meaning invested in the location.

Fellow cyborgs, are we having fun yet?

It seems that we are amused and often we are engrossed: my husband’s recent edict that our house will go offline at weekends was met with a teen cyborg mutiny. We will not give up our technologically enhanced state of being but we owe it to ourselves to work on understanding what it is that we are doing and what it is we really want to do.

Terence McKenna believed that our species is evolutionarily longing for the Other – we yearn for the unseen mystery of the universe and alien playmates in particular. Our loneliness is as vast as infinity, as Heidigger  described so poignantly, “cast into matter, alone in the universe.” Connecting with each other’s second selves  24/7  helps us to feel better, we hum along to Kraftwerk’s gorgeous Computer Love while we look to artificially extend our ability to reach out into space.

McKenna’s search went off at a tangent into inner space exploration,  a place both vilified and sidelined for the last two thousand years of western culture, designated as the eccentric preserve of religious mystics. As an ethno-botanist studying plant-based shamanism McKenna researched psilocybin and became acquainted with the Other, which he calls the voice of the Logos. Psychedelic mushroom spores like stropharia cubensis can survive the harsh conditions of outer space and thus McKenna thought that maybe they came to us from distant worlds. When humans interact with the mushroom, the Logos communicates with us, drawing back the veils of dimensionality and revealing other realities, this ecstatic experience is fearful and generally undertaken by shamen, wise ones who can deal with this huge unchartered territory.  The historical importance of psychedelics has not yet been acknowledged, McKenna’s theory of human evolution into language through psilocybin use in early societies is regarded as renegade by  most academics. Times are a changing though: breaking news in the mainstream media this week tells us medical research into the treatment of  depressed, anxious, post-traumatic and dying with psychedelics is yielding positive results.   Lucky for us that adventurous McKenna and the Logos had an open bandwidth and his awareness as a scientist and theorist has enabled him to communicate the ideas and perspectives of the Other to us timid creatures in our empirically restrained culture.

In 1987 McKenna spoke of an emerging zeitgeist of hyperspace- he knew that electronic culture would add a dimension that would reverberate through our culture at every level and he saw our 21st century hyperdimensional collectivity coming. When I read Gibson, Dick, Vonnegut and M. T. Anderson  I can imagine the endgame of humanity as we know it. McKenna considered that first Neolithic age, imbued with the psilocybin experience had provided us with the essential tools which brought us to this point, and for him the re-emergence of the mushroom in contemporary times was the second Neolithic Age, the Archaic Revival: our chance to look through the hyperdimensional lens again. This opportunity could slip away from us he warned if we become too enmeshed in a hypertechnological dominator scenario.

Anderson’s  Feed is a futuristic tale of teenage cyborg-humans who have internet implants embedded borg-style in their brains, their software updates them constantly on what to buy, where to get it and who has already got it. This hypertechnological wasteland is highly imaginable and ultimately terrifying especially to those of us who seek the interconnected flipside trajectory for  our species.

It’s just a brilliant psychedelic idea that we can look out and the Other can look in when we commune with psilocybin. The fact that psilocybin  is part of our intrinsic brain chemistry should help us  little techno-monkeys understand that the mushroom  experience is valid. The dimensional envelope is awesome but like our ancestors who would have feared the wormhole of space and time that the telephone represents we stand like Tolkien’s hobbits at the border of the Shire, total scaredy cats. It is frightening to imagine the potentialities of the universe and thats reassuring: we only truly fear the real.

Amber Case “Cyborg Anthropology: A Short Introduction” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCvMWZePS8E

Donna Haraway “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology & Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” Socialist Review, 1985

Marc Auge “Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity” 1995

Terence McKenna ” The Archaic Revival” HarperSanFrancisco, 1991

M.T. Anderson “Feed” Candlewick Press, 2002

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6 Responses to Loving the Cyborg and the Mushroom

  1. Richard Weiss says:

    Interesting thoughts Billee.
    “”as “hybrids of machine and organism” we were creatures of both fictive and lived social reality.”” Where do we stop and the “hive’ begins.

  2. Billee Sharp says:

    yeh Rich, i listened to Amber’s presentation many times over- all that stuff about panic architecture, pretty fascinating. Probs the hive starts where the ego dissolves, might be a while! bx

  3. bredstik says:

    our egos will take a loooong time to disappear.

  4. jesse says:

    Hearing McKenna speak in Orange, California was like opening a bandwidth to another dimension. That dimension resonates here.

    Remember the ape never cut the grass….

    Jesse

  5. rachel says:

    My reality is a bit toxic stress at the moment, with lurid imaginings of stress as a singular and collective force of environmental disease. I could use some neo-neolithic ‘shrooms. Thanks Billee. I loved to read that….

  6. Amber Case says:

    Thank you so much for a well-written, considerate article! I’m extremely pleased that this blog’s entries are Creative Commons, as I’ll be adding this article, with attribution, to http://cyborganthropology.com.

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