Philip Sandifer - By a wide margin the best thing anyone has written on Nick Land, the alt-right, etc. A work of theoretical philosophy about the tentacled computer gods at the end of the universe. It is a horror novel written in the form of a lengthy Internet comment. A savage journey to the heart of the present eschaton
Philip Sandifer, Neoreaction a Basilisk: Essays on and Around the Alt-Right, Eruditorum Press, 2017.
Eruditorum Press is pleased to announce the publication of Neoreaction a Basilisk, a new collection of seven essays about the alt-right and the end of the world. A book of insane philosophy for our insane world, Neoreaction a Basilisk asks what the left can and should do in the face of literally apocalyptic defeats. Equal parts menacing horror philosophy and snarky humor, Neoreaction a Basilisk is less a roller coaster ride than a runaway train plummeting straight off a cliff and into a strange and tenebrous abyss beyond human comprehension. While making fun of right-wing assholes. And Eliezer Yudkowsky. In other words, exactly the book you need to make sense of 2017.
A software engineer sets out to design a new political ideology, and ends up concluding that the Stewart Dynasty should be reinstated. A cult receives disturbing messages from the future, where the artificial intelligence they worship is displeased with them. A philosopher suffers a mental breakdown and retreats to China, where he finds the terrifying abyss at the heart of modern liberalism.
Are these omens of the end times, or just nerds getting up to stupid hijinks? Por que no los dos!
Neoreaction a Basilisk is a savage journey into the black heart of our present eschaton. We're all going to die, and probably horribly. But at least we can laugh at how completely ridiculous it is to be killed by a bunch of frog-worshiping manchildren.
Featuring essays on:
* Tentacled computer gods at the end of the universe
* Deranged internet trolls who believe women playing video games will end western civilization
* The black mass in which the President of the United States sacrificed his name
* Fringe economists who believe it's immoral for the government to prevent an asteroid from hitting the Earth
* The cabal of lizard people who run the world
* How to become a monster that haunts the future
* Why infusing the blood of teenagers for eternal youth is bad and stupid
On the ugly fringes of the Internet lurks the future of far-right jerks. They are called “neoreactionaries” or, more fancifully, the “Dark Enlightenment,” a term coined by Nick Land, an expatriate British exacademic philosopher cyberpunk horror writer whose unexpected turn towards far-right politics electrified a bunch of people on Reddit. He was inspired by the works of Mencius Moldbug, a pseudonymous blogger famed for calling for Steve Jobs to be made king of California and tasked with maximizing profit for the state, and also for claiming that black people make good slaves. Moldbug is more usually known as Curtis Yarvin, a Bay Area software engineer who got his start as a writer in the comment section of Overcoming Bias, a transhumanist blog featuring, among others, the work of Eliezer Yudkowsky, a crank AI scholar who thinks preventing his ideas for sci-fi novels from becoming reality is more important than preventing malaria, and who freaked out once when a computer program from the future threatened to hurt him. The confluence of these facts may or may not be the doom of humanity. And just wait til we work in Thomas Ligotti, Alan Turing, William Blake, Frantz Fanon, China Miéville, and Hannibal Lecter.
Neoreaction a Basilisk is a work of theoretical philosophy about the tentacled computer gods at the end of the universe. It is a horror novel written in the form of a lengthy Internet comment. A savage journey to the heart of the present eschaton. A Dear John letter to western civilization written from the garden of madman philosophers. A textual labyrinth winding towards a monster that I promise will not turn out to be ourselves all along or any crap like that.
Accidentally composed by acclaimed cultural critic Philip Sandifer (TARDIS Eruditorum, The Last War in Albion) it is initially only available in limited and 100% Kickstarter-exclusive editions. And what happens to it after that is basically up to you.
Want to know even more about the book? Well, I've posted five excerpts on my blog.
The Blind, All-Seeing Eye of Gamergate PREVIEW OF THE ESSAY
A look at the strange, furiously torturous circles of logic that constitute the bulk of Gamergate, their paranoid scale, and their relationship to the aggressively faceless anonymity of chan culture. From Vox Day to Vivian James, a look at Gamergate in the tradition of “Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons.”
Theses on Trump PREVIEW OF THE ESSAY
Because every leftist critic’s got to have a Trump piece, my humble contribution to the genre. The sort of think-piece that notes, “he likes his women like he likes his buildings: big and decorated in gold.” And that’s still only the fourth thesis.
Austrian School Economics (guest starring Jack Graham) - DISCUSSION OF THE ESSAY
Come on. You know you want me and Jack Graham doing an analysis of the economic philosophy of Ted Cruz. Seriously, this is great stuff - a school of economics heavily influential in libertarian thought that rejects the applicability of empiricism and math to economics in favor of a textual argument from first principles in which all of economic thought is a series of necessary implications of the allegedly self-evident premise “individual people act.” And people who believe this have the gall to sneer at Marxism.- https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2027287602/neoreaction-a-basilisk
Review is of the conspiracy zine edition from last year. This version has MORE content and has been through an additional round of edits, so it's probably even better :)
Let’s start by admitting I’m out of my depth here. According to the Kickstarter that funded this book, “Neoreaction a Basilisk is a work of theoretical philosophy about the tentacled computer gods at the end of the universe.” To say I am under qualified to talk about this book would be somewhat of an understatement. On the other hand, the KS also describes this book as “A book of horror philosophy about the end of the world, the alt-right, and an AI from the future that wants to torture you. Yes, you.” Which is the sound of the train slowing down just enough for me to risk jumping on board, I guess, though there’s every chance I will go kersplat in the attempt.
Still, let’s risk it.
I’m familiar with Dr. Sandifer’s work via his TARDIS Eruditorum blog, primarily - a project that watched every single Doctor Who TV story in existence, in order, and wrote about them, though it also encompassed far more than that - in fact, it told the history of British culture from 1963 to the present with Doctor Who as it’s chosen lens, basically. And as a Who fan, that’s always going to be catnip to me, basically. Sandifer covers, as you might fairly expect, a lot of ground in that project, but for my money, his writing was never finer, sharper, or more insightful than when he was taking on the subject of bullies.
Dr Sandifer really, really doesn’t like bullies.
