Ginger Nuts of Horror
By Kit Power
In June of 2016, blogger Phil Sandifer completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund what he called the ‘conspiracy ‘zine’ edition of his essay-become-book, Neoreaction: A Basilisk. Kit Power read it, and reviewed it for Gingernuts of Horror here.
In the 18 months since, the relevance of a book that seeks to interrogate and dismantle the philosophical and intellectual underpinnings of neoreaction and that alt-right has, to put it mildly, not faded. And so, for the first time, Dr. Sandifer has put out a general release copty of the book for sale, containing a revised version of the additional essay, plus an additional six pieces that includes coverage of Gamergate, the Austrian School of Economics, and the 45th president of the united states.
In part one of our interview with him we talk inspiration, process, and horror philosophy in the age of Trump.
Gingernuts of Horror: Thanks for agreeing to chat to us. I guess it’s worth starting by talking about the roots of this book - the initial essay came in part out of a previous piece you’d written on Vox Day and the Rabid Puppies, and the Hugo hijacking, is that correct?
Phil Sandifer: Yeah, Vox was my first stab at writing about the alt-right, in a piece called “Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons.” I was doing some extra essays to flesh that piece out into a full-blown essay collection, and a couple of ideas from those joined together and became the start of Neoreaction a Basilisk. That said, I tried pretty hard to distinguish the two projects - I made a point of not mentioning Vox in the main essay. But “The Blind All-Seeing Eye of Gamergate” opens by saying that I’m picking up where I left off before jumping into a Vox Day quote, so that owns up to the sequel quality a little more.
GNoH: You’ve described this book as your best writing to date - can you talk a bit about the process for writing an book like this? For the main essay, how much of the shape did you have before you started researching? How much did you research before you started writing? Or was the whole process more fluid than that?
PS: I’m not sure I ever entirely “had” the shape of it, really. I’ve joked that this is a book I accidentally wrote, and part of that was a sense of the structure revealing itself as it went. I thought I was writing an essay when I started, and then by the time I had the basic explanations of Yudkowsky, Moldbug, and Land in place it was already several thousand words long and I still didn’t have an obvious path to the actual insight I meant the piece to provide. And so at that point I realized I had a book, at least. But I really approached it step by step - I was writing in Scrivener, and I had a list of empty documents within it with titles gesturing towards things I wanted to talk about. I kept them in a sort of order, but usually it wasn’t until midway through one section that I’d realize for sure where I wanted to go next, and I tended to research each section when I got to it. I wasn’t 100% sure how I’d end it until I got there, and though my eventual selection of “with a distressingly typical Phil Blake riff” was always one of the possibilities, it didn’t emerge to the forefront until I sat down and went “OK, time to write the ending, so what is it going to be?”
GNoH: Did that ‘research as you go’ approach ever impact on earlier sections, or cause any structural problems?
PS: Nothing too bad. There was one spot - when I dealt with Moldbug’s account of how to build a parasitic memeplex - where I had to throw out my first effort and try again because it just wasn’t getting me where I needed to be, but it’s notable that was also the one time I tried writing the book outside of the normal conditions of working late at night on my laptop in a candlelit bedroom. But I also knew a lot of the big picture stuff already. Some of my arguments - especially the stuff about Turing - are things that’ve been sitting around in my brain waiting to get used for almost fifteen years. It’d occasionally get a bit wooly - the Paradise Lost sections were hard because I’d managed to get a PhD in English without ever actually reading Paradise Lost, and it’s both very much not the sort of thing I usually deal with and something countless really intelligent critics have already covered. It also wasn’t really a section I’d planned on - I was looking at a bit of Moldbug where he made a really stupid reading of a Samuel Johnson quip about how the Devil was the first Whig, and I thought “hang on, Johnson’s obviously talking about Milton there” (and sure enough, upon consulting the relevant passage in The Life of Johnson he was). And this was still pretty early in the essay - it’s just past a third of the way through - and so I was still in the phase where I was building out what the essay was capable of doing, and I thought a swerve into close-reading Paradise Lost would be satisfyingly unexpected.
