Book Review: Neoreaction a Basilisk by Phil Sandifer

Due diligence: I’m friends with the author, read and commented on an early draft of the titular essay, and backed both this book’s Kickstarter and his Patreon, and received the book through those channels. I have no financial stake in this book.

That out of the way: this book is properly brilliant. Perhaps the best testament to its brilliance is that I’ve tried three times to express how brilliant it is and ended up a couple paragraphs into an inadequate summary of the first essay before I deleted my review and started over.

This is a book full of monsters–philosophical horrors that represent the degree to which the worst ideas of the worst people are strangling our world in their tentacles, with each essay explores a different branch of this theme, one of the tentacles of the skulltopus. One by one, it looks at technophiliac white supremacists, nihilistically misogynistic gamers, Trump, anarcho-capitalist authoritarians, conspiracy theorists, transphobic second-wave feminists, and Peter Thiel, exploring their ideas (or, in the case of Trump, who doesn’t seem to have any, the psychic landscape of New York that spawned him) and seeking the monsters within.

But this is not simply a litany of all the ways in which terrible people are terrible. Instead, Sandifer repeatedly gives his subjects the opportunity to hang themselves by their own ropes, and shows how inevitably they do; ultimately, all seven topics are haunted by what Sandifer calls “basilisks,” ideas from which they flee but which they can never escape. In this, Sandifer borrows the name from Roko’s basilisk, a frankly hilarious incident in which a community of AI cranks accidentally reinvented Pascal’s wager and terrified themselves with it; the concept itself, however, he accredits to Eugene Thacker’s observations on the relationship between philosophy and horror.

Along the way are typically Sandiferian delights. As always, his ability to sensitively elucidate the bizarre thought processes of utter cranks is without peer; the first essay in particular is impressive in this regard, as it is constructed as a widening spiral through the thoughts of AI crank and Harry Potter fanfiction author Eliezer Yudkowsky, political crank and designer of questionable software Curtis Yarvin (a.k.a Mencius Moldbug), and drug-addled philosophy crank Nick Land. Throughout, one gets the feeling that Sandifer is going out of his way to be kind to his subjects, but it is not because they deserve it; instead it is to give them plenty of rope with which to hang themselves. The three ultimately come across, respectively, as a well-meaning crank who’d be harmless if not for the people listening to him, an utterly despicable human being, and a fascinating train wreck. The fifth essay is also a delight along these lines, as it playfully uses David Icke’s “lizard people” conspiracy theory as a basis from which to take apart conspiracy theories as a whole. (But again, Sandifer’s obvious fondness for cranks never quite crosses the line into forgetting that, for example, David Icke’s ideas are repulsively anti-Semitic, or that Land is providing intellectual cover for racism.)

Admittedly, the book is not perfect. I adore “Theses on a President,” for example, but it’s definitely out there–I love the metaphor of a Faustian exchange, giving up his name to become a brand, to represent the kind of toxic performativity that Trump exemplifies, but I suspect readers less familiar with Sandifer (and let’s face it, if you need a review to help you decide whether to buy this book, you’re not) might find it a bridge too far so soon after being asked to swallow the psychogeographic approach. At least, I know I would discounted the essay at that point, if I didn’t already have the introduction to psychogeography Sandifer helpfully provided in his earlier work. At the other end of the scale, the last two chapters feel a little perfunctory–particularly the last. Admittedly, it doesn’t take a whole lot of words to say “Peter Thiel’s basilisk is that he’s an idiot who got lucky,” but ultimately Thiel gets little more attention than some of the figures discussed in passing in the first essay–and given that he comes up in the first essay, it’s not clear why he deserves a chapter of his own.

All that said, this is still a vitally important book, and more importantly an excellent one. I cannot recommend it enough–and indeed, I intend to recommend it to everyone I know who is even remotely interested in politics, philosophy, or their intersection. This is Phil’s best work yet, and that is saying something.

You can buy Neoreaction a Basilisk here.

How many superheroes does it take to screw in a lightbulb? (Speed Demons)

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It’s September 13, 1997, the day after “The Prometheon,” and the world is basically unchanged: the same top songs, the same top movies, and more or less the same headlines, at least in the sense of anything which interests us 20 years later.