Take, for example, this piece on Mary Whitehouse - in my opinion, the most brilliant and concise response to that campaigner, and the movements she represented, of any I’ve seen before or since. Notice too that this hits on an area of writing I will always find powerful - a fusion of the utterly and deeply personal with an understanding of wider political context and structures, and how the two relate. Also, anger. Because in the context of writing, anger is a gift.
So it may not come as a galloping shock to discover that Dr. S is also not a big fan of the Rabid Puppies hijacking of the Hugos. Because, well, bullies. To that end, he’s written what I again consider to be the best single post on this matter last year, in an essay called ‘Guided By The Beauty Of Their Weapons’ which I named as my non-fiction essay of 2015. And he’s since demolished Rabid Puppy founder Vox Day in a one on one debate concerning the relative merits of John C. Wright’s ‘One Bright Star To Guide Them’ and Iain Banks ‘The Wasp Factory', with Dr. S having the admittedly easier task of arguing in support of the book that isn’t god-awful (which, good job selling Vox on that).
Sidebar: To my mind the most telling exchange in that debate comes when, in the context of discussing notions of skepticism as relates to religious ‘truths’ Mr. Day says, with an apparently straight face ‘But Phil, you shouldn’t be skeptical about 2 + 2, should you?’. It’s a moment of such gobsmacking stupidity that Dr. S can be heard audibly floundering for a response, and I tragically cannot be heard yelling at the top of my lungs ‘you can be skeptical as you like about 2 + 2, and IT STILL WORKS! That’s the point of an ACTUAL truth, you idiot!’. I’m sure you had your own reason why that was a mind numbingly stupid statement, of course. You kind of have to admire an ability to be wrong on that many levels with that few words.
Anyhow, between the essay and subsequent podcast debate, Dr. S was well and truly on the radar of some fairly objectionable people - GamerGaters, Rabid Puppies, and the hulking trolls of the alt right and neoreaction in general. Whilst Guided By The Beauty Of Their Weapons eventually made it into book form as part of an essay collection at the end of 2015, I’d always suspected the alt right might be a subject Dr. S would return to, given his personal and political opposition to everything they stand for.
Which leads us, a mere 650 words after I began, to Neoreaction A Basilisk.
And the first thing to note is that Vox and the Puppies are entirely absent from this book. I mean, if you’re familiar with the arguments, and with Vox’s backstory, there’s a couple of deep-cut references that will raise a smile, but that’s not the primary focus of the book. Rather the book focuses on the writers and thinkers that Dr. S identifies as the key intellectuals behind the current Alt Right philosophy: namely, Nick Land, Mencius Moldbug, and Eliezer Yudkowsky (the latter, just to be clear, emphatically not an alt.right thinker, but whose work heavily influenced the thinking of the other two).
So, critical disclaimer time: I’m not familiar with any of the source material here at all. This review will not speak to the veracity of the claims Dr. S makes about these thinkers. It can’t. I can’t. I don’t know. If you have a view on that, fine, and feel free to write in, but understand that I will not have a clue what you are talking about and won’t be able to make a determination either way as to the veracity of either your claims or Sandifer’s.
Of course, there’s a way in which that makes me, if not an ideal reader, at least firmly part of the intended target audience. Dr S has repeatedly stated that you don’t need to know the source material in order to enjoy the book, and indeed has repeatedly advised against reading Moldbug, as it’s (in Sandifer’s opinion) irredeemably awful writing (which, on the strength of the provided excerpts, I’d be inclined to believe him on).
What this book is - or at least, appeared to me to be at first - is a takedown of the alt.right based on the philosophy that you shouldn’t attack your enemy where he is weakest (like, say, at the point of some third-rate-thinker-if-first-rate-self-publicist like Vox Day) but instead go to where he is strongest, the intellectual bedrock, and start there. Again, I can’t speak to whether or not these chosen thinkers fit that bill, but the extracted arguments certainly indicate a level of thought that your average VD type is simply incapable of reaching.
What Dr. S then does is deploy other, existing thinkers/modes of approach to demonstrate the weaknesses inherent in each of the founding principles of these philosophies. If that sentence just gave you a headache, honestly, I don’t blame you - it’s giving me one, and I wrote it. But here’s the thing - it bloody works. Dr. S has an amazing gift for rendering complex and sophisticated arguments and propositions in an immediately readable and understandable way, deploying metaphor, unpacking terminology, and adding humor to expert effect. You really don’t need to know anything about philosophy (I basically don’t) to not just follow the conversation, but be entertained by it.
And of course, he also employs horror philosophy as part of his argument, which is why we're talking about this book here. Specifically, he talks about Hannibalism (which attempts to construct a working philosophical approach based on a close read of the recent three season run of ‘Hannibal’, which is as deliciously deranged as you’d expect) and the work of Thomas Ligotti, especially his non-fiction book ‘The Conspiracy Against The Human Race’, which if you’re anything like me you’ll know about primarily because all the best lines that Matthew Mcconaughey’s character Rust Cohle had in True Detective season 1 got ripped off from there (and if you already knew that, more power to you).
It’s dense, literate, intelligent stuff, but I reiterate it’s also brilliantly readable. Even when he goes into his inevitable Blake riff (Dr. S is a huge Blake fan, and it’s something of an in-joke at this point that any project of any size he writes about will end up having a Blake section), the explanations and inferences are crystal clear, and it all serves the overarching thrust of the piece. Similarly, his deployment of Ligotti vs. Land I found genuinely unnerving, as the scale and depth of Ligotti’s nihilism threatens to overwhelm not just Land, but everything else, too.
As to the wider horror context, it’s like this: The alt.right scare me. Gamergate as a movement troubles me. Vox Day doesn’t scare me… but the fact that he and his little gang have kids definitely does. Tribal hatreds are viral in nature, transmitted across generations, and while I’d argue our societal immune systems have never been stronger than they are right now, the fact remains these strains are still stubborn and pervasive. I’ll never not be a free speecher, but equally I therefore see it as an obligation to exercise free speech against toxic ideas and arguments. To, not to put too fine a point on it, argue with and against bullies.
This is my design, be it ever so humble and flawed and compromised.
