Graham St John
Cultural vibeologist

Terence McKenna: Apocalyptic Poet and Raving Medium.

This presentation draws on research from my forthcoming biography Terence McKenna: The Strange Attractor (MIT Press). The underground rave scene of the early nineties sought its champions and there was no bard more willing, more vocal, and more weird, than Terence K. McKenna (1946-2000), a figure for whom acid house was a novelty signal in his forecasted apocalypse. A slate of collaborations with McKenna between 1991-93 – i.e. The Shamen, Space Time Continuum/Rose X and Zuvuya – had one feature in common. They featured performances of McKenna emulating the “elf chatter” that had poured out of him in trance states on Psilocybe mushrooms and DMT. Subsequently, electronic music producers mined the elven sprechen of this surreal psychopomp as if it were precious sonic ore. McKenna himself held that rather than “channelling” intelligible messages, the spontaneous emissions enabled him to uncover “the source of meaning before it is contextually located.”

This “translinguistic” notion took hold within psychedelic electronica, where McKenna’s mind became iconic for going out of one’s mind – a circumstance magnified in the fraught global present in which McKenna’s appeal remains undiminished. As digital alchemists sample from a vast archive of spoken word material to sculpt epic audio-narratives of dream travel, soul flight, and cosmic transit, McKenna’s voice became a medium of the unspeakable and a sonic template for the unknown. As his mellifluous voice retains appeal within psychedelic electronica two decades after his death, McKenna remains the voice of the apocalypse. As I will suggest, McKenna’s sampledelic apocalyptica has interwoven trajectories. First, the sampling evokes the “apocalypse” of the self, mind and culture that is the perennial desire of ecstatic dance movements. Second, McKenna’s raves are prolific in an era of accelerating crisis and uncertainty, a posthumous circumstance with uncanny echoes of his prophesied “Eschaton” and theory of novelty. As evident in psychedelic electronica, these transcendent strands are woven into a McKennaesque aesthetic.

Graham St John, PhD, is a cultural vibeologist specializing in transformational events, movements, and figures. Graham has authored ten book, including the forthcoming biography Terence McKenna: The Strange Attractor (MIT Press, 2023), as well as Mystery School in Hyperspace: A Cultural History of DMT (NAB/Evolver, 2015), Global Tribe: Technology, Spirituality and Psytrance (Equinox, 2012), Technomad: Global Raving Countercultures (Equinox, 2009) and the edited collection Rave Culture and Religion (Routledge 2004). Graham is founding Executive Editor of Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture, where he is currently co-guest editing the issue “Psychedelica and Electronica”. He has held postdoctoral fellowships in Australia, the U.S., Canada, Switzerland, and the UK, where is currently a Marie Curie Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Music and Design Arts at the University of Huddersfield.