Neoreaction a Basilisk: Excerpt Two
The Kickstarter for Neoreaction a Basilisk will begin next week. For now, here’s another excerpt, this time after a section looking at the notion of “the red pill,” a concept Mencius Moldbug introduced to the alt-right, and claims that his blog offers readers.
No, what’s really striking is Moldbug’s repeated insistence on the “agony of ingestion.” While a fair description of his writing style, it’s rather hard to see what he actually intends it to refer to in terms of neoreaction. And this is clearly a definitional thing about the red pill. It doesn’t just offer the truth; it offers the searing and traumatic truth. That’s the entire point of Joe Pantoliano’s character in The Matrix, who, having taken the red pill, has decided that the Matrix was his preferred drug after all, a position that is not so much refuted as set aside when its sole proponent is impaled. And Moldbug is visibly desperate to believe he’s got it, despite the almost painful lack of agony.
But look, Moldbug isn’t insincere. If he says the red pill is agonizing to swallow, we can safely assume that he, at least, thinks there’s agony. So the question becomes: what, precisely, does Moldbug find agonizing in his own thought? This is closely related to the question of what his monstrous offspring looks like. What’s the moment in his reasoning that he doesn’t want to be there? He says that it’s Part 9a of the Gentle Introduction which begins, after several parts not mentioning anything like the red pill at all, “Today you begin your irreversible descent into black, unthinkable madness.” Oh boy! But let’s continue with our “Moldbug is sincere” principle and assume that, after his eight part buildup, he really is delivering what he imagines to be the goods. Certainly Part 9a marks a turning point, as he explains it, between the first eight parts that explain “what history really is, and what it really has to teach us,” and the finale that offers a program of action.
So what is the program of action? It’s not, to be clear, putting Steve Jobs in charge; that’s Moldbug’s wish, but he isn’t actually proposing it as a plan of action. Actually, Moldbug is being refreshingly realistic here, trying to come up with a program that can be enacted on an individual level. As he conceptualizes it, the idea is to be “political engineers” designing a backup system that will kick in when American democracy inevitably goes south. And the first step of this backup system is, as he puts it, becoming worthy, by which he means the embrace of a doctrine he calls passivism. He describes it thusly: “The steel rule of passivism is absolute renunciation of official power. We note instantly that any form of resistance to sovereignty, so long as it succeeds, is a share in power itself. Thus, absolute renunciation of power over USG implies absolute submission to the Structure.”
And suddenly the abyss gazes also. Moldbug has stared into the truth of history, seen that it is a massive pack of lies designed purely to justify the corrupt status quo, and the only thing he can think to do about it is to submit entirely to the status quo. Make no mistake – he wants to burn it all down. He says, flatly, that he considers American democracy to be morally comparable to Nazi Germany, declaring that they are “both criminal regimes which history will rejoice to see abolished, because I feel that Washington can no less escape the crimes of Moscow than the Wehrmacht can escape the crimes of the SS.” (We’ll just leave be the idea that the crimes of Moscow are the worst of Washington’s sins.) He wants desperately to be a revolutionary, but because he wants to rebel against the entire process of historical progress he has to forswear “demonstrations, press releases, suicide bombs, lawsuits, dirty bombs, Facebook campaigns, clean bombs, mimeographed leaflets, robbing banks, interning at nonprofits, assassination, ‘tea parties,’ journalism, bribery, grantwriting, graffiti, crypto-anarchism, balaclavas, lynching, campaign contributions, revolutionary cells, new political parties, old political parties, flash mobs, botnets, sit-ins, direct mail, monkeywrenching, and any other activist technique, violent or harmless, legal or illegal, fashionable or despicable.” He abandons the term “citizen” in favor of “subject,” accepting the irrevocable yoke of slavery. No wonder he’s in terrified agony.
This is pretty much the exact moment that connects Moldbug to Land. And in some ways Land’s version of it is the more persuasive, even as it’s the less accessible. Moldbug visibly got there by having too much time on his hands and self-educating on American history entirely via primary source documents while stoned. Land, on the other hand, had a complete fucking breakdown. If someone took the proper red pill, it was Land, who clearly stared into some conceptual heart of darkness and saw the strange and alien light within. But either way, we’ve been through this patch before – what’s key about the neoreactionary right to exit is once again that we realize at the last moment that we are too scared to take it.