So the notion of a book that attacks the foundational texts of those movements, and even more, in part deploys horror fiction and philosophy to do it was always going to appeal to me. And for my money, Dr. S is always at his best when he is employing his considerable intellect, powers of argument, and yes, most of all his passionate anger, in the service of delivering bullies an intellectual kicking.
Ultimately though, that ends up not being precisely what this book is about. Or at least not the full scope of it. And I have to be honest, the end of the piece plain got away from me, as I suspected it might (as, I further suspect, it may even have been intended to). Kersplat, in other words.
But what a damn ride!
So in closing, if this has piqued your interest, I feel pretty safe in saying this is probably something you need in your life. It’s an exhilarating, intellectually stimulating, and yeah, disturbing read. - on amazon.com
Due diligence: I'm friends with the author, a backer of both this book's Kickstarter and his Patreon, and received the book through those channels.
That out of the way: this book is properly brilliant. Perhaps the best testament to its brilliance is that I've tried three times to express how brilliant it is and ended up a couple paragraphs into an inadequate summary of the first essay before I deleted my review and started over.
This is a book full of monsters--philosophical horrors that represent the degree to which the worst ideas of the worst people are strangling our world in their tentacles, with each essay explores a different branch of this theme, one of the tentacles of the skulltopus. One by one, it looks at technophiliac white supremacists, nihilistically misogynistic gamers, Trump, anarcho-capitalist authoritarians, conspiracy theorists, transphobic second-wave feminists, and Peter Thiel, exploring their ideas (or, in the case of Trump, who doesn't seem to have any, the psychic landscape of New York that spawned him) and seeking the monsters within.
But this is not simply a litany of all the ways in which terrible people are terrible. Instead, Sandifer repeatedly gives his subjects the opportunity to hang themselves by their own ropes, and shows how inevitably they do; ultimately, all seven topics are haunted by what Sandifer calls "basilisks," ideas from which they flee but which they can never escape. In this, Sandifer borrows the name from Roko's basilisk, a frankly hilarious incident in which a community of AI cranks accidentally reinvented Pascal's wager and terrified themselves with it; the concept itself, however, he accredits to Eugene Thacker's observations on the relationship between philosophy and horror.
Along the way are typically Sandiferian delights. As always, his ability to sensitively elucidate the bizarre thought processes of utter cranks is without peer; the first essay in particular is impressive in this regard, as it is constructed as a widening spiral through the thoughts of AI crank and Harry Potter fanfiction author Eliezer Yudkowsky, political crank and designer of questionable software Curtis Yarvin (a.k.a Mencius Moldbug), and drug-addled philosophy crank Nick Land. Throughout, one gets the feeling that Sandifer is going out of his way to be kind to his subjects, but it is not because they deserve it; instead it is to give them plenty of rope with which to hang themselves. The three ultimately come across, respectively, as a well-meaning crank who'd be harmless if not for the people listening to him, an utterly despicable human being, and a fascinating train wreck. The fifth essay is also a delight along these lines, as it playfully uses David Icke's "lizard people" conspiracy theory as a basis from which to take apart conspiracy theories as a whole. (But again, Sandifer's obvious fondness for cranks never quite crosses the line into forgetting that, for example, David Icke's ideas are repulsively anti-Semitic, or that Land is providing intellectual cover for racism.)
Admittedly, the book is not perfect. I adore "Theses on a President," for example, but it's definitely out there--I love the metaphor of a Faustian exchange, giving up his name to become a brand, to represent the kind of toxic performativity that Trump exemplifies, but I suspect readers less familiar with Sandifer (and let's face it, if you need a review to help you decide whether to buy this book, you're not) might find it a bridge too far so soon after being asked to swallow the psychogeographic approach. At least, I know I would discounted the essay at that point, if I didn't already have the introduction to psychogeography Sandifer helpfully provided in his earlier work. At the other end of the scale, the last two chapters feel a little perfunctory--particularly the last. Admittedly, it doesn't take a whole lot of words to say "Peter Thiel's basilisk is that he's an idiot who got lucky," but ultimately Thiel gets little more attention than some of the figures discussed in passing in the first essay--and given that he comes up in the first essay, it's not clear why he deserves a chapter of his own.
All that said, this is still a vitally important book, and more importantly an excellent one. I cannot recommend it enough--and indeed, I intend to recommend it to everyone I know who is even remotely interested in politics, philosophy, or their intersection. - on amazon.com
Full disclosure: I was a backer on this book's Kickstarter. I follow and am followed by the author of this book, Philip Sandifer, as well as the co-author of the Austrian School essay, Jack Graham. Now that that's out of the way: Neoreaction a Basilisk is one of the most important books of 2017. Allegedly a text on the Alt-Right's intellectual branch (a group who is flagrantly Cobra right down to the snake fetish), the book reveals itself to be a work of horror as our humble narrator is slowly driven mad by the monstrously foolish forces that are influencing the world. (A more accurate description of Sandifer's approach would be that of someone walking in a storm talking about the rain and how he can't go inside the houses he occasionally points out. It's better than it sounds.) Of course, that's just the titular essay. The book dives into other subject matters including the Trump election, TERFs, Gamergate, and Lizard People. The book dives into these subjects with the wit and anger expected of someone who cut his teeth within forum culture. Despite minor gripes, the book is still highly recommended if only for the essay on GamerGate, effectively closing the book on the subject. It's the perfect gift for the angry leftist in your family. - on amazon.com
I should start this review with a few simple reasons why you should read Neoreaction: A Basilisk.
A) If you want to understand the fundamental philosophies of the destructive, racist, right-wing, Trump-loving culture that has grown from a few slimy 4chan message boards to a significant reactionary political movement.
B) If you are a professional researcher working in any study of the sociology of knowledge, the nature of knowledge, facticity, or truth. Especially if you want your research to affect wider audiences than fellow academics in your field. If you want to study and write about the nature of knowledge not only as an academic, in other words, but as a public intellectual.
C) If you simply enjoy reading complex, insightful, informative books of theory and analysis.Philip Sandifer is himself a public intellectual, at least on an independent scale. A former academic, he is a fully credentialed to be a professor of literature and literary theory. His primary career is as a publisher and author of literary theory, running Eruditorum Press. In the interests of objectivity, I should state that he and I correspond regularly as colleagues in independent publishing and professional blogging, and as internet friends. He was an interview subject for my “Beyond the Academy” essay for SERRC. And I threw in $5 to the Kickstarter that funded this project and its affiliated essays and creations, because I thought he would produce a good product.
