March 9, 2008
The Dreaded 1,2,3 Challenge

I posted this on my blog earlier this week and wanted to share it with the Consortium readers as well, since I know the C3 team has been doing some thinking about memes of late.

The other night, I had dinner with a group of colleagues from the MIT Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies. Amongst them was Tom Levinson, sometimes producer for Nova, author of three published books on science and culture (Einstein in Berlin: Measure for Measure: A Musical History of Science; and Ice Time: Climate Science and Life on Earth) with a fourth (about Isaac Newton) on the way, and a relative newcomer to the world of blogging.

His newly launched blog, The Inverse Square Blog, is full of interesting information and arguments centering around the presentation of science within the public sphere. Check out, for example, his response to the Obama "Yes We Can" video and to the topic of viral marketing, which crops up with some frequency here these days.

This morning, I awoke to find that Tom Levinson has tagged me on what is being described as the "1, 2, 3" Meme.

Here's how it works:

  • Look up page 123 in the nearest book

  • Look for the fifth sentence

  • Then post the three sentences that follow that fifth sentence on page 123.

Sitting next to my computer in my office is a large pile of books, related to various ongoing projects. It says something about my current taste in reading matter (or perhaps the current trend among publishers to reduce all substantive arguments to the thickness of a pamphlet) that the first several books I picked up did not have page 123. So here's what I find on the next books in the pile:

"Badiou gives special attention to poetry, whose breaks from the ordinary use of language he finds particularly disruptive. Like mathematics, poetry offers formal categorizations, and in its frenzied structure poetry also enables -- even invites -- reconfiguration. These features of formality, abstractness and disjoinedness also characterize procedural media like videogames, allowing the kind of disruptive recombination that characterizes Badiou's understanding of the purpose of art."
-- Ian Bogost, Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism(Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006).
"In the Middle Ages, for example, cultured people were expected to have a knowledge of a shared allegorical code, which then allowed a compressed, multilayered reading, such as the four levels of textual fruition (literal, moral, allegoric, and anagogic) famously detailed by Dante in the second book of his Convivio. Once such shared knowledge is lost, subsequent readers have to perform interpretive feats, and much scholarship has sought to clarify the lost layers of allegorical meaning."
-- Malfalda Stasi, "The Toy Soldiers from Leeds: The Slash Palimpsest," in Karen Helleckson and Kristina Busse (eds.), Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (Jefferson: McFarland, 2006).
"Haysbert's role on 24 is thought by some political and cultural commentators to have helped create the space, if not the inspiration, for Barack Obama's 2008 U.S. presidential bid. But the David Palmer character actually shares more historically with Bobby Kennedy: in the very first episode of 24, we meet David Palmer campaigning for the presidency in the California primary and facing an assassination plot that Jack Bauer is assigned to foil. Bobby Kennedy, of course, was actually assassinated on the night he won the California presidential primary in 1968."
-- Stephen Applebaum, "Dennis Haysbert on President Palmer: 'They Killed Me for the Sake of the Ratings,' in Dan Burstein and Arne J. De Keijzer (eds.) Secrets of 24 (New York: Sterling, 2007).

It fascinates me that all three of these books on popular culture, at this particular point in their argument, feel obligated to justify their objects of study in terms of allusions to something which has historically enjoyed much greater academic prestige. We happen to catch Ian Bogost explaining the aesthetics of videogames through reference to poetry, Malfada Stasi explaining the appeal of slash through an account of medieval allegory, and Stephen Applebaum explaining 24 through reference to real world politics. Honestly, I didn't stack the deck here. What does this suggest about the habitual ways we write about popular culture?