Land has actually written about horror at some length; Outside in contains exactly two series of blog posts linked on its header, one called Neoreaction, the other Abstract Horror. This latter essay is also reprinted in his ebook Phyl-Undhu, the main content of which is a philosophical horror novella of that name. The story opens in Lovecraft pastiche – “Utter nullity. In the words of the ancient sages of ruined Ashenzohn, it was the endlessness that ends in itself. Dark silence beyond sleep and time, from whose oceanic immensities some bedraggled speck of attention – pulled out, and turned – still dazed at the precipitous lip, catches a glimmer, as if of some cryptic emergence from eclipse. Then a sound, crushed, stifled, broken into gasps. Something trying to scream…” – and then transitions into a woman, Alison, waking up from a nightmare. Her first thought borders on an authorial self-insert: “madness is no escape.” For my part, I should disclaim that I had already gotten to this part of the first draft of the book when I came upon the moment in Phyl-Undhu when a character, beginning a description of some philosophical argument that is an evident source of deep horror and disturbance for those who have contemplated it, says “everything starts from the end.” I will not lie and say that I did not find this moment genuinely unsettling, which is of course the point of a work of philosophy that is about horror, and moreover a horror story that is about philosophy.
Philosophical horror – which Land has said he considers to be where he does his main work these days – is a genre that’s been rigorously theorized by Eugene Thacker, an American philosopher a generation younger than Land, but working in many of the same traditions. Thacker, to be clear, is in no way a neoreactionist, and I suspect he would unhesitatingly and unambiguously repudiate the label and the bulk of the thought, if only on the principle that this is the null hypothesis when it comes to neoreactionaries. Nor is there direct influence between Thacker and Land, although each is aware of the other (Thacker has mentioned Land in an interview, and I just went ahead and asked Land on Twitter ‘cause this paragraph looked weird without that symmetry). But they have many of the same influences and subjects – Land’s major academic work of philosophy, for instance, was a monograph on Georges Bataille, who is also a major subject of Thacker’s. To use a phrase from Phyl-Undhu, they share an Outside.
Thacker’s relevant work, the three-volume Horror of Philosophy series, begins with the familiar eschatology: “the world is increasingly unthinkable – a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange weather, oil-drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always-looming threat of extinction.” He posits that in this situation the “absolute limit to our ability to adequately understand the world at all” becomes increasingly relevant, and observes that this is a frequent theme of both philosophy and horror. Indeed, Thacker argues that any work of philosophy can be read as a horror story, and vice versa, a claim he demonstrates in the latter two volumes of the set.
Thacker proceeds to use these connections to form a vocabulary of symbols and metaphors for talking about the present condition; an early section, for instance, analyzes the connotations of the word “black” in the genre of “black metal” at length, carefully parsing the notion of a forbidden, transgressive darkness between its Luciferian and pagan variations, then constructing a third he calls “Cosmic Pessimism,” framed in terms of Schopenhauer and Lovecraft, then repeats the analysis with ideas like demons and magic circles, constructing a rich and suggestive language of horror tropes to talk about the concept of the world-without-us – the world in which humanity is absent. Thacker uses the word Planet for this, in contrast to the Kantian idea of the experienced World to describe the weird and vast blackness of space and the infinitesimal scale of our particular rock and the fireplace it falls endlessly around.
Land invokes a similar notion in “Exterminator,” which joins “Abstract Horror” in making up the backmatter of Phyl-Undhu. His term is the Great Filter, an idea he borrows from Robin Hanson, a libertarian economist who created the blog Overcoming Bias on which Yudkowsky got his start. Hanson, for his part, coined it in 1998 as part of an explanation for the Fermi Paradox. This paradox addresses the disjunction between our science fiction of interplanetary civilization and the observable evidence of an endless lifeless void surrounding us (despite extrasolar planets pretty much everywhere we look), and asks why this might be. It should be noted, this is not a particularly hard question to come up with good answers for. There are a preposterously large number of unknowns in it: the probability of civilized life evolving on a given habitable planet, the technological feasibility of interstellar travel, and the degree to which our ability to imagine alien life actually reflects the potential diversity of the phenomenon (and thus whether we would recognize intelligent life if we saw it). Ultimately, what we know about the problem is simply that there doesn’t seem to be anybody else out there.
Hanson, however, reframes the question in a more pressingly binary form. One way or another, there’s something that keeps interstellar civilizations as we understand them from being common. As Hanson puts it in the abstract of his paper, “Humanity seems to have a bright future, i.e., a non-trivial chance of expanding to fill the universe with lasting life. But the fact that space near us seems dead now tells us that any given piece of dead matter faces an astronomically low chance of begating [sic] such a future. There thus exists a great filter between death and expanding lasting life, and humanity faces the ominous question: how far along this filter are we?” Or, to put it as he does in his chilling title, “The Great Filter – Are We Almost Past It?”
Land reconceptualizes the matter as “an absolute threat” that faces technologically adept civilizations. As he puts it, “the Great Filter does not merely hunt and harm, it exterminates… whatever this utter ruin is, it happens every single time. The mute scream from the stars says that nothing has ever escaped it. Its kill-performance is flawless. Tech-Civilization death sentence with probability -1.” Like I said, let’s assume that we’re fucked.