What Neoreaction: A Basilisk Is About
Neoreaction: A Basilisk is not a perfect book, though it is a brilliant book. Its analysis proceeds in a spiralling style that many accustomed to more traditionally-written theoretical books will find disorienting. Its concluding analysis appears disconnected from its main body as a research area, though it is linked thematically. The main research area of the book doesn’t cover nearly the range of authors and sub-disciplines as many academic sub-disciplines of epistemology or political theory, though that is largely an inescapable function of the subject matter.
Neoreaction is an analysis of the contemporary, largely American political movement of reactionaries—the overlapping communities of the alt-right, neoreactionaries, and Dark Enlightenment—usually often libertarian in philosophy and white supremacist in ideology. They are best known for racist and misogynist online attack mobs, a hatred for so-called “political correctness,” and a conception of free speech as the inalienable right to be racist, sexist, homophobic, and cruel to whomever they wish in public. Their first major campaign was Gamergate. The most significant leaders for this new reactionary movement are Milo Yiannopolous of Brietbart News and Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Sandifer does not spend much (or any) time on these figures, thankfully. His is a philosophical analysis of the three men whose ideas formed the movement’s theoretical core. They are author and think-tank head Eliezer Yudkowsky, software engineer Curtis Yarvin (who blogged his key texts for the movement under the name Mencius Moldbug), and academic philosopher Nick Land. Land literally wrote the book on neoreaction’s ideology, The Dark Enlightenment. Land and Yarvin are openly allies with the new reactionary movement, while Yudkowsky counts many reactionaries among his fanbase despite finding their racist politics disgusting. Yarvin and Yudkowsky also receive financial patronage from billionaire Trumpist Peter Thiel, as part of his investments in the Silicon Valley startup Urbit and the transhumanist artificial intelligence project MIRI, respectively.
The activist, artistic, political, academic, and business communities that surround and entwine neoreaction is a confusing bricolage of different actors and ideologies. Sandifer focusses on that philosophical triptych to understand the ideas underlying the West’s most powerful anti-democratic social movement operating today. While his analysis has many facets, the one most relevant to SERRC is how he understands the neoreactionary conception of reason and truth. Fitting for a movement that considers democracy and anti-racism a mistake, that conception resurrects a model of rationality that just about every professional in the theory of knowledge considers long-discredited and obsolete.
Rationality as Pure Reason, The One Self-Consistent Truth
A noble dream lies behind the filth and rage of neoreaction. That dream is a vision of truth as a simple clarity—there are facts and falsehoods and truth is univocal, a simple matter of right and wrong. Human progress comes from being less wrong, more rational, refining our faculties of knowledge, overcoming our biases, attaining a more perfect, more objective, more universal rationality. The embryo of the movement lived in the community pages of Yudkowsky’s blog LessWrong, a website dedicated to refining human rationality.
Yudkowsky’s primary vision for LessWrong (and the group blog from which it spun off, Overcoming Bias) was to introduce his own theoretical approach to bring human intuition more in line with the perfection of mathematical and statistical knowledge. Of course, his own and his community’s ignorance begins here, since mathematical knowledge does not operate with absolute and universal precision. But Yudkowsky asserted that it did, and that several tools cherry-picked from probability theory and physics would make a solid framework for a purified reason, where problems become steadily simpler, distinctions of true and false more stark and easily decidable.
This inspires directly the community’s political extremism—the alt-right’s disgust at any perspective or experience that introduces complexity to their simple view of the world. Yarvin’s political philosophy is built on such a stark simplicity—that the sole purpose of government is to maximize a society’s profit through unification and authoritative control. Sandifer insightfully calls it the political theory of a pathologically single-minded engineer: the right solution can only be the most simple and elegant, perfect geometry. A desire to understand the world with total clarity articulates itself politically as authoritarianism. The question of what it is right to do becomes the simple question of what the Leader has ordered.
Yarvin’s approach is fairly clear by about the fourth chapter of his seven-chapter Neoreaction: A Basilisk, though he examines neoreactionary political philosophy in detail in the first two chapters. Sandifer’s circuituous style is a benefit if you come to the book looking for a complex engagement with a multifaceted social phenomenon that contains many internal paradoxes and conflicts. But you would consider it a detriment if you primarily want a straightforward analysis of the alt-right’s philosophy of politics, knowledge, and truth.
It can be difficult to identify at first glance where the primary failure lies in the alt-right’s embrace of such an unrealistic conception of truth. The alt-right/neoreactionary movement itself often embraces willful ignorance in the name of fighting political correctness. That includes their willful ignorance of the cutting edge research in rationality and truth that many SERRC contributors and our wider academic community do. At the same time, I cannot help but wonder if there is also a failure in the academic community of social epistemologists and other theorists of how complex knowledge can be to reach these people. The general critique of the insular nature of professional academic communications applies.
Yet that same critique ultimately applies to the LessWrong community as well, in their pursuit of a rationality perfected beyond what many here in the SERRC community consider humanly possible. My own undergraduate education in philosophy, with its home in a self-consciously Kantian department, supplied me a narrative of modern philosophy’s history that is quite useful here. Attempts to perfect knowledge and reason to achieve a perfect geometric simplicity break down through the project’s inescapable paradoxes. One can save that project only by betraying it, introducing limits of pure reason, patches, and no-man’s-lands where we must admit that the world is more complicated than the simple geometry we wanted to apply to it. For the neoreactionary movement and its leading philosophers, that compromise is a moment of horror.
Applying Decision Theory to a Transhumanist Vision
The horror that drives neoreaction is not that which mainstream liberal thought about racism typically associates with such movements—the race wars of Hitler’s or D.W. Griffith’s imaginations, for example. It is instead the spectre of transhumanism’s failure. Instead of humanity becoming god-like, humanity destroys ourselves. A vision of utopia has been traded in for a vision of a yawning abyss. Neoreaction: A Basilisk discusses two paths to this horror in the works of Yudkowsky and Land. Yudkowsky’s own artificial intelligence research company, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, is committed to the most optimistic ideal of transhumanism: immortality. Specifically, the immortality of the human mind’s merger with post-Singularity artificial intelligence, conquering death through upload to a super-powerful AI. This hope was hideously perverted by a thought experiment that arose in the LessWrong community and gave Sandifer’s book its title, Roko’s Basilisk.
