I couple days ago I was making my regular online rounds when I discovered that Joe Rogan was talking with Howard Bloom THIS VERY MOMENT on The Joe Rogan Experience. “Yeowieee!” said I to myself, “I gotta’ check it out.” Why? Because Bloom is a trip and a half, a force of nature, though just what that nature is, well, that’s not at all clear.
I know Howard. I was in his Paleopsychology Project, corresponded with him for a couple of years and visited him at his Brooklyn apartment a couple of times. He played a crucial role in setting up my book deal, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. But I’m ambivalent about him. He’s very well read, imaginative, and brilliant. But, as my teacher Dave Hays was fond of saying, a great talent requires a great discipline. And Howard lacks discipline. Oh, he works hard–in his own way as hard as James “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” Brown–but hard work is not the point. It’s how you do that work, the craft and care you put into it, that counts.
Howard lavishes his craft and care on words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, on slogans and catch phrases – a number of them turn up in his conversation with Rogan – but he’s not so careful with the underlying ideas. My sense is that Howard has a few underlying themes and ideas that are important to him – everything’s connected; it’s a social world from quarks through galaxies; we long to be part of something bigger than ourselves – and uses those to paper over everything. Or, to switch metaphors, those are his hammers and he uses them to turn everything else into nails. Quarks, Dave Barry, toxoplasmosis, the Yanomami, biological evolution, the 86 billion neurons of the human brain, entropy, the excitement of the crowd at a rock and roll concert (or one of Hitler’s elaborately staged rallies), galaxies, the Big Bang–they’re all nails that Bloom pounds into his grand unified theory of everything. And, at least to some observers, everything turns out to look like the mind of Howard Bloom, a very skillful and industrious Howard Bloom.
Thus, if you look through the comments on his discussion with Rogan–which has almost 580,000 views as I write this and is approaching 4000 comments–you’ll find that a lot of listeners are, shall we say, skeptical, a skepticism often expressed in blunt and nasty terms – as these things go “a narcissistic egomaniac that thinks he’s the modern day Einstein” is rather mild. But you’ll also find some people who are fascinated by Bloom–after all, he drips with fascinating stories, facts, and numbers–and who like him quite a lot. And if you read closely, here and there you’ll find some folks of both minds.
It’s not Bloom that I’m interested in, however, it’s Rogan. But I had to set things up. Like Bloom, Rogan’s an intellectual omnivore, though with a different style and purpose. Bloom is convinced he knows how the world works. Rogan is trying to figure it out. That’s why he talks to all these different folks in his podcasts.
This post is about two points in this long conversation, almost three hours, where Rogan pushes Bloom.
In the Moment
At this point we’re well over an hour into the conversation. Bloom has been talking about how PG Wodehouse and Dave Barry inspired him to write a book about the 60s, then off to quantum physics in Moscow, and then to the “universal brain”–a biggie for Bloom. At roughly 1:23:40 Rogan asks:
JR: “Are you thinking of this while you’re saying it, are you thinking of the vast numbers of people that are listening and watching? Or are you just relaying the information; like are you cognizant?”HB: “Yeah, both.”JR: “Both.”HB: “Because I want...[bit about Einstein giving him is marching orders]... to make good radio for your audience.”JR: “But once you, what I’m trying to get at is once you’ve got it established in your head that nothing is isolated, that everything is connected, when you speak, are you aware when you’re speaking, that everything is connected? I mean are you actually, consciously thinking of all of these different minds, taking into account of all these different mind-blowing things that you’re saying, and then applying them out in the world.”HB: “I think so.”JR: “Yeah.”HB: “I mean, if you hear it coming out of my mouth, that’s what’s churning around in my brain.”JR: “You’re such a bright guy, I’m just tryin’ to understand if you’re in the moment, or if you’re in the moment as well as being consciously aware of the spread of information that you’re...”HB: “Well my obligation is to do both simultaneously.”
“In the moment”, that’s the key phrase. What’s it mean?
Remember, Rogan is a life-long martial arts practitioner and he’s got a decade and a half of experience as a commenter on mixed martial arts. As far as I can tell, MMA is the bedrock of The Joe Rogan Experience, a world of experience Rogan returns to time and again, with many of his guests coming from the MMA world. When Joe Rogan wants to know “What is real?” that’s where he goes.
Being in the moment is the core of that reality. Pure action and sensation, without thought. In the moment.
