RogerBW's Blog

Neoreaction a Basilisk, Philip Sandifer 16 January 2018

2016 non-fiction. Sandifer writes about the alt-right, starting with the writings of three luminaries of neoreaction and in demolishing them wanders through a variety of strange places.

Note: this is the title both of the collection and of the first essay, which seems also to have been published separately.

Neoreaction a Basilisk

This is the main essay, about half the text, and I was expecting something fairly strange. I first came across Sandifer's writings via his Tardis Eruditorum posts, in which he attempted among other things to put Doctor Who (the original series) into its historical context, and expound that context, while writing reviews. Sandifer is an enthusiastic Marxist and post-modernist who apparently thinks that Alan Moore is the Best Thing Ever (but probably hasn't done as many drugs as Moore); he's happy to branch off into practically anything, but particularly likes magical alchemy. He doesn't always manage even to be entertaining, never mind coherent, but he does at least always have something to say.

Let us assume that we are fucked.

So he begins, not with "these are clearly horrible human beings", but with a taxonomy of responses to the coming end of the human era: to ignore it, to try to put it off, or to do something that is (for purposes of the essay) more interesting. He's engaging with his targets within the world-views they claim to espouse, and breaking their arguments on their own terms.

The three particular targets are Eliezer Yudkowsky of LessWrong, "Mencius Moldbug" (Curtis Yarvin), and Nick Land. The primary sources for all of them are their writing, though their backgrounds are also considered.

Just as we approached the premises of Roko's Basilisk with an eye towards understanding what purpose they served, let us approach the question of what sort of error Yudkowsky is fleeing from a pragmatic standpoint. As with most things regarding Yudkowsky, it is worth recalling that he is an autodidact who was manifestly ill-suited to the American education system. I will admit that I was merely the bright kid who annoyed his teachers a fair amount, but I can still speak with some authority and say that the overwhelmingly characteristic experience of this state of affairs is the experience of being furiously, impotently aware that someone with power over you is massively and fundamentally wrong about something.

It's a comprehensive hatchet-job, of course; that's the purpose of the essay. But it is also a fascinating look at the precursors of neoreactionary thought, alternatives to it, and the blind spots of its proponents. For example, in the same way many American Evangelicals don't realise that their objections to authoritarian government are not because it is temporal power but because it's not the right temporal power, the neoreactionary claims that the ideal system is one where everyone must submit to the boss or leave, and complains that the current system requires him to submit or leave, but never quite works out that on this basis he's already got what he's asking for except for the identity of the boss.

Some styles of criticism like to read things into a text, and about the author of the text, by looking at what's left out. It's a hard trick to pull off, and easy to parody. Sandifer has here the only example of this I've ever seen done really well: why doesn't Mencius Moldbug, who decries all progressivist thinking as the ultimate evil, ever mention Marxism as anything other than a very minor side note?

Over and over again, Moldbug asks questions much like those that Marx asked, and his answers begin with many of the same initial observations. But inevitably, a few steps in, he makes some ridiculously broad generalization or fails to consider some obvious alternative possibility, and the train of thought fizzles into characteristic idiocy.

This essay takes a wide-ranging approach, dealing with Thomas Ligotti and a pleasingly fantastic excursion into Blake's visionary poetry. Like so much of post-modernism, the objective is not particularly to make sense but to point out where other things don't.

And there is one particular point which I very much admire. Assume that the brain can be simulated by a Turing machine; there's no real evidence against this, and it seems plausible. Then it is subject to the halting problem.

It is the realization that there is no way to tell if there's a way out of any given intellectual labyrinth when you're in it. That any train of thought could be not even a dead end, but a fool's errand, constantly giving the impression that it is going somewhere without ever resolving. That there is no such thing as knowing that you're onto something. This is not a debilitating problem (unless of course it is), but it is irreducible - a hideous truth manifested out of the raw idealism of mathematics itself.

There's no sign of Vox Day or pick-up artists here (later essays mention them in passing); this is an attack on the philosophical core of neoreaction, not on what people choose to do using it as an excuse.

The text isn't hard to read; it's not using the easy obscurantist techniques of merely being opaque. Instead, it presents ideas clearly and plainly and asks that you think about them.

The Blind All-Seeing Eye of Gamergate

This is the essay that deals most with Vox Day (I gather that Guided By the Beauty of Our Weapons goes into the Puppies in more detail), but it mostly spends its time marvelling at the apparent pointlessness of the whole Gamergate business, and the overt and admitted uses that the guiding spirits put it to (recruitment to white nationalist groups).

What's striking is simply the fact that nobody commits such finely worked, labored over cruelty out of anything other than raw and searing hatred. (I should know.)

Theses on a President

Thoughts about the history, careers and expressed personality of Donald Trump, without ever mentioning his name.

No Law for the Lions and Many Laws for the Oxen is Liberty: A Subjective Calculation of the Value of the Austrian School

This goes into some detail about the arguments between Austrian-school economics and Marxist ditto, but never spreads far beyond that – for example the way that there's clearly a strong overlap in beliefs between this and Randian objectivism.

Perhaps it just couldn't let go of the idea that someone had found a thread that, if pulled, would cause the revolutionary core of Marx's entire critique to unravel. Sadly, for them, Marx had actually used the thread to find his way through the labyrinth, and pulling on it only lets the monster back out.

Lizard People, Dear Reader

Yes, the second most interesting essay here is about a man who claims that the world is run by lizards in human guise.

But while Icke is easy to laugh at, it's worth taking him seriously too, partially because what he offers has a genuine sinister streak and partially because the tendency to treat him purely as a source of amusement obscures the fact that there is actually a clear trajectory of thought that led Icke to the reptoid hypothesis. Not one, to be clear, that makes a goddamn bit of sense, nor one that actually goes anywhere, but one that is intelligible in its non-sense, with each new batshit idea building on the ones before.

A really excellent point falls out of looking at why Icke's theories haven't become more popular: they have nowhere to go from the big premise. When you believe that lots of important people are secretly space lizards… then what? What's the call to action? When every question is answered with "They want it that way, and They aere super-powerful", what can you call on people to do? Apart from buying your books, obviously.

My Vagina is Haunted: Notes on TERFs

This is another essay lacking in connections. By focusing on trans-exclusionary radical feminism Sandifer ignores other sorts of radical feminism, and while doing the usual solid job of pointing out inconsistencies and contraditions in the position does I think miss what one might regard as the one interesting point of (some of) the TERFs: that one useful aspect of a "women-only" space or event might be the common experience of having lived as a girl and woman in a highly sex-asymmetrical society, and that therefore one might reasonably wish to have a basis for excluding people who hadn't had that experience. I tend to think, probably naïvely, that one answer is to eliminate sex distinctions wherever possible, so that someone's sexual identity (including presentational, subjective, anatomical or genetic gender) becomes regarded as primarily their own business rather than a way to sort them into toilets or conferences. (Any safeguarding of morals that such sorting might once have provided has in any case gone away since it became illegal to kill people for being homosexual.)

Zero to Zero: A Final Spin Around the Shuddering Abyss at the Heart of All Things

The last essay looks at Robert Mercer and (mostly) Peter Thiel, two of the money men backing the alt-right, and considers that, really, they aren't doing a particularly great job of having a coherent philosophical position either.

The first essay is obviously the meat of the book, but the rest has plenty of interest to say too. Highly recommended.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 09:16pm on 16 January 2018

    You know I was about to write an upbeat cheerful essay about the nitpickers on the Internet.

    And then you have to recommend this to me.

    Well, at least I'll be in the right frame of mind for the CoC gig at the end of the month.

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