Roko’s Basilisk is a triumph of paranoia at an intensity and absurdity rarely seen outside the works of Philip K. Dick. Roko’s Basilisk makes an abyss of the transhumanist vision; instead of a happy immortality as an upload to an artificial intelligence mainframe, your immortal existence in silicon is defined by constant and horrifying torture. All this is a matter of a calculation in timeless decision theory.
Here is a very fast version of the labyrinth of Roko’s Basilisk. At every moment when we think about whether to help build this super-AI, we weigh our preferences. One alternative is to join the AI project, and its consequences would be eventually building such a thing. The other is to do anything else, but if the super-AI eventually comes to exist, it will resurrect us in its mainframe and torture us eternally. Such retroactive blackmail is the perfect way to force us into creating it, so the reasoning goes. It is Pascal’s Wager by way of Silicon Valley, but whose God is inescapably cruel. It will offer grace or terror, and you have no real power to change your fate. With the power to simulate the entire universe perfectly, the machine knows your fate before you do.
Sandifer presents this techno-Calvinist terror god as an aspect of the wider existentialist terror that haunts the foundational alt-right philosophers. His analysis parallels Roko’s Basilisk with the seduction of the void in absolute, totalizing species death that haunts Nick Land’s recent work. He hints at an epistemological analysis in later chapters of Neoreaction, but his own focus is on the terror. I would like to sketch briefly how such an analysis would proceed.
Sandifer’s core hint at the epistemic flaw at the heart of Roko’s Basilisk comes when he chides Yudkowsky for thinking that the super-AI would think like a human. From one perspective, this is an argument about the human ability to imagine absolute Other-ness. It is a task well-suited to the science-fiction milieu in which Sandifer cut his teeth as a critic, and where the mobs of the alt-right first mobilized in Gamergate and the Rabid Puppies. But this most inventive of literatures still runs against limits. Aliens in the literature are not truly aliens, but allegories and parallels of human character and culture. Even physiologically, most alien species are mashups of earthly creatures or extrapolations of what would evolve in some specific ecological niche. The only alternative to these creatures of limited imagination would appear to be Lovecraftian pure others—creatures that can only be described through the psychological collapse of the characters who experience them. The same limits appear in our reasoning powers.
Let us accept that there is a strong limitation to the power of human thought alone to imagine the radically other—whether in images or in personality and reasoning. If an artificial intelligence as advanced as Yudkowsky imagines one day exists, we will not be able to mimic its reasoning abilities. So we will never know whether it would carry out the Calvinist blackmail at the heart of the Roko’s Basilisk thought experiment unless we actually encounter such a thing. The reasoning and actions of an intelligence so far beyond human abilities are genuinely beyond our comprehension—they will be opportunities for us to learn. Yudkowsky’s web communities were called Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong, not Perfecting Knowledge and Absolutely Right. In their initial presentation, they accepted human reason as limited. Yet timeless decision theory seems to be the tool by which Yudkowsky and his followers could genuinely reason as gods. At least, they believed so, using timeless decision theory to emulate a machine-god in human conversations.
I understand how tempting it would be to use timeless decision theory to perfect human knowledge. Decision theory mathematics calculate the relative utility of given preferences in the abstract, so we can know the best course to take in all such abstract considerations. And we can easily consider this calculus from a position abstracted from time. The problem is that such a position is also abstracted from human life as it is lived. At best, a decision’s utility calculations occur sequentially—every change in circumstance gives its variables different values. A genuinely timeless calculation ends up tied in knots, either from accounting for all the changes at once, or roped into the vicious paradox of being a necessary behaviour that can only be a contingent and free act.
An additional failure of the Roko’s Basilisk thought experiment is particularly revealing regarding the nature of the neoreactionary community that has so many roots in LessWrong’s culture and norms. Yudkowsky and his community had no problem conceiving of the AI-god of the Basilisk as having perfect knowledge, the computational ability to simulate the entire universe with absolute perfection, and an eternal cognitive perspective from which timeless decision theory would actually be workable. But they could not imagine such an AI-god having a similarly advanced morality. Postulating that their super-AI would threaten and blackmail everyone who conceived of Yudkowsky’s Wager without following through on joining and funding advanced AI research ascribes it a pettiness and cruelty that is all-too-human. For all the cognitive perfection Roko’s Basilisk grants to its imagined god of an AI, its moral perfection remains inconceivable.
“Let us assume that we are fucked”—The Horror of the End
The above quote opens Neoreaction: A Basilisk. It is Sandifer’s casually prophetic premise for all of Neoreaction: A Basilisk, his declaration that every pathway into understanding the neoreactionary movement and its philosophy will inevitably either pass through or end in horror. Nick Land cultivates that horror in his recent work, and Sandifer offers the deepest engagement with Land’s work among the central three. Yudkowsky and Yarvin/Moldbug receive equal attention, but they are targets for explicit arguments against their approaches and ideas. Land offers the most to chew on philosophically.
Yudkowsky’s mission to perfect human knowledge and artificial intelligence ends up motivated by the fear that the final product of its success will blackmail and torture those who helped make it on grounds that they did not try hard enough. Yarvin explicitly advocates authoritarian government by a white technocratic business elite. Land believes that nationalist tribalism and the accompanying race war over scarce resources is the only social model capable of surviving our upcoming—and to be frank, already-begun and ongoing—ecological collapse. Sandifer rightly criticizes Land for, in Land’s own words, throwing his lot in with “racist little shits.” But Land is the only one singled out for this particular intensity of sharp contempt.
Yudkowsky has largely disavowed the alt-right and neoreactionaries who learned their models of reason, truth, and argument from his online communities. Yarvin has been an authoritarian from the start, introducing the neoreactionary communities to the noxious ideology of nationalist libertarianism. But Yarvin is also a largely terrible writer, rarely able to say in a few thousand words what he would prefer explain with a book’s worth of rambling tangents and rants.