In the DC Animated Universe, however, major changes are afoot. Suddenly, the Flash is here, a fully realized hero in his own right. He is given no origin story, no secret identity, but a great deal of personality: he is cocky, reckless, and loves attention, but nonetheless a dedicated protector, just like Superman. He’s “that guy from Central City” just like Batman, way back in “The Last Son of Krypton,” was “that nut in Gotham”: someone with his own milieu, his own aesthetic, his own villain, and presumably his own allies and supporting cast. The Flash is a fully fledged superhero, which of course most of us already know from the comics; but he has never before been mentioned in the DCAU. No superhero has outside of Batman, Batgirl, Robin, and Superman. (And technically Wonder Woman, but that was just a shout-out by the writers: diegetically, Lois’ line in “Blasts from the Past” can be read as either referring to an established superhero or just making up a spur-of-the-moment superhero name for herself, but Wonder Woman’s first appearance, in “Secret Origins,” suggests reading Lois as meaning the latter.)

There were, until this episode, two clearly delineated superheroic milieus within the DCAU: Gotham, with its looming darkness and the several avatars of the Bat, and Metropolis, shining home of the Man of Tomorrow. Now we have someone who belongs to neither, the “guy from Central City,” a denizen of the space between. Of course there has always been the idea that Gotham and Metropolis both are part of some larger world, with Batman’s globe-trotting adventure serials and Superman’s science-fictional space journeys, but in terms of ideaspace they were presented as essentially binary. Now we see that there is a between, the ideaspace from which the Flash briefly visits STAS and then moves on. It can only be a visit, because BTAS belongs to one milieu and STAS the other; lying between them, Central City does not belong in either show.

The introduction of a between, the suggestion of a spectrum, emphasizes a kinship between Superman and Batman and their respective aesthetics. A binary implies two opposites with nothing in common, but in truth a line can be drawn between any two points, and what is a spectrum but a line between two points previously presented as binary? The similarities between Batman and Superman–the line that connects them–will soon be far more important than their differences.

What, after all, do they share in common with each other and with the Flash? Some commonalities we have already covered: they’re all protector fantasies, and all divided identities disrupted by trauma (though in the case of the Flash, we will only ever see that trauma in brief flashback). The episode, however, emphasizes a third commonality we have only briefly touched upon: they are all performances.

The Flash showboats. He shows up to the race disruptively late with a humblebrag of an apology about having only woken up two minutes prior. He trash-talks Superman, flirts with Lois, and arrogantly predicts an easy victory. He could not be more clearly playing a role; he hams it up for the crowd, but he’s still playing the same role when he assumes Superman telling him about the ship caught in the Weather Wizard’s first hurricane is a ruse, when he charges into the lightning shield, and when he zips in through the tunnel Superman dug to knock the control rod out of the Weather Wizard’s hand. All of these behaviors are too consistent with a single theme to not be performative: he’s not just fast-running, but fast-talking, always rushing in, quick to jump to conclusions, and speeding to the rescue. There is no need for the episode to show the outcome of the race: we know the Flash is the Fastest Man Alive, because that’s the role he’s performing.

In the same sense, Superman is the Man of Steel: he shrugs off both physical harm and Flash’s needling, pushes an entire oil tanker and digs through solid rock with equal ease, and tanks the hits from the villain’s all-powerful weapon.

We’ve observed this before with Barbara Gordon, for whom Batgirl is just a performance, a costume she can take off and put on. But all identity is performative, and not always in a way that can be turned off so easily. Batman is a core part of who Bruce Wayne (who saw his parents murdered at age 8) is, a performance that he can hide, but cannot stop anymore than he can stop performing masculinity, while Bruce Wayne (wealthy playboy) is something he can turn off and on at will. Similarly, Clark Kent can perform the role of a reporter at work, and that’s a part of who he is, but he’d still be himself if he lost his job; he cannot stop being Superman. He could take off the costume and change the name, but he’d still have the powers and the drive to protect; to change that would be to change who he is in a fundamental way.

