Phil Sandifer sent me a review copy of his book Neoreaction a Basilisk, ostensibly about Eliezer Yudkowsky, Nick Land, and “Mencius Moldbug”, a couple of weeks ago.
(For those who don’t know, Yudkowsky is a blogger and fanfic author who basically founded an entire community based around his desire to create a machine God; Land is basically the Dave Sim of philosophy — someone who did good work, and then had some sort of severe breakdown which he incorporated into his later work, including some horrific political views; and Moldbug is just a dick on the Internet who spends ten million words saying “I don’t like black people and would like a hereditary dictatorship because I wrongly think people like me would be in charge.”)
I haven’t yet written a review, because, frankly, it’s review-proof. Anyone who’s read anything by Sandifer before knows exactly what “a book by Phil Sandifer about transhumanist ‘rationalists’ and neoreactionaries” is going to be like (except Eliezer Yudkowsky, who has shown the same understanding of the Streisand effect that he showed with Roko’s Basilisk, unwittingly promoting Sandifer’s book far more effectively than anything Sandifer himself has done). In other words, it’s only tangentially about the three men who make up its ostensible topic, and is more about Blake, Milton, and existential horror.
(That’s not a criticism, by the way — you could say much the same about my own books on Grant Morrison).
People who like Sandifer’s stuff will like it, people who find him annoying will find it annoying. I like Sandifer’s stuff myself, so I liked it, but chances are if you’re reading this you either know you’ll like it or know you won’t.
So, instead, just a few thoughts it brought up…
The abyss trolley problem. An infinite number of tracks, each equally inane, each therefore evil in the only true sense of the word – that is, meaningless but malignant. You have the lever.
Is the political,in the end, merely personal? Sandifer seems to think so, and certainly it seems largely true of Yudkowsky (I’m not as familiar with the other two as I am with him).
Sandifer seems to suggest — and he may be right — that political philosophies come from a confrontation with the abyss; the absolute knowledge that, as he puts it in the first sentence of his book, “we are fucked”. The knowledge of our own inevitable death, the anthropocene extinction, the great filter, Moloch, Mundum, Gnon, Cthulhu… these are all, basically, stemming from the same instinct as my own scream of horror. A recognition that the world is a place of filth and horror, in which everything good is eventually destroyed.
In this viewpoint, Marxism and Liberalism are both, in their ways, attempts to build a bridge across the abyss. Neither bridge has reached the other side, yet, perhaps partly because they keep getting distracted by trying to sabotage each other’s bridge, but they’re both trying that.
Yudkowskian rationality is an attempt to build a bridge across the abyss by using only a hammer.
Moldbug is trying to pull as many people as possible into the abyss with him, because he likes it in there.
Nick Land thinks the best way to cross the abyss is to jump straight down head first – eventually you’ll reach the bottom and you’ll bounce back up on the other side.
And Sandifer thinks that there’s no point in even trying to cross the abyss, because “we’re all fucked”. His sympathies seem to lie most with Thomas Ligotti, who considers consciousness itself to be a mistake.
(Personally, my sympathies lie with Yudkowsky. I think he’s wrong, as a matter of simple fact, about the possibility of digital immortality and how it may be approached, but all of this really seems to me to come down to the problem that human consciousness is relatively recent software running on legacy meatware, and it would be much better were that software ported to a system that didn’t have such a tendency toward catastrophic failure. Again, the similarities with my An Incomprehensible Condition come to the fore. Nick Land’s Phyll-Undhu, with its fascination with the Tower of Babel, shares a lot of the same mental territory as that book.
Yudkowsky is the odd one out, really, in that he locates his golden age in the future, while Moldbug and Land locate it in the past (Land, possibly, ironically — he may not believe a golden age could ever happen). The myth of the Fall — a loss of innocence being brought by knowledge and consciousness — is also, when one looks at it in a different angle, the myth of Progress, with Prometheus bringing knowledge that will lift man up to be with the Gods. While Land and Moldbug are Reactionaries, Yudkowsky is, in this sense at least, Progressive. But both are still the same myth — it’s really just a question of whether or not you think ignorance really is bliss.)
This seems to suggest that the problem most political campaigners want to solve is really a problem in their own heads. Certainly my own campaigning has rather a lot to do with my exaggerated sense of scrupulosity — a belief that if I don’t fix everything in the world, everything that’s still wrong *is my fault*. This is, of course, an extraordinarily egotistical view (and one, again, that is shared by Yudkowsky — part of the reason I mock his thinking when he’s wrong is that his thinking is so often so close to my own, the narcissism of small differences), and it’s possibly healthier to, as Phil suggests, “assume we’re all fucked”.
It’s *certainly* better to do so than to, as Land and Moldbug do, try their best to make that fuckedness come true as quickly and thoroughly as possible.
Moldbug, in particular, seems a ridiculous figure — just someone who bloviates on the Internet about how the blacks and the women just *are* genetically inferior, because Carlyle — but he’s one funded by Peter Thiel, a billionaire who shares most of Moldbug’s views, who’s a delegate for Trump, and who recently funded Hulk Hogan’s destruction of Gawker Media (a company I’ll shed no tears for, but a sign of how Thiel uses his power). If we *are* fucked, it’s in large part because of the existence of people like Thiel — people brought up on the technolibertarian dream, and who think that if the world could just be run by tech billionaires everything would be OK. (Moldbug argued, seriously, that Steve Jobs should be made dictator, while Jobs was still alive).
It may well be that we are all fucked. Certainly my own wetware, with its autism, and its anxiety, and depression, and general disgust at the universe, predisposes me to believe so. I believe that my own Liberalism is probably futile, that people will keep living down to my worst expectations, that the world is full of Definite Wrongness. (And if you haven’t, read the Northern Caves, which I linked above with the word “Mundum”. Nostalgebraist says it’s the best response he could have written to Sandifer’s book, before the latter was even written).
But like Nostalgebraist’s Salby, I have to keep trying, not out of any expectation that it will work, or that I can make anything better, but because when the world is *this wrong* it’s that or suicide, the Ligotti option — and taking that would hurt people enough that it would add to the Definite Wrongness.
So fundamentally, I can’t agree — as in, I am not *capable* of agreeing — with Sandifer’s book, even as I agree with his assessments of Land and Moldbug (I’m more charitable towards Yudkowsky, who is very much the person I could have been had I been unfortunate enough to have been born a couple of socioeconomic levels more privileged than I was). But if you’re interested in these ideas, or want to see what I’m talking about (I freely admit that this post may be the least coherent thing I’ve ever written) you have thirty hours to back his Kickstarter.
Alternatively (or as well) you could back my Patreon, like the other kind people who have funded this post. You won’t get Sandifer’s book if you do that, but you’ll encourage me to write more things like this…