Ginger Nuts of Horror
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 copy of the book for sale in ebook and paperback formats, 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 the second part (click here to read part one) of our interview with him we talk collaborative working, GamerGate, TERFs, and Phil’s 2018 plans…
Gingernuts of Horror: Moving on to the other essays in this book, one of the things that occured to me about your piece on GamerGate was how much that movement, in retrospect, feels like a dry run for the Alt-Right element of the Trump campaign (and indeed, it contains some of the same key players). When did you write this essay? And were you concerned at all about blowback taking this subject on?
Phil Sandifer: I wrote the start of this essay and “Theses on a President” during the writing of the main essay, so probably about a year after the trashfire was well and truly lit. I’d already weathered the storm of getting into a feud with Vox Day at that point, so I had a pretty good idea of the worst case, though I hadn’t and haven’t been SWATted or anything. But to be honest, the alt-right had mostly taken to leaving me alone by 2016. I mean, I was a cis white male, so nowhere near their favorite flavor of punching bag, and every time Vox started a fight with me I turned it into a publicity boost, which managed to get him mad enough at me that he switched to completely ignoring me. So I felt like I was in a pretty safe position to take the topic on, and indeed felt something of an obligation to do so given that.
GNoH: ‘Theses on a President’ may actually contain the most concise detailed biography of Trump I’ve yet read. How much research did it take to pull that together?
PS: Why thank you. That’s strange to hear about a piece in which I suggest that Trump Tower was a black mass in which the President sacrificed his name for power, but oddly not out of keeping with what I was going for. And yes, as you suggest, it was pretty research-heavy, although it never got to, like, “actually reading a book” hard. (Well. I read a chunk of The Art of the Deal. But that’s hardly a book.) I mean, Trump was pretty well documented before he ran for President, and finding accounts of various periods of his past wasn’t really hard in the blizzard of stories. Often the hardest thing was tracking down something I remembered reading from months ago but hadn’t bookmarked, just because there’s so much stuff out there on him that if you slightly misremember a quote you’re up a creek finding it again. Honestly, though, the only part I actually minded was sitting through the first episode of The Apprentice, which was genuinely agonizing. On the whole, though, the piece broke down into individual chunks pretty easily. (It’s numbered sections of a couple paragraphs each, so that’s kind of literally true.) I could focus on getting a couple sources about Atlantic City, or a couple sources about the Grand Hyatt and work on teasing out the narrative I needed within the details of each given event.
GNoH: Based on that (relatively) recent viewing of The Apprentice, what do you make of the recent firing/resignation of Omarosa from Trump’s administration? Is there any chance it (or anything else, really) damages him?
PS: Oh god. It’s still hard to take Omarosa entirely seriously, I think because she’s fundamentally just an epiphenomenon of Trump. I’d be pretty surprised if her departure damages him. It seems very much like a sideshow act within the entire shit circus.
Though I think yes, lots of stuff really damages him. He’s got an approval rating of something like 36%. Republicans are doing terribly in special elections - they just lost Alabama for fuck’s sake. And yes, the astonishing badness of Roy Moore was a lot of that, but it also fits into a general tendency of Republicans to get clobbered or have elections be way, way closer than they should be over the last year. So yeah, I think he’s subject to the same political gravity as any staggeringly unpopular politician with next to no significant accomplishments. I think the Democrats are likely to do very well in 2018; I’d be surprised if they don’t take the House and unsurprised if they take the Senate. And I think he’s in for a very, very tough reelection campaign in 2020 unless the Democrats completely shit the bed in candidate selection, which, to be fair, they’re really good at. Assuming he makes it to 2020, because frankly it’s easy to see the GOP acquiescing to an impeachment in 2019 in a desperate attempt to salvage things. Nobody is untouchable, and asinine clowns are more touchable than most, even if they are often the best at making it look otherwise.
GNoH: Another one of the new essays for this edition of the book is a collaboration with Jack Graham. Can you talk about the collaboration process? What did you most enjoy about it, and what was the most significant challenge?
PS: In some ways I’d rather hear Jack’s answer to this than mine. From my perspective, Jack really took the lead on that piece. Collaboration is never as simple as “who wrote what bits” because in practice you go back and forth over each other’s sentences so that every bit is truly coauthored, but probably around 80% of the essay is stuff Jack wrote the first draft of. I knew why I wanted to tackle the Austrian School, which is that their economic system is based on the complete rejection of all empiricism and mathematical models in favor of reasoning entirely from first principles. I talk in the main essay about that approach and how it’s fundamentally a lie because what it presents is never actually the train of thought the writer used to get to those ideas, and so the Austrians, who are a major influence on Mencius Moldbug (and Vox Day for that matter) were an obvious corollary to it. The problem was that I know fuck all about economics, and so I brought in Jack, who I knew would also bring his deep knowledge of Marxism, which was another thread I’d set up in the main essay when I suggested that Marx offered better answers to almost all of Moldbug’s questions but never really paid off.