But Superman is still a performance. Some aspects of who he “really is” are channeled into that performance, just as some aspects of Wally West–his lackadaisical approach, humor, and spooniness*–are channeled into his performance as the Flash. But ultimately, just like every other role played by every other person, real or imagined, these roles are still just a part of who they are, shaped by the constraints of the role itself yet also an extension of the underlying personality.

But the Flash is more consciously, deliberately a role than Superman or Batman. Superman is Clark Kent; elseworlds and what-ifs notwithstanding, there is only one Superman and that is he. The same goes for Batman: yes, Dick Grayson, and yes, Terry McGinnis, but if you ask people who Batman is, the answer any but the most pedantic are going to give is Bruce Wayne.

But the answer to “Who is the Flash?” is “Which one?” There have been many Flashes, with different names, origins, appearances, and personalities, but all playing the role of the Flash, the role we have identified as the Fastest Man Alive. There is no singular iconic Flash, though Barry Allen comes close: he is the best-known and the most likely to appear in adaptations, but he’s not the original, and that complexifies the question in ways that don’t come up for Superman or Batman. What this episode has done, however, is sidestep the question: it’s answered “Who is the Flash?” with “the Fastest Man Alive.” In so doing, it has declared its Flash, this Flash, to be the Platonic form of the Flash, an expression of the essential Flash-ness which all the specific Flashes share. In much the same way that Batman: The Animated Series‘ anachronisms declared its Batman to be the timeless distillation of all eras of Batman, the DCAU Flash is here declared to be a distillation of all versions of the Flash.

Later, in Justice League, this will be further emphasized by giving him Wally West’s name and appearance, but Barry Allen’s job and origin story, while also incorporating elements of both their personalities and Jay Garrick’s status as the first Flash. But the point is already made here: it’s not just Batman and (more subtly, as the anachronisms of his show are more subtle) Superman who are being presented as timeless forms distilled from all depictions of the character. The DCAU as a whole is presenting itself as the best and most iconic elements of DC Comics, mixed and purified down to the deepest essences of its characters and stories. It is a bold declaration of ambition, but as Superman comes to realize about the Flash, underlying those brash words is the skill and dedication to actually mean it.

So, with that said, let the New Adventures begin.

*Yes, “spoony” is a real word. I’m bringing it back.

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Chill out (The Prometheon)

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It’s September 12, 1997, three days since “Blast from the Past, Part 2.” Top songs and movies are unchanged; the only news items of interest since then are the death of Burgess Meredith–who played the Penguin in the Adam West Batman series and film–on the 9th, and the decision by Scotland on the 11th to form its own Parliament independent of the English one (while still remaining part of the UK).

And, frankly, there’s not much happening on Superman: The Animated Series either. “The Prometheon” is one of the most forgettable episodes of the series–indeed, until rewatching it for this project, I had forgotten entirely that it existed. There’s nothing particularly–or interestingly–wrong with it; it’s just a simple premise executed with a minimum of elaboration: a giant monster smashes a bunch of stuff, Superman employs the help of STAR Labs to junk-science up a solution, and that’s it–the episode doesn’t even really bother with a denouement to speak of.

The only other thing really going on is a B-plot in which the fantastically named General Hardcastle is grumpy and suspicious about Superman for a jumbled mix of good and bad reasons–on the one hand, Superman is a vigilante who is nigh-impossible to hold accountable for his actions, which is a pretty good reason to be wary; on the other, he’s an alien, which is a terrible reason. The latter is the main focus, as Hardcastle shows in his response to the Prometheon itself: he sees the alien, the Other, as the enemy, and believes the correct response is to attack it with whatever means he has available. But the Prometheon feeds on heat, so all the explosions Hardcastle’s troops subject it to just make it stronger. No matter; he’ll just attack it with bigger, hotter explosions–which make it stronger still.