But to be honest, if you’re good at research it’s usually a process of confirming hunches instead of going in blind. And while there’s loads in life I’m completely shit at, I’ve been doing this long enough to be pretty good at research. That doesn’t mean you don’t find things that surprise you, but if you’re doing it right they’re usually unexpected connections that enrich your argument instead of inconvenient truths that require you to rework it. (For instance, I was about a quarter of the way into the essay when I discovered that Nick Land had included a pastiche of Roko’s Basilisk in his novella Phyl-Undhu.) You work out the big picture, often with secondary sources, and only move on to primary sources once you have a good idea of what you’re going to find there. I almost always use the “research as I go” method because it means I can keep fewer details in your head at any given moment and makes it easier not to lose the forest for the trees when you’re making a really deep dive into minutiae. You have to do a lot of research projects before you can get it to work, but it’s really the only way to do a big, sprawling project that acts like it’s meandering aimlessly even as it works through a preposterously intricate structure. And that basically describes everything I write, so.
GNoH: One facet that is often present in your Eruditorum Press work on Doctor Who is the approach of redemptive readings. Was Neoreaction… in part a reaction against that, or an attempt to stretch yourself as a writer in a different way?
PS: Well, the idea of redemptive readings was that if you have a choice between interpreting something as flawed and problematic or interpreting it in a way that gives you tools for positive engagement, it’s generally more helpful to go for the latter. Problematic things are a dime a dozen, after all, whereas ways forward are a lot more precious. But there are loads of instances in TARDIS Eruditorum where I went “yeah, this is just irredeemable crap.” I mean, heck, I took aim at a few beloved classics that probably could have been redeemed because for all my talk about redemptive readings, sometimes the overall arc of the project needed a critique or a dead sacred cow somewhere.
All of this is a long way of saying that I don’t think there’s a redemptive reading to be had of most of the alt-right. That was just never on the table. They’re fucking evil, and I have no interest in suggesting otherwise. There are a bunch of ways in which Neoreaction a Basilisk is me stretching myself, but its utter contempt for the alt-right isn’t one of them. If anything, I think being angry and furious is generally easier to write than “actually, Paradise Towers is a neglected classic.” (Though it obviously is.)
GNoH: So in what ways has Neoreaction stretched you as a writer? What did you find the single biggest challenge writing the piece, and what’s the most valuable lesson you learned from the process as a writer?
PS: A lot of the challenge and stretching came in getting the structure to work. It was very much a book where I learned to write it as I went, the structure came down to trusting that the method I was developing was going to work. That’s not an entirely new sensation - The Last War in Albion has a lot of “trust the methodology” to it as well, and every project I do has at least a bit of it. But Neoreaction a Basilisk ended up being extremely intricate, and I’d never really approached something like that without a plan; certainly not over 55,000 words.
More specifically, one of the odd things about the book is that it makes its argument by implication. One of the big ideas within it is the idea of the intellectual basilisk - a monstrous realization at the end of a train of thought that the thinker doesn’t want to see. And so I had to be aware of my own basilisks. Which meant in practice leaving parts of my argument unsaid, and figuring out ways to constantly ostentatiously gesture towards what’s unsaid and make it conspicuous without actually saying it. And on top of that, I didn’t want the book to feel like a formalist puzzle to “solve.” I don’t want readers to be able to go “oh, the answer is X” and move on. I wanted what was unsaid to feel like a haunting presence that the reader knows is there but can never quite capture. All while reading, on a moment-to-moment basis, like a righteous forum post in which I’m completely owning some idiot in an entertainingly condescending way. That was… I don’t want to say hard per se, because this was actually a really easy book to write in terms of just sitting down and doing it, but I had to learn how to do it, and for that matter learn that was what I was doing in the first place.
GNoH: I know readers of this site will be interested in the way your book engages with Ligotti’s work. Can you talk a bit about how you discovered him, and how much of an impact he had on you and the essay?
PS: I encountered him how I think a lot of people did, which was when Nick Pizzolatto raided Conspiracy Against the Human Race in True Detective. But he immediately filled a gap in my intellectual worldview by occupying the nihilist position with such unflinching style. And obviously there’s a long history of nihilist and anti-natalist thought that I could have gone and read, but Ligotti, by dint of coming at it from a horror perspective, gets what it seems to me nihilism really requires, which is a commitment to its aesthetics. Because nihilism isn’t necessarily a position that needs to be argued with philosophical rigor - it’s one that needs to be argued in a way that captures the feel of cursing your own existence. And Ligotti does that while still providing the veneer of rigor needed to function as philosophy, which is terribly delightful.