So I wrote a version of what became the first two pages or so in order to set an initial direction, then Jack wrote a first stab at the main body and sent that to me as a mixture of developed sections and half-formed notes. I went over it and worked out a vague structure, then wrote the lead-in to a conclusion (the close-reading of Rothbard’s argument that opens the section called “Demiurge!”) before leaving some appallingly useless note like “right, Jack, now explain the connection between Marxism and empathy” and sending it back to him. He, instead of having me killed, worked out a full draft. I partially redid the ending to better tie in to the rest of the book and did a general edit to match the style. But that’s mostly a lot of minor stuff that’s only of interest to real style geeks. Jack is really fond of ellipses, for instance, whereas I don’t use them very much, so I redid a bunch of jokes to get their comic pauses in different ways.
The most enjoyable part, as a result, was when I got to sit down and read a 20,000 word Jack Graham essay. I love Jack’s work and love the problem-solving involved in editing someone else’s work, and so just diving in and getting to really simultaneously deeply immerse myself in a Jack Graham piece and muck around with it was immensely gratifying. The biggest challenge was probably that Jack is a fucking monster who puts two spaces after a period.
GNoH: I have to admit, as a layperson, I was surprised at the vacuum at the heart of the Austrian School in terms of the rejection of empiricism (though it explains a lot). Were you aware just how closely this subject would dovetail with the similar vacuum at the heart of GamerGate, or Trump? It feels almost like rejection of empiricism is the ‘original sin’ of so many of these movements...
PS: Hm. I think the rejection of empiricism is close to the original sin - certainly it’s related - but for me, at least, it’s really the rejection of empathy that’s the original sin. In every case, there’s a terrifying failure to acknowledge the existence or importance of other people’s lived experience. That’s consistently, I think, the thing that pushes them into outright and deep-seated evil. But I think the rejection of empiricism is a part of that. When you operate from a standpoint of supposedly pure, “from first principles” reasoning - and again, that’s always a rhetorical device instead of an honest account of one’s thought - one of the things that happens is that you lose any sort of obligation to look at the consequences your arguments have for actual people. But I think the causality runs in the other direction: the reason the Austrians reject empiricism is that it would require them to acknowledge the obscene amounts of suffering their worldview causes, and they don’t want to do that.
That said, it obviously does dovetail with the rest of the book. What really unites the seven essays - since two of them aren’t really on the alt-right - is that they’re looking at ideas that are in very fundamental ways mad. And to be clear, I’m not using that word in terms of mental illness. I think mental illness is generally a really bad way to look at these subjects. (As one very astute assessment of describing Trump in terms of mental illness put it, the mentally ill cause suffering for themselves; Trump causes suffering for other people.) I mean it in much more of a Lovecraftian sense, in which they encounter some unfathomable and horrific piece of knowledge that shatters their minds. That’s the whole idea of the basilisk, really - the thing you wish you didn’t know. The Austrian School’s rejection of empiricism seemed at first glance like exactly that - an argument so utterly bizarre (one might even say Weird) as to clearly be pathological. And I suspected that pathology would probably be rooted in Marx, or at least figured that Jack would sell that case brilliantly, which he did.
GNoH: David Icke feels on the surface to be a somewhat softer target than the other people and movements you cover in this book. What drew you to his particular brand of conspiracy theory, and what, if anything, did you learn from researching his work?
PS: He absolutely is a soft target, but in a weird way he’s the person I’m most fond of in the book. (Well, almost; I have a strange respect for Mary Daly, who comes up in the TERFs essay.) He’s just such an utterly ridiculous figure, spinning these preposterously unconvincing theories with apparently total conviction. He’s certainly not harmless; he’s viciously anti-semitic in ways that are legitimately destructive. But there’s a fundamental charm to the sheer barminess of his ideas. And in a book that is, as I said, about philosophies that are afflicted by madness, I thought an essay about someone who exists at a sort of odd angle from the book’s main subjects would be a good occasion to look at that madness in a context that’s, if not untainted by awful politics, at least less tainted. So he ends up being the sort of good example.
Where he let me down, really, was in just not being all that good. Like, when I actually dug into his books, they weren’t what you’d call satisfyingly mad. I was hoping for something much more Robert Anton Wilson, and instead I got this sort of sad paranoia of a man convinced he’s had some sort of crucial insight into the world but who’s just obviously failing to get anywhere with it. There’s a tendency in some of his late works - because his style does actually evolve over the twenty years or so he’s been writing - to talk with a sort of wearied crankiness, as though he’s just terribly annoyed how much of his valuable time he’s had to spend exposing the conspiracy of lizard people that run the world. So I end up giving, I think, some constructive criticism on how best to approach the subject of lizard people that I hope he’ll take on board. (And, you know, it gave me the opportunity to work a bit of Alan Moore into the book, which it really felt like it needed.)
