Culture Magazine

Desire and Causality in Road Runner Cartoons

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
An old one from 2011 that I'm bumping to the top in general principle.
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 procured from 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, the 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 is 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
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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.

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