Design died in Wile E Coyote’s vast cartoon desert of the un-won West, thinks Sam Jacob
When you find yourself in times of trouble, historically speaking, its quite likely you’ll find yourself in a desert. For Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, for the Israelites fleeing Egypt, for Mark Thatcher on the Paris-Dakar rally, deserts are places we become lost in, or are exiled to. They are places where beyond-normal things happen, things like nuclear tests, alien autopsies and what-happens-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas moralities. Cartography hates a vacuum, so the desert’s emptiness forces us to fill its void with invented narratives and myths.
Despite their physical vastness, deserts can also feel psychologically claustrophobic. It’s this lonely claustrophobia that is the setting for the Wile E Coyote and Road Runner cartoons. Each episode sees the two locked in a mutually dependent negative relationship with less dialogue than a Samuel Beckett play. These scenes in cartoon deserts have a kind of inescapable, unremitting bleakness where narrative is stuck in a loop, endlessly replaying the same story over and over.
Road Runner is a minimalist masterpiece
Each episode sees Coyote attempt to catch Road Runner, aided by products from the Acme Corporation, that make-anything, deliver-anywhere parody of consumerism’s limitless offer. Road Runner is a minimalist masterpiece.. Amazing products arrive almost instantaneously. Things like the Do-It Yourself Tornado Kit, Dehydrated Boulders, Earthquake Pills, Jet Propelled Pogo Stick, Triple Strength Fortified Leg Muscle Vitamins, and the amazingly named Acme Future Push Button Home Of Tomorrow Household Appliance.
Acme’s products parodied post-war trends towards mechanisation, convenience and consumerism. Acme might be the greatest design company that never existed – apart from the fact that almost every one of its products failed. If they didn’t, user error would result in disaster.
Acme might be the greatest design company that never existed – apart from the fact that its products failed
Coyote’s relationship with Acme echoes an idea described by Reyner Banham in ‘The Great Gizmo’, his essay on the Sears Roebuck mail order catalogue. He argued that the catalogue was pivotal in the occupation of the American West. The delivery of consumer goods – from stoves to the Stetson hat – enabled the colonisation of the infrastructure-less frontier landscape. Banham argued that Sears Roebuck delivered a kind of gadgetecture, an out-of-the-box urbanism and for this reason, gadgetry was ‘deeply involved with the American mythology of the wilderness’.
Chuck Jones, the cartoon’s creator, was more skeptical. Jones established a series of rules that the Road Runner stories had to operate within. These included commandments such as ‘no outside force can harm the Coyote – only his own ineptitude or the failure of Acme products’, ‘the Coyote could stop anytime – if he was not a fanatic’, and ‘whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote’s greatest enemy’. These are the physics of the cartoon, and perhaps the reason why Road Runner is a minimalist masterpiece.
Design’s failure is Road Runner’s salvation – and, through him, our own salvation
If Coyote’s traps, trips and mechanics worked smoothly, Road Runner would be killed repeatedly by innovative design. Design’s failure is Road Runner’s salvation – and, through our sympathy for him, our own salvation. Another of Jones’ rules states ‘the Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures. The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote’. We identify with his constant, ridiculous Banham-esque optimism in design. If Acme products did the job they said they would, the precarious balance between Road Runner and Coyote would be set out of kilter, and the narrative would end. Coyote’s schemes – like strapping on a pair of rocket-powered roller skates – are doomed to fail because design perverts his natural state.
It’s revealing to note that the series began in 1948, three years after the first nuclear test in the New Mexico desert. In this light, the cartoon can be read as an ambivalent allegory describing the post-war relationship between technology and nature, casting design as the chasing of impossible goals, rather than a way of delivering solutions.