The Public Intellectual Netflix Special

Written on February 23, 2022

A while back I was listening to a podcast where a couple of comedians discussed the consequences of doing a Netflix special (as I type this I realise it was almost certainly Joe Rogan’s podcast). The idea is that you spend all this time building an hour of golden comedy material and for any live audience you perform in front of it’s completely novel and hilarious, but it’s also the comedian’s dream to capture that content in a Netflix special and have the whole world give you their attention (and indirectly their money) in return for that content.

The problem is that as soon as you release your Netflix special you are knocked straight back to square one. Your live audiences have now watched the special and aren’t interested in you regurgitating jokes that made them laugh in front of the TV not long ago. It’s a tough life: other creatives have a much easier time: it doesn’t matter how many times I listen to a band’s music on Spotify; seeing the band live is a completely new experience and one that I’ll happily pay money for. It doesn’t matter if a visual artist’s work is one google search away, people will still line up in droves to see their exhibition. Unfortunately, if your creative output involves surprise on a cerebral level, it gets old fast.

So you need to start working on a new hour. How long does that take? It could take a year, or more. You need to make keen observations and connect dots that others are oblivious to. If you’re good at your job, soon enough you’re back up to scratch and can fill seats once again.

Life’s not easy for a comedian. But there’s a similar occupation whose quest for novelty is far more dire: the public intellectual.

Some public intellectuals are simply polymath geniuses who never seem to run out of material: Aristotle is the obvious example. Check out his wikipedia page to see how many pies he had his fingers in throughout his life. Modern examples that come to mind are Steven Pinker and Steven Fry, both with a large corpus of published books on a range of topics (whether you want to call them geniuses is up to you but their output is impressive).

But many public intellectuals seem to have a particular domain of mastery earnt over decades that creates a shockwave through the public zeitgeist only to leave them struggling to write their next hour.

Jordan Peterson blew my mind when I first encountered his lectures, particularly on the topic of personality. Although the Big Five personality traits comprise an imperfect model for comparing personalities, I still think about it every day and find it helps me make sense of the world. Jordan’s emphasis on free speech and personal responsibility also still resonates with me and his advocacy for the cultural wisdom in the bible (and myths in general) has repaired my relationship with religious themes after my highschool Catholic education completely turned me off. But I’ve seen Jordan struggle to find new material. His foray into economics feels undercooked (even though I too think capitalism is currently underrated) as do his opinions on climate change. His debate with Slavoj Žižek was especially confusing as the two of them realised they didn’t have very much to debate and Jordan retreated into some comfortable material that I had heard before.

Coleman Hughes, a particularly young intellectual, has written some profound pieces on race relations which have given me a deeper appreciation of the case for social colourblindness. But despite his brilliant mind, I find myself less drawn to his podcast than I used to be, as I feel like the same arguments are being rehashed whenever the topic of race comes up (which is often if that’s your area of expertise and interest as a podcaster).

On the topic of race relations, I’ve also listened to quite a bit of Glenn Loury’s podcast with his frequent guest John Mcwhorter. Again, I was blown away at the start, and now I’m finding the content repetitive. John’s debate with Nikhil Singh on whether anti-racism has become as harmful as racism revealed some cracks in John’s perspective (namely: what if woke people genuinely want the world to be a better place?) and I don’t feel that the counter-arguments were properly integrated in future discussions (This is a common thing: you watch a debate, the speakers make concessions, you think ‘hmm both sides have good points’ but then the speakers regress back to their familiar talking points afterwards).

Sam Harris was one of the Four Horsemen Of Atheism and helped me overcome my fear of God back in highschool: an invaluable gift for a kid with OCD. He has ventured into other areas, specifically anti-wokeness, free will, and mindfulness, but again, in these areas I feel like it’s been a while since Sam’s given me an insight that’s made me re-evaluate my worldview.

The two Weinstein Brothers: Eric and Bret, have both blown my mind several times, yet even there I feel that new insights are lacking (though admittedly I suspect Eric has a lot more mind-blowing to provide if he ever revives his Portal podcast).

Scott Alexander (still the best blogger in the game by far) recently wrote a post titled Why Do I Suck where he addresses this problem head-on: exploring possible factors behind the perceived drop in quality of his posts over time. Reading that post explains much of what’s happening in the modern intellectual landscape. His classic posts Meditations On Moloch and The Categories Were Made For Man, Not Man For The Categories WILL blow your mind if you haven’t already read them, and he’s also written some genuinely funny content like In The Balance. Nonetheless, over time there’s been more of a transition into the same thing that everybody in this list has slowly transitioned into:

Book Club Mode.

What happens to intellectuals who struggle to find new material? They transition into book-club mode. Rather than blow your mind with their own insights, they bring on somebody with other novel insights who has just spent years of blood sweat and tears capturing those insights in a book. You get to enjoy the intellectual interplay between your favourite public intellectual and their guest, seeing the guest’s book through the eyes of the host with all their unique intellectual history and personality. The host will still have some solo episodes where they think out loud (these are always my favourite) but over time, book club mode takes up more space.

The unfortunate thing is that these interviews (or book reviews) just don’t hit the spot in the same way that the public intellectual did when they were taking on the world solo (watching this video is one hell of an experience regardless of what you believe). Although you learn a bunch of new things, the magic isn’t quite there and you’re left wondering: is this just Oprah’s Book Club repackaged for more STEM-y thinkers?

There’s no way to critique any of the above intellectuals without making it sound like I think I’m smarter than them so let me be very clear and say that I know I can’t hold a candle to any of them, but in the same way that I can mourn the loss of classic simpsons, I find myself mourning the loss of novel insights from my favourite intellectuals. I’m aware that there’s an ocean of insight waiting for me in other places: whether through different people or different books or from friends or experiences or travel etc. But beyond my own greedy lust for insight, I feel for my favourite intellectuals who struggle for new groundbreaking material. Once the Netflix special is out and all your hard work pays off, the climb to the next highest peak is all the more daunting.

At the very least, one of the benefits of Book Club Mode is that people like me can be introduced to upcoming intellectuals who are only now entering the limelight. If you haven’t come across John Vervaeke’s Awakening From The Meaning Crisis lectures I can highly recommend from what I’ve seen so far. John was on JP’s podcast recently and not long after my friend recommended I check out his content. For all I know John himself will rise to fame and then switch to Book Club Mode one day, and then through that book club the next genius will come along. If that’s the modern day circle of intellectual life, I’m not complaining.

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