In terms of Neoreaction a Basilisk, he was one of the two places it started. The initial idea the whole essay sprung out of was the realization that a long standing argument I’ve made about the Turing Test, namely that it’s not about language but about empathy, works as an answer to the central horror Ligotti identifies with his deliciously chilling “we’re not from here.” I flailed around with that for a while and then read about Nick Land and realized that he was the obvious ground on which to stage my imagined Turing/Ligotti dustup. Which got out of control quickly, obviously, and became a different thing, but the basic interplay of Ligotti’s radical sense of alienation and Turing’s radical sense of empathy is still very central to the book.
GNoH: At what point in the process did you realise Yudkowsky and Moldbug were also going to have to feature prominently in the essay?
PS: Almost immediately, because they seemed to me obviously necessary to explain Land. I mean, there’s no way to talk about “The Dark Enlightenment” without talking about Moldbug, because “The Dark Enlightenment” is about Moldbug. And Land is really interested in the idea of the singularity, which immediately sent me to Yudkowsky, because I think in practice a lot of our cultural rhetoric about the singularity comes from Yudkowsky. (To our detriment.) As I said, the basic explanations of who they all are were the first part of the book I wrote (though it all needed a complete redo when I finished the first draft because I hadn’t known what I was doing yet), and by the time I finished that section (and the attendant research) it was clear I’d been right, and that the three of them shared a bunch of connections and formed a coherent territory I could stalk.
GNoH: Can you talk a bit about how it felt having produced this book, watching 2016 unroll towards the Trump victory. Did you feel like you’d in some sense predicted what was going on? Caught whiff of some political undercurrents that had passed others by?
PS: I finished the main essay just as Trump was securing the Republican nomination, and at that point it was feeling like I’d caught a grim sort of wave. The rest of the year became a sort of horrifying confirmation of how large the wave was, peaking in a nice suicidal despair on election night. I have trouble calling it a prediction given that a week before the election I published the first version of “Theses on a President,” which confidently anticipated a Clinton victory, though. Inasmuch as I was ahead of the curve, though, I think mostly I got…lucky? One of the things the alt-right emerged out of was a sort of perverted backwater of geek culture, and as a politically minded geek blogger with an interest in cranks and weirdos I was in a position to see and start writing about them while they were still confined to the small pond.
GNoH: I remember feeling sure that Trump was likely to bury reactionary politics in general for maybe a generation with his comical overreach (I am that kind of naive). What did you think was going to happen after the seemingly inevitable Clinton victory? And what do you think now, a year into Trump?
PS: I thought Clinton was going to cause less immediate-term suffering than Trump, but would still be on the whole bad. I think her brand of centrist liberalism is almost entirely discredited, in the sense that nobody actually believes it has solutions to the problems currently facing the world, really no matter what you might think those problems are. (And I think you can say that fairly about the entire electoral left - Sanders and Corbyn are clearly preferable to anyone we’ve elected in my lifetime, but “contemporary capitalism with better health care and affordable housing” is still clearly insufficient.) And so I think she’d have likely been a one term President beaten by a right-wing extremist of some sort or another because that’s all the Republican Party is currently capable of serving up, and that we’d find ourselves on a relatively similar track in four years’ time.
That said, there are a lot of things that are uniquely bad about Trump that wouldn’t be factors with Cruz or Pence, for instance. So it’s a bit of a trade-off - on the one hand, we get the inevitable reactionary turn out of our system faster, on the other we get one that’s, if not much worse, at least appreciably worse than we otherwise would have. Ultimately, though, I don’t think either outcome would have made a significant difference in the looming ecological catastrophe, and so I think the difference is purely in terms of the quality of life for people waiting for the inevitable massive human dieback. Which isn’t nothing, obviously, but it obviously forecloses some pretty important questions.
END OF PART ONE
BIO: Phil Sandifer is a writer and druid who lives in Ithaca, New York. He is the author of TARDIS Eruditorum, a sprawling history of Doctor Who, and The Last War in Albion, an even more sprawling history of British comic books. He blogs at http://eruditorumpress.com
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