Land also makes an argument along the same lines as Thacker in “Abstract Horror,” which begins “when conceived rigorously as a literary and cinematic craft, horror is indistinguishable from a singular task: to make an object of the unknown, as the unknown.” He subsequently frames it in terms that almost perfectly match Thacker’s: “horror first encounters ‘that’ which philosophy eventually seeks to know.” What is key about horror is its sense of mutation and monstrosity, a tendency he roots in Lovecraft’s declaration that he chose to write “weird stories because they suit my inclination best – one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which for ever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis.” Lovecraft’s sense of the Weird led him to assume a universe that was malevolently indifferent to humanity, populated by unfathomable horrors knowable only by analogies as bleak as they are oblique. Land’s argument, in effect, is that the silent cosmos is exactly that – an unmistakable message that there is something wrong with us simply by virtue of our being a civilization.
But if we’re going to talk about philosophy transmuting into a horror story, we’ve got a better example: Roko’s Basilisk. Indeed, Phyl-Undhu makes a few cracks about this; Alison, the initial viewpoint character of the story, is a psychologist and cult deprogrammer dealing with an exile from a group of technofetishists that’s blatantly modeled on Roko’s falling out with the LessWrong community. (It is hardly the only such allegory in the story; later a character named Alex Scott expresses an argument about the Great Filter originally formulated by former LessWrong blogger Scott Alexander.) And no wonder – it really is a spectacular story.
April 26, 2016 @ 9:54 am
It occurs to me that there’s a certain amount of similarity between the logic of the Great Filter and the stabbed-in-the-back myth of white supremacy. In both cases, there is an expectation that what the speaker thinks of as their kind should absolutely dominate the universe, and in response to the realization that they don’t, the speaker turns to conspiracy theories rather than question the assumptions that led to the original expectation. The Great Filter is, essentially, a stabbed-in-the-back myth for sapience-supremacists.
April 26, 2016 @ 2:18 pm
The Great Filter doesn’t imply dominance; just detectability.
April 26, 2016 @ 3:56 pm
Well, but they both start with “my mode of being is the bestest mode.” This then confronts the SETI proponent with the obvious question, “So why hasn’t it evolved everywhere, such that the sky is full of ETIs talking to each other?” while the white supremacist is confronted with the question, “So how come your life sucks?” Both then resort to conspiracy theories for answers, rather than considering the possibility that their mode of being isn’t as obviously superior as they think it is.
April 26, 2016 @ 4:25 pm
I don’t think the value judgment is an inherent part of the Great Filter model, unless you want to treat “apparently sole existent” as a synonym for “best.”
April 28, 2016 @ 9:38 am
Right. I mean, maybe Land or Roko would apply that value judgement, but there are definitely people who buy into the Great Filter* who are really seriously hoping that the answer to “what is the filter” turns out to be “there’s lots of civilizations out there, they’re just weirder than you’ve ever imagined” or “sapient, technical civilization sucks and most folks who try it out end up ditching the gig and going back to the trees” or the like, because that’s a much better answer (in terms of our descendants’ chances for happiness) than “sapience turns out not to be much good for keeping the peace but very good for making bigger and nastier weapons,” or “sapients who invent radio make themselves big ol’ targets for ancient autonomous war machines and even as we speak a Berserker is en route to chuck a Kuiper Belt object down our throats at 0.1c” or whatever.
*Not to imply any particular credulity on their part. I think it’s a useful analytical framework.
May 1, 2016 @ 7:05 pm
The Great Filter is trivially true — it’s a question, not a hypothesis. If the only reason we don’t observe ETIs everywhere is that life needs vanishingly rare conditions in order to evolve, that’s the Great Filter.
That said, there’s certainly something interesting going on with the dissonance between one’s own values and Gnon’s. It wouldn’t be hard to relate Gnon-horror to a movie like Idiocracy, or to the founding trauma of nerddom: realizing that the world doesn’t share your values and doesn’t reward people for living up to them.
Once you realize that, what do you do? There’s something interesting going on there, with neoreaction — the usual answer is to try to build a community that does share your values and reward people for living up to them, but there’s no reason not to abandon having distinct values altogether and try to submit entirely to instrumental rationality.
…and now I’m reminded of Pasolini in ’68, and of course the New Left today is the true nerddom…
April 26, 2016 @ 10:26 am
I am SO hungry for this book now. Take my damn money already.
April 26, 2016 @ 10:27 am
I am SO hungry for this book now. Take my damn money already.
April 26, 2016 @ 2:19 pm
Next week! 🙂
April 26, 2016 @ 11:03 am
Can’t wait to contribute to this on Kickstarter
April 28, 2016 @ 6:57 am
Until this moment I had forgotten about the goof ball Scott Alexander for 5 years.
Paul M. Cray
April 28, 2016 @ 9:49 am
Yudkowsky, in his precocious phase, is extensively discussed in the 1997 edition of Damien Broderick’s “The Spike” and he was prominent on the AGI email list in the early 2000s, so he was pretty well-known in Singularitarian circles a decade before “Overcoming Bias”, although he obviously found a larger and more appreciative audience there.