GNoH: It seems to me that in ‘Notes on TERFs’ the rejection of empathy you identified earlier with the Austrians is front and centre, especially in the case of Brennan. Why do you think the ‘T’ in LGBT has so often been used as a bargaining chip in the way you describe in the essay? And assuming we don’t all get wiped out by rising sea levels, what do you think is the next civil rights barrier to be challenged?
PS: Brennan’s cruelty is jaw-dropping, but for me the really staggering lack of empathy (which is of course distinct from cruelty) in that essay is Janice Raymond, who gets so wrapped up in her conspiracy theory about the medical industry inventing transness to attack women that she seems to not even register the possibility that individual trans people might be sincere in their identification, instead treating them all as if they’re consciously in on the plan. It’s a position that’s self-evidently ridiculous if you actually say it out loud, and so the fact that Raymond doesn’t notice it about her argument speaks volumes about where her priorities lie.
Regarding the why of the history, I am in some ways reluctant to speculate. I’m very proud of that essay—there are ways in which it’s my favorite thing in the book. But as you can no doubt imagine it was also an essay I wanted to be very careful with, because it’s easy to argue that a guy named “Phil Sandifer” is the wrong person to be writing it. Ultimately I thought I had a take on it that was both valuable and not something another writer would ever think to do, but I had a number of trans women looking over my shoulder as I worked on that piece and making sure I didn’t fuck up. (I admit I was surprised when they unanimously declined to tell me calling it “My Vagina is Haunted” was a bad idea.) But while I’m comfortable making the empirically verifiable claim that there were specific people like Jim Fouratt and Elizabeth Birch who worked to undermine trans rights in favor of other initials, I think speculating about their motives moves beyond what I should be doing with the topic. Were I to make an initial hypothesis to test via research, I’d probably start by looking at the historical circumstances that put gender identity as part of an acronym that was otherwise about sexual orientation. But again, that’s what my starting point in researching the question would be, not an answer.
As for the next civil rights barrier, it’s tough to tell in the midst of a hard reactionary turn. Right now a lot of the most urgent fires seem to be protecting and extending existing civil rights victories: the aggressive reopening of conversations about sexual assault and harassment, for instance, or the Black Lives Matter movement, which are both parts of civil rights struggles that were already nominally “won.” So seeing through that into new possibilities feels cloudy at the moment. Disability rights activists are doing some really interesting work, though, and I’d probably put my money there.
GNoH: That’s a good point about preserving and maintaining existing struggles - I’d add voting rights to your list, given how close the Alabama vote was, how crucial the black vote was, and how intense the Republican voter suppression efforts have been over the last decade…
PS: Which is closely related to the civil rights struggles being reopened by Black Lives Matter, yeah. Though of course, even disability rights are something we’ve already fought over - the Americans With Disabilities act was nearly thirty years ago. Indeed, for the most part the orderly progression of civil rights victories is the exception as opposed to the rule. The progression from gay to trans rights was, I think, the product of some very specific historical circumstances—two movements that were explicitly allied on very deep levels, but where one group was being actively subordinated to the other. Progress is usually much messier than that.
GNoH: In ‘Zero to Zero’ you highlight again how so many of the key players in these movements clearly represent a living rebuke to the philosophy they espouse. Do you think Thiel is aware of the utter hypocrisy of his position, where he lectures about ‘0 to 1’ innovation being the most valuable, yet basically all his money comes from ‘1 to n’ development?
PS: The list of things Peter Thiel is not good at is very long, but self-awareness is clearly near the top. So no, I’m sure he’s as blissfully unaware of his hypocrisy as he is of the harm he causes. Though I think the particular nature of this hypocrisy makes it easy for him, because the underlying idea is kind of bullshit. This isn’t really something I got into with the essay, because I was more interested in showing how he fails on his own terms, but the basic idea of zero to one innovation is rubbish. There’s a bit early on in his book that I pick on him for, where he lists Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Sergei Brin, and says that the next person like them isn’t going to get rich creating the operating system, social network, or search engine. Which, of course, none of those people did either. But if you actually go back through the history of computing, the question “who did” turns out to be extremely hard and to hinge on exactly how you define the object in question. And that gets at a real truth about innovation, which is that it’s almost always incremental. We learn statements like “Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1878” in school, but it’s not really true - Ebenezer Kinnersley came up with the basic technology all the way back in 1761, and there are tons of refinements in the intervening century before Edison came along and cracked the problem of making tons of money off the idea. The question of who invented a thing is almost always extremely complex, and very rarely leads back to a guy anyone has heard of. And so I think it’s easy, when you’ve got as wooly a division as Thiel’s “0 to 1” vs “1 to n” to convince yourself that all sorts of stuff is zero to one when it isn’t.