Land seems to come in for the worst criticism because he should know better. His Lure of the Void is a new landmark in understanding the concept of death in the context of total species extinction, ecological annihilation, and cosmic emptiness. His work had the potential to supplant the pretensions and caterwauling of a thousand obsessive Heideggerians. That potential also included innovations in the form of philosophical writing, particularly its blend with narrative fiction in the sci-fi-horror novel Phyl-Undhu.
Yet his major philosophical follow-up to Lure of the Void was The Dark Enlightenment, an explicit courting of the nationalist alt-right, including many enthusiastic acknowledgements of Yarvin’s influence. The latter book outlined a political philosophy where the sovereign authority of the state transparently owns all material and people in its territory. Citizens literally become property of the state, and the purpose of government is to maintain productivity and profitability. Democracy, with its back-and-forth of opposition parties in power, facilitates rapacious consumerism and corruption instead of long-term investment. Land’s idea of democratic rule is for a government to consume so much of the nation that there is nothing left when the opposition party takes over.
Following the most radical libertarian ethos, the conceptual distinction between government and business collapses. To rule is not to be a steward of common resources and wealth, but to be the chief executive of the state and sole proprietor of all material and people within it. For Land, the highest politics is the unquestionable authority of the enlightened despot, managing a society that is also his property for optimal productivity and return on investment. Only under such authoritarianism would people be free from the self-destructiveness of their own greed and selfishness. Democracy enables greed to such a degree that it destroys the potential for the good life. Land approvingly quotes Peter Thiel: “Democracy and freedom have become incompatible.”
Land’s embrace of this terrifying ideology is rooted in the implications of the horror he sees in humanity’s future. As Sandifer rightly describes, Land does see the end coming, unfolding from the ecological collapse that the toxic products and destructive processes of the last two centuries of heavy industry have created. His rebuke to transhumanism is that the only way it could help humanity survive this crisis is if transhumanist technologies change us so radically that we become Lovecraftian Others compared to our current nature. The only way to survive that collapse without emerging from the other side of an abyss of the absolutely alien is a nationalist bunker mentality. You take dictatorial control of your resources and defend yourself with all the weaponry, fear, and xenophobia you can muster.
And the alt-right/neoreactionary community includes a lot of gun collectors.
Empathy and Creativity as an Antidote to Violence
The virulent white nationalism that has taken over the most energetic discourse of American conservatism is no stranger to us now. But Sandifer’s Neoreaction: A Basilisk is a major extended treatment of the philosophical ideas that pulled this community together. Many of my SERRC colleagues might find it disquieting that this toxic popular ideology grew in online communities dedicated to rationalism and post-humanism. Nick Land, the strongest philosopher among the alt-right’s thought leaders, has said that he embraced violent nationalism because, in the face of an ecological crisis that threatens to make Earth itself a post-human world, one’s best hope for survival is membership in a tribe that zealously defends its few precious resources from outsiders.
But Phil Sandifer is no neoreactionary, neither am I, and neither is anyone in the SERRC community of contributors and readers. So Neoreaction: A Basilisk ends on a hopeful note that empathy and creativity can be an ethical antidote for the violence into which the alt-right seeks to plunge humanity. But questions remain. What can be a source for such a vision of an empathetic society? What framework for social and political creativity can take us there?
Sandifer’s own answer is remarkably idiosyncratic, and perhaps that is the point. Neoreaction: A Basilisk ends with a walkthrough of the metaphysical and philosophical symbology of William Blake’s mythological canon. Blake has had no influence on the alt-right movement itself, but he has had a significant influence on Phil Sandifer. Significant engagement with Blake’s ideas can be found in prominent places in all of Sandifer’s major works—in his multivolume TARDIS Eruditorum on the history and political philosophies of Doctor Who the , as a recurring touchstone in his ongoing project on the British Invasion period of mainstream American comics The Last War in Albion. Sandifer also draws on an unorthodox, yet eminently sensible and historically-grounded, reading of Alan Turing’s imitation game—that computer (and human) intelligence does not regard principally language itself, but the ability to understand a different creature well enough to imitate her successfully.
But he does not intend his reflections on Blakean mythos and a Turing-inspired empathy to be an ideological template for the rest of us to follow in fighting the white nationalism that incubated in nerd culture and seems to have corrupted it beyond redemption. Even the alt-right community itself is fractured and plural at the level of ideological dogma. They are fellow travellers on a racist, nationalist trajectory with common roots in online message board communities, transhumanist interest, nerd culture, sci-fi and horror fandom. This philosophical imaginary is Sandifer’s own creative inspiration, playground, and vision. Each of us must develop our own, with empathy, creativity, and a love for the diversity and variety of humanity as the only common values.
For example, my own philosophical imaginary powering my line of flight to a diverse peaceful world shares some common ground with Sandifer, but is otherwise a completely different route. We share the same pop-cultural ethical influence from Doctor Who, the moral rightness of pulling justice from a fundamentally unjust world by breaking all its rules. But my own inspirations also draw on the tradition of emancipatory materialism in modern Western philosophy (the trajectory from Spinoza and Machiavelli, through Marx, Nietzsche, Gilles Deleuze, and Antonio Negri), Emmanuel Levinas’ phenomenology in the spirit of Talmud, and the history of liberatory, anti-racist activism in Canada, from the Riel Rebellion through the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation to Idle No More.
My own philosophical inspirations provide me with my more academic critique of Sandifer’s book. He describes his critical readings of Yudkowsky, Yarvin, and Land as applications of Deleuze’s technique of creating monstrous readings of historical philosophers. That interpretive method makes radical breaks with the mainstream conception of a thinker’s works that are nonetheless faithful, monstrous conceptual children that the inspiration would abhor, but recognize in his own work. Sandifer describes this monster-making as destructive, and uses that technique to expose the vulnerabilities and blindnesses of the generative philosophers of the alt-right. But Deleuze’s own spirit in monster-making was just as creative as Sandifer’s alternative path to violent nationalism. Deleuze wanted to make new, contemporarily relevant ideas emerge from thinkers long rejected or whose ideas had become taken for granted. They were radical redemptive readings.
