Disjointed responses

Neoreaction: A Basilisk – Philip Sandifer

What follows is not so much a review as a series of disjointed responses. It’s not going to do much good under the book on Amazon. It is personal. There is some stuff to process here and this is indulgent. And if you can’t be indulgent on a blog, then where can you be indulgent?

First of all, I’ve been reading Dr Sandifer’s blog for a smidge over 4 years. He used to write essays on Doctor Who – a show that I’d loved as a child before it got cancelled and I hit peak puberty (these two events happened at roughly the same time although there is no causal connection in either direction). Sandifer’s essays are mostly a delight. He has a rare gift for combining the close reading of texts with an appreciation of the wider cultural and social milieu in which they operate. Sometimes he went into overtly experimental territory such as the combination of Borges and Choose Your Adventure that was his meditation on Logopolis. Plus some scathing takedowns of stories that offend him (e.g. The Celestial Toymaker). I’m not part of the broader Dr Who fandom so I’m not invested in these battles but I share some of his aesthetic and political tastes. In general I preferred the pieces that went to the edge of experimentation without going full avant garde while also finding something positive in the source material. Sledging is like a chocolate bar – fun for a bit but unpleasant in large quantities. My interest in the rest of his work is largely predicated in my fondness for the underlying source material – from The Last War In Albion on Alan Moore and Grant Morrison (cool!) to Proverbs of Hell on Hannibal (meh).

Meanwhile, I first encountered the Neoreactionaries in 2015. The trailer for the new Star Wars movies had been released and I was pondering my son’s Lego X-Wing. I recall searching for Yarvin – as in Yarvin 4 (the moon featured at the climax of the first movie) – and getting a bunch of articles about some right wing dude who was into monarchs. This would be Curtis Yarvin aka Mencius Moldbug. I looked at his blog. There were a lot of words. So many words and so little sense. There were articles about this odd little scene of technologists into monarchy with side orders of racism and misogyny. And among them was a familiar name – Nick Land.

Rewinding even further back to the mid-90s, I was reading a lot of “cybertheory” – trying to fit together my personal interest in the internet, my professional interests as an information manager and my academic background in the history and sociology of science. There was a lot of enthusiastic shouting (yes, Arthur & Marilouise Kroker, I mean you). There was some lefty skepticism (Richard Barbrook). And then there was CCRU. Again I don’t recall when I became fully conscious of them as an entity. It would have been after my single year as a Warwick University employee and before I attended some of the events they ran in Vauxhall in 1999. A mix of performance art, DJing, speeches, discussions – mystifying and sometimes a bit half-assed. I didn’t really get what they were trying to do – the lumps of French theory, and music, and science fiction, and Cabbalistic magic all stitched together. The events seemed to be put on for themselves and when others turned up they didn’t really know what to do with them. Like they’d collectively lost the ability to relate to those outside the world that they had created. That’s not entirely fair – I recall Steve Goodman interacting occasionally – and also a guy called Rob who talked a bit.

Land was there – less a leader than a focal point. Mark Fisher had obvious charisma even then. I read their work voraciously. While Sadie Plant’s work was relatively accessible, Land’s was… fucked. There’s really no other word to describe it. His one book (The Thirst for Annihilation) was memorable as well as being occasionally ridiculous. A quite deliberate mess. His subsequent articles were more contained and some great lines (“Cyberspace Anarchitecture as Jungle-War” being one that I used in my information architecture work). But they weren’t so much advancing arguments as attempts to trigger moods and emotional responses. Apocalyptic. Millennial. A world collapsing. Not very 90s at all.

In hindsight the things that had fueled them through the second half of the 90s – jungle music, the first wave of the world wide web are as a transformative technology – were on the verge of dying. If not, dying then certainly changing into something else unrecognizable. CCRU dissolved into the wider culture. Steve Goodman set up Hyperdub (first an online zine then a record label). The early attempts at “Death Garage” were clumsy but they gradually flowered into the dense vegetation of post-Jungle dubstep, reaching a zenith (or perhaps a nadir given the scene’s obsession with low end bass) when they released Burial’s two albums (Goodman’s own Kode9 releases were pretty good as well).

Mark Fisher wrote the K-Punk blog during the 00s. Initially I was non-plussed. Writing about Kubrick and The Fall, he seemed to have turned his back on the futuristic modernism of the CCRU work to explore the lost futures of that time between the end of World War 2 and the neo-liberal 80s. Over time I came to appreciate the nature of his work – his attempts at salvaging these lost visions. A network of blogs emerged during these years – often with a focus on dubstep and other musical movements but also politics, culture, history. Fisher’s writing career gained new prominence with Capitalist Realism – a more direct engagement with contemporary politics than previously. He faded from view after Ghosts Of My Life in 2014. Then in January 2017, he was dead. I miss his writing. The internet of the 00s of which he was part also seemed to be dead with him.

