Welcome to The Valve
Login
Register


Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Advanced Search

Articles
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

Comments
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

XHTML | CSS

Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

 


Blogroll

2blowhards
About Last Night
Academic Splat
Acephalous
Amardeep Singh
Beatrice
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogenspiel
Blogging the Renaissance
Bookslut
Booksquare
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cliopatria
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
CultureSpace
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Fernham
Ferule & Fescue
Ftrain
GalleyCat
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
Idiocentrism
Idiotprogrammer
if:book
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Kitabkhana
Languagehat
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
MadInkBeard
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Moo2
MoorishGirl
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Philobiblion
Planned Obsolescence
Printculture
Pseudopodium
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
ReadySteadyBlog
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
S1ngularity::criticism
Say Something Wonderful
Scribblingwoman
Seventypes
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Splinters
Spurious
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
Uncomplicatedly
Unfogged
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
Waggish
What Now?
William Gibson
Wordherders

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Desire and Causality in Road Runner Cartoons

Posted by Bill Benzon on 04/30/11 at 12:10 PM

What’s the Road Runner series about?

The cartoons adhere to a formula: They’re set in a desert landscape in the southwestern US and have just two characters, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Coyote is hungry; Road Runner is a (potential) meal. Coyote concocts schemes to catch Road Runner; some of these are elaborate; and some use equipment supplied by the Acme Corp. All the schemes fail. Coyote has no particular animosity toward the Road Runner; nor Road Runner toward Coyote, though he does taunt him. The end.

Simple. But what’s it about? Take Coyote as a figure for human desire and Road Runner as a figure for the world at large. Desire wishes to bend the world toward its ends. All those elaborate, but failed, schemes are a figure for causality. Conclusion: causality operates according to laws that are independent of human desire. Ergo, there is a world out there, and it is independent of us.

Let’s consider an early example in the series, Beep, Beep (1951). Chuck Jones, the director, invokes a scientific frame of mind at the very beginning by giving us the scientific designations of the protagonists:


BB 1 accelerati

BB 2 carnivorous

Jones enforces the sense of “science” by first presenting us with a blueprint for one of Coyote’s schemes:


BB 3 blueprints 1

We, of course, occupy the Coyote’s point of view; he’s a stand-in for us, and our desires. Notice the three-part explication of the plan. There’s a bit of a gap between steps two and three as a number of unnamed things must happen to transform a (presumably) squashed Road Runner into a burger. We might think of that gap as a figure for the gap between desire and reality.

Of course, the plan doesn’t work. When Coyote steps out onto the wire with the anvil in hand, then wire simply sags:


BB anvil

Road Runner then taunts Coyote – “beep, beep” – and rushes off:


BB taunt 1

Coyote drops the anvil to give chase and is promptly catapulted into the air:


BB catapult

At every point Coyote is foiled by the devices he enlists in his scheme. The world simply doesn’t do what he wants it to do. It’s continually asserting its independence.

And it’s asserting its independence of us as well. Coyote’s scheme, after all, appears logical enough. We may wonder about his ability carry a heavy anvil out onto the wire – how’s his sense of balance? – and about his ability to time the drop so it hits Road Runner. But surely, if it hits, Road Runner will be smashed. Our expectations are foiled as soon as Coyote steps onto the wire, and they’re foiled at every point.

We, of course, know that this will happen. That’s the game of this cartoon: can we guess just how the world will foil Coyote’s plan? We cannot, and thus the cartoon asserts its independence of us.

A bit later we see another blueprint. This one is more elaborate, and we’re given more time to study it:


BB blueprint 2

No sooner do we finish studying the blueprint than we see Coyote rushing to hide (blueprint in hand) while Road Runner approaches the stand:


BB free water

Road Runner stops at the stand, whizzes by and returns with a sign:


BB can't read

Well, I suppose that explains why Road Runner didn’t fall into the trap, but if he can’t read, then just how is it that he got that sign and is showing it to Coyote? If he can’t read then he doesn’t know that the sign said anything about water. If he can’t read then surely he can’t write. And so on. There’s a lot of explaining to be done, and no time to think it through, as we’re off to the next series of gags.

Which take place in the cactus mine:


BB cactus mine

Just what IS a cactus mine? A place where they mine cactuses? Or is that just the name of the mine? No matter. What matters is the chase, which we see largely in elevation view:


BB elevation view

Both Coyote and Road Runner are wearing miner’s helmets. Road Runner is the green light; Coyote is the red. So we follow the two lights ‘round and ‘round through the mine tunnels and corridors. This is a very abstracted view of the chase. And that’s what science does, abstracts.

The chase, predictably, does not end well. The exact details of that failure are irrelevant here, though they are very relevant to the viewer who’s trying to figure out what comes next.

And after that we have more gags, gags built on various kinds of rockets. I don’t know how rockets would have appeared to viewers in 1951, which is before the Missile Race and the Moon Race paced the Cold War through the 1950s and into the 1960s. I suspect they appeared to be pretty high-tech stuff, especially the rockets mounted on skates.

And, after a series of gags, those rocket skates leave Coyote exhausted and thirsty. And, wouldn’t you know it, he’s in front of a stand offering a free glass of water (notice the skates on his feet):


BB gotcha!

No sooner does Coyote drink the water than he realizes the implications of lifting the glass from the table:


BB match lit

Notice the puff of smoke just above the box, either from the match, the fuse, or both. A moment later:


BB ka-bloowie

Success! This contraption worked like a champ. It did just what the blueprint implied it would do. But it did it to Coyote, not Road Runner. Where the anvil plan failed for physical reasons – the wire was more elastic than Coyote anticipated – the water contraption failed for semiotic reasons, Road Runner couldn’t read. The contraption got Coyote himself because he was too exhausted to remember the apparatus he’d built.

Thus Jones has clearly established two different realms of causal relations: 1) the physical world, and 2) the mental and social world of signs. Not bad for a cartoon.

We have time for one final gag. Coyote builds a fake railroad crossing and poses as a guard, presumably to stop Road Runner:


BB fake rr crossing

Road Runner roars on by, flattening Coyote in the process, who is then struck by an on-rushing train:


BB train coming

Just how’d that very real train get onto what had been a faked-up piece of railroad track?

As the train goes by, we see Road Runner lounging in a porch at the rear of the final car:


BB the end

Desire is once again foiled. Reality gets the last word.

And a good thing it does, otherwise we’d be imprisoned in a world where we can’t distinguish between what we desire of the world and what the world offers to us. Causality is not, in fact, easy to determine; and we are often, in fact, fooled by events. This is never more so than in relations with others, where cause and desire chase one another in endless cycles.

In the Road Runner cartoons Chuck Jones has distilled interaction confusion to the simplest situation: one hungry creature wants to use some other creature as food. In order to achieve that end, to accomplish his desire, that first creature enters into a complex mesh of physical and semiotic causality that is the world. And the world asserts its independence of creaturely desire. In this figure interaction with the world-at-large and interaction with an Other are fused into a single activity:


Wile E. Coyote pursues Road Runner

THE END

* * * * *



Note: The writing of this post is an example of the phenomenon I discussed in Knowledge Packets. I’d estimated this post to take, say, a half-dozen screen shots and an hour and a half. Instead, it’s required 17 screen shots and eaten up a whole morning. I simply hadn’t anticipated how rich the cartoon proved to be and thereby underestimated the requirements of a basic, no-frills analysis. And yet I’ve been through this drill before. I know that these things always reveal more of themselves once you start looking at them with the kind of care that’s engendered by actually having to write about them.


Comments

Add a comment:

Name:
Email:
Location:
URL:

 

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: