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.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Neoreaction a Basilisk by Phil Sandifer

  1. 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.

    The way I heared [sic] it, it’s not so much that he deserves a chapter of his own after Phil realized the Deep Dreaming in the Northern Caves story wouldn’t necessarily be ready before the imminentized eschaton comes down.

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  2. Argh. My timer went off and distracted me from including a key clause of that comment.

    “it’s not so much that he deserves a chapter of his own as that Phil* needed something to make up the alloted page count after he realized [etc]”

    (* I always feel weird calling him “Sandifer”, even in scholarly/critical discussion.)

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  3. Yeah, I remember Phil saying that. My point in the review is, it shows.

    I feel weird about referring to him as Sandifer, too, but I’d feel even weirder about referring to someone by first name in a formal context. It divides up weirdly–in a book’s acknowledgements I’ll call him Phil, in a chapter he’s Sandifer. Review of one of his books, Sandifer; comments on that review, Phil. Etc.

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