Meanwhile, Land had faded from view by the middle of the 00s. He seemed a figure of the 90s who had failed to find relevance in the new world. He left the UK for Shanghai. And then, all of a sudden, he was a figure of note in a right-wing anti-democratic internet subculture. This wasn’t that surprising. While his pre-2007 writings were not explicitly fascist (and certainly not conservative) his biggest enemies in the 90s were left-wing humanities academics. He never showed any public interest in concrete political programs. The focus always was transgression. The Thirst for Annihilation is saturated with provocations designed to annoy his colleagues. While the discussions of Derrida and Heidegger would be of no interest to the denizens of 8Chan, the references to killing god and concentration camps would go down well. Land wants to be a very naughty boy.

The Neoreactionaries themselves seem to be a minor part of the Alt-Right stew – although their loathing of democracy and tolerance for racism and misogyny makes them easy allies of others in this world. They also have a link to the triumphalist end of Silicon Valley. Moldbug thought Steve Jobs should be CEO of California and their views find echoes in the public pronouncements of Peter Thiel (billionaire and former Trump fan). So while they are a niche within a niche, they are worthy of some attention.

Back to the book in hand. Neoreaction: A Basilisk (NAB) began as Kickstarter-funded essay that was published in mid-2016. A book version with additional essays came out in December 2017. A lot can happen in 18 months.

The original essay is a Rube Goldberg machine. Sandifer takes the work of Land and Moldbug as well as Eliezer Yudkowsky – and mixes in Eugene Thacker, Alan Turing, Frantz Fanon, Thomas Ligotti, and, above all, William Blake. Stylistically, it is closest to literary criticism, perhaps philosophy, not sociology or journalism. The early chapters outline the writing of his three literary antagonists (and antagonists they are) with different tones – a wary respect for Land, contempt for Moldbug, and something akin to pity for Yudkowsky. Yudkowsky is not a Neoreactionary but rather a minor member of the broader Silicon Valley tech milieu who is obsessed with “rationality” and artificial intelligence. Yudkowsky is also associated with the Basilisk of the title (Roko’s Basilisk) – an AI thought experiment. As the essay proceeds, the other writers are brought in to challenge and transform the positions of the core trio. Sandifer’s mode is to argue by association and insinuation. A series of offers are made. It is a mode of improvisation. To criticize its arguments seems a little beside the point. As with all improvised performances, the audience decides whether they buy into it or not. Personally, I switched off during the lengthy discussion of Blake’s mythology. Not that Blake is bad, I just don’t share Sandifer’s enthusiasm for Blake as a writer. Whereas many of the earlier improvisations in the essay provided insight – and if not insight, then entertainment.

The essay is not without its own provocations. First line: “Let us assume that we are fucked”. The world may be beyond saving. The tone is often one of mordant glee (the essay is explicit about its own aims to be a work a horror). Sandifer ends with a call for empathy between humans as a response to the dry domination proposed by the Neoreactionaries. It’s not a bad place to end (and his observations about his antagonists are largely correct) but the essay is much less about the ending than the journey. Perhaps the whole thing is not a basilisk but a different kind a monster – a shaggy dog. As for its purpose, it feels like an essay that Sandifer had to write to maintain sanity. It may get a broader audience but its focus on a niche within a niche and the hermetic pleasures of its text limit its ultimate impact. It is what it is.

There are thematic links but also a stylistic division between NAB and the other essays in the book. They tend to more straightforward – discussing phenomena such as Gamergate, TERFs, Austrian Economists or, er, David Icke. The breadth here is good but stylistic uncanny valley is noticeable. The Essay on Trump does find a new way of discussing an overdone topic (by rooting him in the physical geography of New York) while the final essay on Peter Thiel is a massive, angry denunciation of its subject. In many respects, I agree with Sandifer about Thiel but Sandifer is at his best with an antagonist he respects not one he merely wants to dismiss.

NAB and the essays around it push Sandifer from being a cultural commentator informed by politics to a political commentator informed by culture – shifting the balance in his Force (although he’d reject that distinction). While I have a bunch of different responses to NAB, I would definitely like to see where his pursuit of idiosyncratic, mixed up texts like this will lead.

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