Redemption is a path too terrifying to take with Yarvin/Moldbug the rambling egotist, Yudkowsky the blinkered think tank merchant, or Land the broken visionary of horror. At least too terrifying now, when the noxious political movement they inspired form the shock troops of a demagogue one election from controlling the world’s second-largest nuclear arsenal, when their poison-fingered disciples constitute a raging online mob of hackers and harassers. But if one day, we can relegate American neoreaction to the historical trash bin where it belongs, redemption may even come for this sad trinity.
Sandifer, perhaps against his better judgment, may even have written that redemption’s prologue.
Riggio, Adam. “Beyond the Academy: Solutions to the Academic Brain Drain in Embracing Public Creativity and Leadership.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 4 (2016): 71-77.
Sandifer, Philip. Neoreaction: A Basilisk. Ithaca, NY: Eruditorum Press, 2017. - Adam Riggio social-epistemology.com/2016/09/23/the-violence-of-pure-reason-neoreaction-a-basilisk-adam-riggio/The Return of the Reactionary (Part II) by Jonathan Ratcliffe
Philip Sandifer, The Last War in Albion Volume 1: The Early Work of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison
In the late twentieth century, beneath the surface of Britain's green and pleasant land, raged a war that spanned the heights of mystical transcendence and the most obscure gutters of popular culture. The stakes were unfathomably vast: the fate of the twenty-first century, the shape of an entire artistic medium, and whether or not several people would make their rent. On one side was Alan Moore, the acclaimed literary genius who would transform comics forever. On the other was Grant Morrison, the upstart punk who never met an idol he didn't want to knock off its perch. In Volume One of this incredible tale you'll learn how an ex-drug dealer from the slums of Northampton and a failed rock star from Glasgow made their way into the comics industry and found themselves locked in an artistic rivalry that would shake the very foundations of Britain. Starting from their beginnings writing and drawing comic strips like Captain Clyde and Maxwell the magic Cat and continuing through Moore's breakout runs on Marvelman and V for Vendetta and explosion onto the US scene with Swamp Thing, it is the fantastically unlikely tale of how the British comics industry came to produce the two greatest wizards of their generation. This is the story of gothic rock and obscenity trials. Of William Blake and William S. Burroughs. Of Hieronymus Bosch and Enid Blyton. This is the story of the Last War in Albion.
Philip Sandifer, TARDIS Eruditorum - An Unofficial Critical History of Doctor Who Volume 1: William Hartnell
In this newly revised and expanded first volume of essays adapted from the acclaimed blog TARDIS Eruditorum you'll find a critical history of William Hartnell's three seasons of Doctor Who. TARDIS Eruditorum tells the ongoing story of Doctor Who from its beginnings in the 1960s to the present day, pushing beyond received wisdom and fan dogma to understand that story not just as the story of a geeky sci-fi show but as the story of an entire line of mystical, avant-garde, and radical British culture. It treats Doctor Who as a show that really is about everything that has ever happened, and everything that ever will. This volume focuses on the earliest years of the program, looking at how it emerged from the existing traditions of science fiction in the UK and how it quickly found its kinship with the emerging counterculture of the 1960s. Every essay from the Hartnell era has been revised and expanded from its original form, and the eight new essays exclusive to the collected edition have been augmented by a further eleven, providing nineteen book-exclusive essays on topics like what happened before An Unearthly Child, whether the lead character's name is really Doctor Who, and how David Whitaker created the idea of a Doctor Who novel. Plus, you'll learn: How acid-fueled occultism influenced the creation of the Cybermen. Why The Celestial Toymaker is irredeemably racist. The Problem of Susan Foreman
Philip Sandifer, TARDIS Eruditorum - An Unauthorized Critical History of Doctor Who Volume 2: Patrick Troughton
This second volume of collected and expanded posts from the popular blog TARDIS Eruditorum offers a critical history of the Patrick Troughton era of Doctor Who. Steadily tracking the developing story of Doctor Who from its beginning to the present day, TARDIS Eruditorum pushes beyond received fan wisdom and dogma to understand the story of Doctor Who as the story of an entire line of mystical, avant-garde, and radical culture in Great Britain: a show that is genuinely about everything that has ever happened, and everything that ever will. This volume focuses on Doctor Who’s intersection with psychedelic Britain and with the radical leftist counterculture of the late 1960s, exploring its connections with James Bond, social realism, dropping acid, and overthrowing the government. Along, of course, with scads of monsters, the introduction of UNIT, and the Land of Fiction itself. Every essay on the Troughton era has been revised and expanded, along with eight brand new essays written exclusively for this collected edition, including a thorough look at UNIT dating, an exploration of just what was lost in the wiping of the missing episodes, and a look at Stephen Baxter’s The Wheel of Ice. On top of that, you’ll discover: Whether The Mind Robber implies an alternate origin for the Doctor in which he is not a Time Lord but a lord of something else entirely. How The Evil of the Daleks reveals the secrets of alchemy. What can be seen on a walking tour of London’s alien invasions.
