Review- Sandifer, “Neoreaction a Basilisk”


Philip Sandifer, “Neoreaction a Basilisk: Essays On and Around the Alt-Right” (2017) – It says something about the state of play that the best book-length treatment of the altright qua altright that I have yet found was published online and written by a man best known for blogging endlessly about the television shows “Dr. Who” and “Hannibal.” But here we are!

Sandifer, a prolific blogger who operates in the space between nerd culture, Marxism, critical theory, and the occult, dives deep and wanders far. The bulk of the book is his grapple with the “neoreactionaries” or “dark enlightenment.” People on this end of the altright are blog-bound and unlikely to wind up in the streets wearing a softball helmet, but also the closest you get to an intellectual vanguard for the altright as a whole. He focuses on three figures: software engineer-cum-white nationalist monarchist Curtis “Moldbug” Yarvin, former leftish critical theorist and current whacked-out prophet of fascist techno-apocalypse Nick Land, and a third figure who arguably doesn’t belong- AI blogger Eliezer Yudkowsky, who isn’t an open bigot or fascist but who does share certain elements of the neoreactionary imagination. Namely, all three produce works that could be understood as horror texts, both in terms of the feelings that produced them and the feelings they induce in others (including believers). Sandifer closely reads all three with a profoundly skeptical eye but a participatory spirit. Beyond the horror-show posturing, Sandifer tries to bring out the real weirdness, the Deleuzean “monster offspring” that lingers behind the (anti-)heroic fantasies and feverish system-building, and finds…

Honestly, I’m not 100% sure. He does something like a thirty page disquistion on Blake’s visionary poems (and before then loops in a number of other theorists, such as Frantz Fanon, Thomas Ligotti, and the aforementioned Gilles Deleuze) and god help me I lost track of what he was saying, and even looking at it again, still can’t tell. Sandifer clearly comes from the same whacked-out online horror/theory/geek-culture place that Land and to a lesser extent the others come from. “Send a maniac to catch a maniac,” as it’s said in scifi classic probably a little too basic for our boy. I’m fine with maniacs — some of my best friends, etc. — but it could use some editing, is all I’m saying.

As best I can make out, his conclusion is something like the following. If there’s one thing that freaks all three of his subjects out (with the possible exception of Land, the smartest of the lot, who might just be doing an elaborate bit) it’s the fear of infection by the Other and the collapse of established categories. They want the future but they don’t want it to be weird, or rather they want it weird in a way they can control. They’re not going to get their wish, Sandifer tells us. The general fucked-ness of the future means that they can’t control it any more than the rest of us can, and their brittleness won’t be an asset- isn’t, now. Whereas understandings based on radical empathy have proven to be considerably more resilient… though it might still not be enough.

Fair enough, but the whole thing could be clearer. As I hope the preceding indicated, it’s less that Sandifer winds up going down rabbit holes so much as the whole book is rabbit holes, and I get the idea Sandifer wouldn’t want it any other way. That’s fine; admirable in certain respects, even. You learn a lot, about the specific altright people he deals with (he does a similar, if much shorter, type of existential alley-oop with gamergaters, Austrian economics, TERFs, etc) and about all kinds of random stuff. He’s discursive, chatty even. It’s fun and reasonably quotable but not necessarily the most usable text in the world. And it’s notable that beyond a chapter on Trump, he sticks to the most Extremely Online portions of the altright spectrum. These are interesting to me but I find things get clearer and more grounded (and more interesting, for my money) when you bring things offline a little. But I don’t think Sandifer wants clear and grounded. This can be frustrating.

Still- at least here we have a work that takes the altright seriously as a subject of analysis. Much of the rest of the long-form writing on the subject essentially uses it as an occasion or frame for inter-left axe-grinding, or as an example or test-case for some other set of ideas. This proceeds in a spirit — a surfeit, if anything — of intellectual daring and passionate engagement. We need that, as well as rigor and a useful political analysis, to meet our weird, probably bad, future. ***’

Review- Sandifer, “Neoreaction a Basilisk”

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