Desire and Causality in Road Runner Cartoons


by Bill Benzon

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:

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

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:

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

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

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:

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

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

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:

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:

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):

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

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

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:


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

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:

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.


Reason Harnesses the Social Mind: Road Runner II

Let’s return to Beep, Beep, the Road Runner cartoon I’d examined Saturday. I want to take up a motif I’d noticed, but passed over.

As I indicated, one series of gags takes Coyote and Road Runner into an old cactus mine, where both wear lamped miner’s helmets. As the chase comes to a close, they enter a zigzagging passage which eventually splits, with Road Runner taking the upper passage:

Coyote takes the lower passage, but continues his zigzag course, bouncing off the ceiling:

He comes to rest in a dark passage:

And lights a match, revealing that he’s surrounded by TNT:

Of course, the TNT explodes. But we don’t see the explosion underground. We see it aboveground, where cactuses go flying:

Here’s the motif that interests me:

When the cactuses reseat themselves on the ground, they spell out “Yipe!” – as though they’re yelling on behalf of Coyote. It’s a good gag. But, I believe that it’s more than that.

Jones repeats it, albeit in a different form. Coyote ties himself to a rocket, presumably so that he can catch up to Road Runner:

When the rocket takes off, however, it doesn’t go horizontal, it goes vertical . . .

explodes in a shower of fireworks . . .

and they form themselves into an advertisement:

Again, an explosion leads to writing, first by cactuses, now by burning particles.

Why the writing? Yes, it makes a good gag, but why?

Let me speculate.

As I argued Saturday, the Road Runner cartoons are about the distinction between human desire toward the world and the causal mechanisms operating in the world. One might even say they’re about objectivity, reason, science. Hence every cartoon in the series opens with pseudo Latin names for Road Runner cartoons and every cartoon emphasizes Coyote’s ingenuity in constructing contraptions to catch Road Runner. He reasons things out, and tests his devices before using them. And yet they fail.

Two thoughts: one old, one a bit newer. The old thought is that abstract reason starts in anthropomorphism and then, at least sometimes, proceeds to carve away the human elements until nothing is left but impersonal causal forces operating between impersonal objects. The newer thought is from evolutionary psychology, that the human brain is, above all, a social brain. The massive size increase, relative to the brains of other primates, is to accommodate the needs of a richer and more complex social life.

As a corollary to the second thought, the newer one, let us posit that the neural machinery for dealing with social life is the richest and most versatile neural machinery we’ve got. Thus, we’re going to use it to think about our most difficult problems, even when they are not problems of social life. That leads us to the first thought, the older one. Abstract reason begins in anthropomorphism because that’s how it gains access to our most sophisticated computational machinery. To use Mark Changizi’s term, the social brain has been harnessed by reason and, in particular, by scientific and technical reason.

And that’s what’s going on when the cactuses come down spelling “Yikes!” and the fireworks enjoin us to “Eat at Joe’s”. The social brain is peeking through, using a medium natural to it, language.

There is in fact almost no social interaction in Road Runner cartoons. We have only two characters and their only face-to-face interaction comes when Road Runner taunts Coyote. Thus the social brains of the audience can be given almost entirely to the parody of scientific reasoning that is the substance of these cartoons. That parody, however, DOES make and preserve a crucial distinction, as I argued in my earlier post. Wile E. Coyote’s desire to convert Road Runner into food has no effect on the causal interactions exhibited by his devices, schemes, and contraptions. Instead of regulating the interaction between two or more actors, ego (that is, itself) and one or more alters, the social brain is regulating the interaction between desire and causality. Yet it’s still a conversation, and, as such, requires a conversational space.

As Mike Barrier points out in his commentary (in Vol. 2 of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection), we, the audience, enter the cartoon looking over Wile E. Coyote’s shoulder; he plays to us and thus draws us in, on his side. At the same time we’re aware of things Wile is not. We’re the ones who see “Yikes!” and “Eat at Joe’s”. We’re the ones who exercise the distinction between desire and causality. We’re the ones who learn that, no matter how ingenious it is, no matter how fast it can move, desire can never overtake causality. It’s a bitter lesson, but one essential to the conduct of reason.

Pieces originally posted at The Valve | Creative Commons Licence