Hardcastle is a monster-movie staple, the military commander who is too busy being “tough” to listen to the solutions of the “weak” or “egghead” scientist. On the one hand, this character type is a rare case of action and science fiction movies actually identifying and critiquing a form of fragile masculinity; on the other hand, it perpetuates the myth that college-educate white men are somehow both superior/automatically right and an oppressed underclass. (And we saw last episode where attempts to resolve that particular kind of cognitive dissonance can lead. The jock picking on the nerd, the pseudoscience of “alpha” and “beta males”; these are the stabbed-in-the-back myths of 4chan, and Revenge of the Nerds is their Mein Kampf.)

Of course this reading of Hardcastle is complicated by the fact that he is getting the “egghead” recommendations second-hand, via Superman, who is definitely not weaker than Hardcastle. That’s where the two stories emerge as parallels: both involve Hardcastle attacking a powerful alien instead of listening to reason. He is afraid of the Other, and lashes out violently at the slightest provocation; Superman, as the protector fantasy par excellence, has no fear, and can think through the best way to destroy the Other.

But both, in the end, seek to destroy the Other, because in this episode as in so many alien invasion and monster movies, the only error of the Hardcastles is in their methods. The Other is still depicted as a threat.

What, then, of Superman? Is he not an alien, an other? And the answer is that no, he is not. In all the ways that matter–upbringing, appearance, how others treat him–Clark Kent is an American-born white man from Kansas. This is why claims that Superman is an “illegal alien”–like the one Fox News commentator Todd Starnes made in a recent-as-of-this-writing opinion piece complaining about a Superman comic being insufficiently racist for his taste–are so absurd. “Illegal alien” doesn’t mean “person living in the country illegally”; it’s a racist term for Latin@ people. Nobody’s going to deport white adults who were brought into the country illegally as children, but Latin@ people whose ancestors settled in the Southwest long before the U.S. conquered it are threatened by the racist police state every day. Like “criminal” or “terrorist,” it is a word which appears to describe a behavior, but in the mouths of racists becomes just another dehumanizing slur: a white cop who murders a black teen might have been frightened of something, and so deserves paid leave and a “fair” trial that will inevitably find them not guilty; the black teen murdered by that cop might have smoked weed once, so they’re a criminal who deserved it. A white man who shoots up a government building because his far-right political beliefs and extremist religion tell him to is a “crazy” lone-wolf bad actor; a Middle East or Central Asian man who does it for the exact same reasons is a terrorist.

Privilege isn’t about who you are; it’s about who you’re not. Everyone who is not Latin@ (or mistaken as such by racists) has the privilege of not being threatened by anti-immigrant violence, state-sanctioned and otherwise. Everyone who is not black (or mistaken as such by racists) has the privilege of not being subject to anti-black racism. Everyone who is not Middle Eastern or Central Asian (or mistaken as such by racists) has the privilege of not being viewed as a potential terrorist. And so on, and on, and on…

Clark Kent isn’t any of these things. It doesn’t matter that he’s a Kryptonian; he still has all the privileges of not being part of any marginalized ethnicity, which is to say he has white privilege, and therefore is white in every sense that matters. This is not passing privilege, where racists mistake someone for white, allowing them to escape some elements of institutional racism (though not all, and not without price)–that is contingent on concealing one’s true identity, but Superman’s Otherness is public knowledge; everyone knows he’s an alien, and treats him like a white man anyway (with the occasional rare exception like Hardcastle). Whiteness is defined by its privilege; a white person is a person who is not part of any marginalized ethnicity, and hence in the DCAU an alien can be white. (Contrast Supergirl, where institutional anti-alien prejudice does exist. Supergirl and Superman are publicly alien and hence subject to that prejudice, but their secret identities pass as human, and thus they can be argued to have passing privilege.) 

In the DCAU, as in most DC Comics spinoffs and adaptations, Superman is white. When he punches the alien, invading Other, it’s a white man doing it–a white man protecting the in-group from the out-. And we all know where that leads.

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Vlog Review: Star vs Evil S2E04

Those of you who follow on Tumblr, for whatever reason the videos don’t play there. Click through to to watch.

Reminder that Patreon backers can see these videos (including Star vs. Evil, commissioned episodes of other series, and panels I presented at various cons) 4-5 weeks early AND Near-Apocalypse articles four MONTHS early!