Music is like that too. I’m a musician, I’ve been there. You aren’t making the music; rather, it manifests through you. Countless other musicians, and listeners too, have been there – I’ve collected a variety of anecdotes in Emotion and Magic in Musical Performance. Bloom also knows it; when he was a publicist in the music business he worked with some of the top acts in the world.
But just what does that have to do with Bloom’s state of mind/being as he talking with Rogan? It’s not clear to me just what Rogan is asking of Bloom, and I don’t think it was clear to Bloom either. No matter. He asked.
It sometimes happens when writing. I wrote one paper, about Shelley, in such a state when I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. It’s certainly not something I set out to do. I didn’t even know it was possible. But, there I was, late at night, with the paper due at noon the next. I was beat–I’m not at all a night person. I sat down at the typewrite and WHAM! It happened. The paper wrote itself over the course of, I don’t know, three, four, five hours or more. I finished it at dawn. And it was a good one.
Is that what Rogan was asking of Bloom? Is he asking if Bloom was in some kind of transcendent state as well as “being consciously aware of the spread of information that you’re...”?
Why Ancient Aliens?
Now we’re over two hours into the conversation. Bloom is talking about working with Earth, Wind and Fire. By studying their work he’d figured out that Maurice White, the leader, believed that about 11,000 years ago people from another civilization came to earth from some other galaxy and brought us all our technologies in the form of messages in the pyramids. From there the conversation somehow works its way around to Neil deGrasse Tyson. Bloom talks about Tyson’s hard-won onstage showmanship and then, by leaps and bounds (2:16:05):
HB: “So we talk about that incandescent power when you go transcendent on stage and you become an empty pipe through which something speaks through you even though they’re words you’ve thought out for years but all of a sudden they’re speaking themselves through you. And how it’s the essence of the forces of history. That ability to give people the sense that they’ve been yanked out of themselves and are a part of something bigger than themselves. That’s the supernormal reflex this is the most profound and it’s the one that grabs history by the balls and changes its direction.”JR: “And Earth, Wind and Fire had that with music.”HB: “They certainly did.”JR: “They just didn’t have it when it came to the understanding of civilizations from 11,000 years ago.”HB: “Yeah, right, that wasn’t their specialty. That’s why you and I specialize in the things we do in order to add to the collective mind that enriches the people around us and us too.”JR: “That is so attractive to us to think we got it from somewhere else. Why do you think that is?”HB: “Partly because no individual creates the stone tool. I mean there may be an individual who did it first. But then it takes off the way that gazillions of particles of identical kinds show up all across the face of the cosmos. It hits the Zeitgeist with just the right supernormal stimulus, and all of a sudden it takes off. And we’re all aware of the fact that we didn’t do this. And we’re all aware of the fact that there is some supernormal intelligence. But we don’t realize that it’s we who are the neurons. ...”JR: “But it’s such an attractive subject that you have these shows, like Ancient Aliens. I mean that’s like one of the longest running shows on the History Channel.”
That’s what interests Rogan, our fascination with the idea of wisdom from ancient aliens. Why? he asks Bloom again. Bloom sidesteps him and gets back to his themes, “larger than ourselves, supernormal selves”, “we ache for salvation”. And then he launches goes into a story about working with Chaka Khan. He tells Rogan that when he took her on he told her manager that he’d make her a star in two years. 2:21:05:
HB: “Did the prediction come true?”JR: “It did. But are we off track here? What does this have to do with ancient aliens? What does this have to do with the desire people have to know that we got our wisdom from the stars?”JB: “Well, it’s not directly about that, but it’s occasionally you tap into something bigger than yourself. And occasionally I have visions. And occasionally those visions came true....”
Bloom never answered Rogan’s question. But he couldn’t say, “I don’t know Joe. It’s a good question, but...”
I can’t answer it either. That’s not the point. The point is simply that Rogan raised the question and pushed it in the face of the onslaught of verbal virtuosity and conceptual enchantment that is Howard Bloom. He’s looking for something and not even Howard Bloom, master prestidigitator though he is, could deflect him.
And that surely is part of Rogan’s appeal. Yes, there’s an awful lot of bullshit, hijinks, casual conversation, and good times in The Joe Rogan Experience. But I doubt that his show could have become such a hit without underlying search for truth.
What’s it all about? How’s it all work? Joe Rogan wants to know. His audience wants to know. So does Howard Bloom.
So do we all.