Sunday, September 7, 2008

Counting to four

Recently Hillary showed me this video of Feist singing “1, 2, 3, 4” for Sesame Street.

I found the video very funny, and particularly enjoyed the way Feist’s dancing mimics the movement of the muppets – head upturned, mouth wide open, body being flung from side to side. The clusters of muppets seem to drag her around the set, as if she’s a muppet herself. As Hillary pointed out, this version is more appealing than the original.

The lyrics aren’t especially clever; it’s obvious that it was a pre-existing song being adapted to fit an educational theme. It’s charming nonetheless, especially the earnestness with which the merits of the number four are announced: it’s “one less than five, and one more than three.” I mean, who can argue with that?

The song blithely suggests that there’s something natural about counting up to your favorite number (in homage?). In fact, what’s amusing about the song is the absurd specificity of the activity being lauded, not just counting (as high as you can), but counting to four.

I suppose it could be argued that all the counting represents a set-theoretic construction of the number four (i.e. as a set of four elements). The singer then points to a three-dimensional Arabic numeral 4, singing “I see four here,” and correlates it to the four penguins she’s just counted (one, two, three, four) by pointing to them and singing “I see four there.”

Of course, any pedagogical achievement in that line is undermined by the next two: “My favorite number/ Nothing can compare.” Contra the lyrics, usually natural numbers don’t inspire affect (“my favorite,” and the gesture of laying the hand over the heart). Instead they are the abstractions by which certain kinds of comparisons become possible (to wit: four monsters, four penguins, four chickens, "one less than five and one more than three").

But in general, counting over and over again is usually read as a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder. Émile Zola suffered from this particular obsession, and experienced deep shame that, while publicly committed to a scientific program, he privately performed over and over these rituals of order that were essentially superstitious.

Part of what’s appealing about the Feist video is the unironic joy in counting to four. But I wonder if that appeal doesn't have more to do with its absurdity -- an absurdity specifically associated with children's (perceived) cognitive limitations -- than with any actual desire to get toddlers pumped about counting to four. And perhaps a bit of the pleasure comes from the juxtaposition of those perceived childish limitations (counting, not as high as one can, but to four, and not because it's useful but because four is your favorite) with our own adult sophistication -- our recognition of the tune from a different context, etc.

Of course, I still like the video. And is anyone else detecting a subtle shout-out to Lyn Hejinian here? Like plump birds along the shore? Yes?

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In other news, I sincerely hope that Poe studies have not really come to this.

(Of course they haven't; it's just that the NYT would rather report on this than on anything actually literary.)

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