Sunday, August 12, 2018

Grappling in the Agora with Joe Rogan

Rogan WP covershot

I've posted another working paper to The title's above. Here's the URL:

Abstract, contents, and introduction below.

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Abstract: The Joe Rogan Experience is one of the most popular podcasts on the web, reaching 10s of millions of viewers per month. Rogan discusses a wide variety of topics with a variety of guests, some of them friends who appear regularly: martial arts, comedy, nutrition and health, conspiracy theories, psychedelic drugs, and a variety of science topics. In this paper I discuss several specific podcasts, with: Steven Pinker (his latest book, Enlightenment Now), Michael Pollan (psychedelic drugs), Neil deGrasse Tyson (moon landing), Howard Bloom (music, altered states, space program), and Joey Diaz (Bruce Lee and martial arts). I also include an annotated transcription of the Joey Diaz conversation.


Introduction: Joe Rogan and Socrates in the Agora 2
Grappling at the edges of reality with Joe Rogan 5
The world according to jiujitsu 9
Two notes on psychedelic experience (Michael Pollan on Joe Rogan) 10
Joe Rogan talks with Howard Bloom, Zoooommm! 12
Joe Rogan and Joey Diaz call “Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris” – a rough transcript 16
On the conversational construction of cultural reality: Joe Rogan and Joey Diaz discuss Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon 25

Introduction: Joe Rogan and Socrates in the Agora

The idea that Joe Rogan is a modern Socrates is absurd, no? Well...let’s think about it.

Sure, I know, Socrates is the father of Western philosophy, or maybe grandfather, or great uncle, who knows, but one of those ancients. Apparently he’d go into Athens’ public square, the agora, and hold conversations on philosophical matters. I have no idea what mix of strangers and regulars joined in, but there certainly were regulars. Plato was one of them and he modeled his philosophical discourses after Socrates’ mode of talk, thus producing the first substantial body of written intellectual discourse in Western secular thought.

I have no reason to think that Rogan has made or will make any original contributions to contemporary thought, not does Rogan make any such claims for himself. As far as I can tell he thinks of himself as a guy who likes to have rambling conversations on various topics with various people. Some of these people are friends of his, or at least people he knows personally even if he doesn’t routinely hang out with them. He may have these people on the podcast time and again. Of these, some are comedians, others are martial artists, and others, bow hunting, who knows? These conversations typically run two-and-a-half to three hours long and are just casual conversation, though every once in awhile they’ll dig in a bit.

But Rogan also has conversations with guests having substantial intellectual expertise of one kind or another, for example: Steve Pinker (linguistics, psychology), Sean Carroll (physics, cosmology), Dennis McKenna (ethnopharmacology, psychedelic drugs), Debra Soh (neurosciences), Brett Weinstein (evolutionary biology), and Adam Frank (physics, astronomy). These conversations are also casual in manner, where Rogan plays the Everyman who is curious about these topics. And so he learns something from these experts, as do his viewers.

And he has lots of viewers, millions of them. Of course they don’t interact with him in the way Socrates’ interlocutors interacted with him – we simply don’t have any venue like the agora of ancient Greece. But they interact with one another in comments to the podcasts and in online forums like Reddit. And, yes, a lot of that interaction is just chitchat, but some of it is more substantive. There is learning going on, ideas exchanged, opinions validated.

Molly Worthen discussed Rogan and others in a recent column in The New York Times, “The Podcast Bros Want to Optimize Your Life”, noting:
Don’t dismiss the podcast bros merely as hucksters promoting self-help books and dubious mushroom coffee. In this secularized age of lonely seekers scrolling social media feeds, they have cultivated a spiritual community. They offer theologies and daily rituals of self-actualization, an appealing alternative to the rhetoric of victimhood and resentment that permeates both the right and the left. “They help the masses identify the hole in the soul,” Karli Smith, 38, a fan who lives in Tooele, Utah, told me. “I do feel the message is creating a community.”

All this continues a long American tradition of self-help and creative, market-minded spirituality. The 19th century brimmed with gurus ready to guide you to other dimensions and prophets of the path from rags to riches. The podcasters’ exhortations to cultivate character and learn from the habits of successful businessmen, scientists and soldiers (whom they invite for interviews that sometimes stretch longer than two hours) could come straight from the pages of Victorian self-improvement manuals.
A bit later:
This is the podcast bro ethos: Ditch your ideologically charged identity. Accept your evolutionary programming. Take responsibility for mastering it, and find a cosmic purpose. “I’m not saying it’s only personal responsibility that matters, but you have to start there,” Mr. Marcus told me.

But wait — how does cutting down carbs and tossing kettlebells set me up to serve the universe? Here is where the podcast bros get metaphysical. Many have a strong interest in spirituality, and see practices like Buddhist meditation or consuming hallucinogenic “plant medicine” as not just a way to improve daily performance, but a path to something deeper. Their metaphysical tastes range from Carl Jung’s psychology to ancient Stoic philosophy, which calls for self-control and transcendence of material wealth.
That’s a pretty interesting mix of materials. That kind of range, and his popularity, is what makes Joe Rogan such an interesting and, I believe, important figure.

That’s why I’ve spent a good many hours over the last three months watching Rogan’s podcasts. I’ve watched, I don’t know, a dozen or two dozen all the way through, and many fragments from others. For Rogan’s fans will cut his podcasts into fragments and post them online, as does Rogan himself (more likely Jamie Vernon, his technical aide-de-camp). And from that I’ve made half a dozen posts to my blog, New Savanna, which I’ve gathered into this working paper.

Because that’s what it is, a work in progress, not finished–and maybe never to be finished. Who knows?

Well over half of this paper is devoted to a single 10 minute conversation Rogan had with one of his regulars, comedian Joey Diaz. They’re discussing the fight between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris at the end of Way of the Dragon, an important martial arts film. Both Rogan and Diaz are martial artists, so Bruce Lee is a hero to them, perhaps Chuck Norris as well, though he doesn’t have the iconic status that Lee does. I watched that segment relatively early in my dive into the Joe Rogan Experience and the conversation struck me as emanating from the center of Rogan’s worldview. So I included it in the article I wrote for 3 Quarks Daily in late May – “Grappling at the edges of reality with Joe Rogan”, where I also discussed conversations with Steven Pinker and Neil deGrasse Tyson. That piece is the first section of this working paper.

The Rogan/Diaz was still with me after two more months of Joe Rogan, so I decided to transcribe it, not for any “deep” philosophical content, no, not that. But just to see how it went, because it’s that kind of conversation that’s made Rogan a star of the podcast world. In the next to last section of this document – “Joe Rogan and Joey Diaz call ‘Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris’ – a rough transcript” – I present the transcript without any comments other than a few introductory remarks. In the last section – “On the conversational construction of cultural reality: Joe Rogan and Joey Diaz discuss Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon” – I add extensive interline commentary to the conversation. Just how do these guys build a sense of reality? That’s what I’m curious about.

The shortest piece in this collection, “The world according to jiujitsu”, consists of a transcription of an impromptu speech that Rogan gave when he was awarded a black belt by Eddie Bravo – also a friend and regular guest on the podcast. That speech, so it seems, expresses Rogan’s core values. The other two pieces are based on specific podcasts, one with Michal Pollan and the other with Howard Bloom (whom I know), and have transcripts of short segments from each. Why transcriptions? Because the back-and-forth is important.

It’s the shuttle and the loom.

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