GNoH: Looking over the subjects of these essays, would you say that lack of self awareness, alongside a lack of empathy, is a defining characteristic of them? I often find myself wondering if, at some level, they know what they’re peddling doesn’t add up - or if there’s some psychological grey area between lack of self awareness and plausible deniability that they live in...
PS: There is a consistent lack of self-awareness, yeah. Though self-awareness and madness are an inherently odd mixture, since the former often prevents the latter. I mean, there certainly are outright hucksters in the world who profess beliefs they don’t actually hold in order to part suckers from their money. But I suspect they gravitate towards more mainstream beliefs—it’s probably more common among Christian fundamentalists than it is among lizard conspiracists. I suspect everyone I deal with at any length, with the partial exception of Nick Land, is sincere in their beliefs and either oblivious to their madness or capable of rationalizing it away. But the rejection of empathy is probably a part of that. It’s decidedly inconvenient to have a really good understanding of how other people look at you when you’re stark-raving mad, because doing so would oblige you to reconsider things.
But I want to stress that I don’t think self-awareness, sincerity, and madness are a “pick any two” situation. You absolutely can be all three, which is more or less what I advocate at the end of “Lizard People, Dear Reader.” I think there’s a lot to be said for willful and puckish approach that takes advantage of madness’s ability to access truths that are difficult to discover through conventional means, and that takes these insights seriously, but that remains aware of its eccentricity and keeps track of its relationship with mundane reality. I mean, I think that’s basically the definition of mysticism, which is always something that’s been central to my work. So yes, a lot of the book is spent looking at stuff that is both mad and sincere, but that lacks the self-awareness necessary for mysticism, and trying both to understand what actually goes wrong there and to demonstrate the value of mysticism in comparison. So basically a standard issue Eruditorum Press book, trying to seduce the kids into witchcraft and communism.
GNoH: Accepting this book is a work (and study) of horror philosophy, stepping outside of that, do you see any hope for the future? And if so, in what form?
PS: You have to be careful with the definition of hope and the timeframe of the future, but yes. The big caveat that I have a lot of trouble getting around is the high probability of a human dieback. Climatological catastrophe that renders sustaining the current human population impossible looks increasingly inevitable. So that puts a damper on things, obviously. And it feels crass to assert some sort of bright side to billions of people dying because of preventable human folly.
All of which said, I find hope in two sources. The first is that, at 35, most of the timelines for when things get bad have us all dying around the time I’m going to die anyway. So there’s a disconnect between the future in a planetary/species sense, which looks pretty bad, and in a personal sense, which looks more or less fine. But that’s not so much hope as privilege. In terms of the planetary/species scale, I think there’s a reasonable chance that humanity won’t go extinct. We seem a fairly adaptable species, and it seems to me more likely than not that some of us stagger through the catastrophe. So where I find hope is mostly in the fact that something is going to emerge from this, and I don’t have too much trouble sketching out scenarios that end up fairly utopian for those future generations of humanity. If humanity reverts to being a fairly localized species with population centers across the world but large swaths of planet we mostly leave alone, and if technological knowledge mostly survives the crash then it’s easy to imagine a lot of new post-capitalist forms of civilization that I think have some real potential.
GNoH: Out of Moldbug, Land, and Yudkowsky, who do you think would win in a no-holds-barred knife fight, and why?
PS: I’m gonna go with Land. Those decades of doing staggeringly large quantities of drugs surely left him with some basic street skills, and he’s clearly the one who would go dirty first.
GNoH: Lastly, what does 2018 hold for Phil Sandifer and Eruditorum Press?
PS: I’m spectacularly burnt out on the alt-right at this point, and really craving a sort of neoclassical turn where I go back to basics and do the stuff I made my bones on for a bit. So my plan for 2018 is to focus on TARDIS Eruditorum, where I’ll get the long-delayed Sylvester McCoy book together and blog through the Capaldi era, along with The Last War in Albion, where I’ll wrap up Watchmen and hopefully move on to what will be Volume 3 of that project, which will finally involve spending a nice long chunk of time with Grant Morrison as the main character. I’m feeling much more in a crowd-pleasing mood than an “oblique and challenging stuff that gets zero comment” mood at the moment, and I’m really excited to lean into that. I’m sure by the time I get through Capaldi I’ll be chomping at the bit to write something totally alienating and incomprehensible, but right now I’m really feeling the “let’s do a tour where we play all the hits” instinct instead of the “and now for a twenty minute guitar solo inspired by experimental jazz” instinct.
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