Philip Sandifer, TARDIS Eruditorum - An Unofficial Critical History of Doctor Who Volume 3: Jon Pertwee
In this third volume of essays adapted from the acclaimed blog TARDIS Eruditorum you'll find a critical history of the Jon Pertwee years of Doctor Who. TARDIS Eruditorum tells the ongoing story of Doctor Who from its beginnings in the 1960s to the present day, pushing beyond received wisdom and fan dogma to understand that story not just as the story of a geeky sci-fi show but as the story of an entire line of mystical, avant-garde, and radical British culture. It treats Doctor Who as a show that really is about everything that has ever happened, and everything that ever will. This volume focuses on the first years of Doctor Who in colour: the five glam-rock tinged years of Jon Pertwee, looking at its connections with environmentalism, J.G. Ballard, neopaganism, and Monty Python. Every essay on the Pertwee era has been revised and expanded from its original form, along with seven brand new essays exclusive to this collected edition, including a look at whether Torchwood makes any sense with the history of Doctor Who, how the TARDIS works, and just what happens when Jo Grant, as played by Katy Manning, meets the eccentric Time Lady Iris Wildthyme, as played by Katy Manning. On top of that, you'll learn: Whether The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is the greatest Doctor Who story of the early 1970s. How Doctor Who is related to the prophetic works of William Blake. Why this entire series has secretly been about a very ugly yellow sofa
Philip Sandifer, TARDIS Eruditorum: An Unofficial Critical History of Doctor Who Volume 4: Tom Baker and the Hinchcliffe Years
In this fourth volume of essays adapted from the acclaimed blog TARDIS Eruditorum you'll find a critical history of Tom Baker’s first three seasons of Doctor Who. TARDIS Eruditorum tells the ongoing story of Doctor Who from its beginnings in the 1960s to the present day, pushing beyond received wisdom and fan dogma to understand that story not just as the story of a geeky sci-fi show but as the story of an entire line of mystical, avant-garde, and radical British culture. It treats Doctor Who as a show that really is about everything that has ever happened, and everything that ever will. This volume focuses on the early gothic-horror tinged years of Tom Baker, looking at its connections with postmodernism, the Hammer horror films, conspiracy theories, and more. Every essay from Tom Baker’s first three seasons has been revised and expanded from its original form, along with nine brand new essays exclusive to this collected edition, including a look at how Genesis of the Daleks changed Dalek history, the philosophical implications of the TARDIS translating language, and the nature of the Master. Plus, you’ll learn: How Doctor Who’s golden age was cut short by a bully with poor media literacy. Why bubble wrap is scary. The secret of alchemy.
Philip Sandifer, TARDIS Eruditorum: An Unofficial Critical History of Doctor Who Volume 5: Tom Baker and the Williams Years
In this fifth volume of essays adapted from the acclaimed blog TARDIS Eruditorum you’ll find a critical history of Tom Baker’s final four seasons of Doctor Who. TARDIS Eruditorum tells the ongoing story of Doctor Who from its beginnings in the 1960s to the present day, pushing beyond received wisdom and fan dogma to understand the story not just as the story of a geeky sci-fi show but as the story of an entire tradition of mystical, avant-garde, and politically radical British culture. It treats Doctor Who as a show that really is about everything that ever happened, and everything that ever will. This volume focuses on the madcap final years of Tom Baker, looking at its connections with punk, British comic books, the Kabbalah, and more. Every blog post from Tom Baker’s final four seasons has been revised and updated from its original form, along with eight brand new essays exclusive to this collected edition, including a look at how the Guardians can be reconciled with the rest of Doctor Who, an analysis of the many different versions of Shada, and an exclusive interview with Gareth Roberts about his many stories set during the Graham Williams era of Doctor Who. Plus, you’ll learn: How Robert Holmes deconstructed the Key to Time arc in its first story. Whatever happened to Philip Hinchcliffe. What Alan Moore and 2000 AD have to do with the history of Doctor Who.
Philip Sandifer, TARDIS Eruditorum - An Unofficial Critical History of Doctor Who Volume 6: Peter Davison and Colin Baker
In this sixth volume of essays adapted from the acclaimed blog TARDIS Eruditorum you'll find a critical history of the Peter Davison and Colin Baker eras of Doctor Who. TARDIS Eruditorum tells the ongoing story of Doctor Who from its beginnings in the 1960s to the present day, pushing beyond received wisdom and fan dogma to understand the story not just as the story of a geeky sci-fi show but as the story of an entire tradition of mystical, avant-garde, and politically radical British culture. It treats Doctor Who as a show that is really about everything that ever happened, and everything that ever will. This volume focuses on the bulk of the troubled John Nathan-Turner era, looking at its connections with soap operas, the Falklands, gaming, and more. Every blog post from the Davison and Baker eras has been revised and updated from its original form, along with ten brand new essays exclusive to this collected edition, including a look at who's fault the cancellation was, the influence of big budget musicals on Trial of a Time Lord, and an interview with Rob Shearman about the Davison and Baker eras and his efforts writing for the latter with Big Finish. Plus you'll learn: The secret Norse roots of Terminus. How the Morbius Doctors reveal the truth about the Fifth Doctor's regeneration. What it really means to be a renegade Time Lord.
Philip Sandifer, A Golden Thread: An Unofficial Critical History of Wonder Woman
For over seventy years Wonder Woman has been one of the most popular and recognized comic book characters in the world. Now, for the first time, A Golden Thread presents a detailed critical history of the character. From her origins as a World War II-era avatar of William Moulton Marston’s vision of a feminist bondage utopia to the present day, this book looks closely at seven decades of Wonder Woman comics alongside her appearances in television and film. Through her many highs and many lows, this book traces the unlikely story of the world’s most popular feminist character.
Philip Sandifer, Recursive Occlusion
Philip Sandifer, Guided By The Beauty Of Their Weapons: Notes on Science Fiction and Culture in the Year of Angry Dogs
2015 was a messy and contentious year for science fiction, dominated by the Sad Puppies controversy, in which fascist entryists led by Vox Day, the pen name of Theodore Beale, exploited flaws in the Hugo Award nomination process to dictate the nominees, selecting works that favor his politics in an attempt to, in his view, save western civilization from people who poop wrong.
This anthology of essays written by acclaimed Marxist occultist critic Philip Sandifer during 2015 starts from the Puppies controversy, presenting an alternative vision of science fiction grounded in progressive politics and the ability of the genre to explore strange and unthinkable ideas - one that holds that its primary value is its ability to do new things, as opposed to being in permanent debt to antiquated ideas and styles.
The book includes:
Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons, an epic takedown of Vox Day.
A transcript of a debate between Sandifer and Day about the relative merits of Iain Banks's classic novel The Wasp Factory and Puppy nominee One Bright Star to Guide Them.
Essays on Orphan Black, Hannibal, True Detective, Janelle Monáe, Ex Machina, Mr. Robot, and more.
A lengthy essay on V for Vendetta excerpted from the forthcoming first volume of The Last War in Albion.
Recursive Occlusion, a non-fiction novella about Doctor Who and occultism.
An exclusive interview with superstar Doctor Who writer Peter Harness.
Many other weird things.
The Super Nintendo Project
A sequel to my unfinished first major blogging project The Nintendo Project, the Super Nintendo Project is a series of esoteric essays on selected Super Nintendo games. It is also a magical ritual to destroy Gamergate.