A Socratic Dialogue on Personal Identity

Who is Daffy Duck?

Oh, that's simple. He's black with an orange bill, shorter than Bugs, walks with his back bent forward some, given to explosive fits of temper, talks with a lisp and thinks the world of himself.

Would you say that we can talk about Daffy without needing to refer to a specific cartoon?

Yes, perfectly well. He exists independently of any given cartoon. There are plenty of cartoons with him in them, though.

So, in Ali Baba Bunny, is that Daffy Duck?

Yes, definitely. "Consequences, schmonsequences, as long as I'm rich" is definitely a Daffy line.

Even though nobody ever calls him "Daffy" in the course of the cartoon?

Sure. We all know it's him. Greedy but lovable, we know it's the same Daffy Duck. The world of the cartoon isn't complete unto itself. Daffy and Bugs are part of it, but as fully formed characters.

Hmmm. "The same Daffy Duck." Okay. So in Rabbit Seasoning, is that Daffy also?

Yes. Only Daffy would say "pronoun trouble" on the way to getting his bill shot off.

But Ali Baba Bunny ends with Daffy being shrunk and trapped in an oyster. How can that be the same Daffy as the full-size one in Rabbit Seasoning?

Oh, it's a cartoon.

Yes, but let's try to pin down exactly how the cartoon-ness works itself out. How does it being a cartoon mean that the shrunk-down Daffy can be the same Daffy as the Daffy in Rabbit Seasoning?

Cartoon characters bounce back from damage. Even between scenes they recover completely. Daffy always puts his bill back to normal between getting shot every time he messes up the pronouns, the Coyote is fine even after he falls off a cliff and gets crushed by a rock. This is the same thing: he bounces back between cartoons.

I'm not so sure that this is the "same" thing. Aren't the cross-cartoon change more severe? Like the times Daffy blows himself up to get applause? You'd agree that's the same Daffy?

Yes, certainly.

And you'd agree that in the cartoon, he's right when he says "I can only do it once?" That he certainly couldn't recover from his explosion in that cartoon?

Hmmm. Yes, I'd have to grant that. We see him in spectral form, flying up out of his devil costume with wings and a harp and a halo. It's clear that this is something more.

And yet in the next cartoon, that's the same Daffy, even though he died in the last one? Was he somehow resurrected?

I guess you could say that they're always resurrected between cartoons if they die. Sort of an extension of the complete healing from all injuries.

Quite a miracle, then. Does that make Daffy the new Messiah, rising from the dead time after time?

No. He's just a cartoon character. It's not really a rising from the dead. We don't need to worry about what happens between cartoons. It's just sort of blank space that doesn't matter. I guess I need to modify my earlier statement. Cartoons aren't the biographical records that document the existence of some kind of "real" Daffy. Daffy doesn't need to exist outside of the cartoons.

Then how can you say that it's the same Daffy in different cartoons? As I recall, your argument relied on characteristics of Daffy that transcended any specific cartoon.

Hmmm. I guess the trouble is in trying to think of cartoons as a genuine chronological document. Different cartoons with the same characters sort of coexist. Could you put a strict order on the episodes of a sitcom or the Sherlock Holmes stories? Not necessarily. It's clearly the same Daffy, but you need to think of the cartoons as starting from the same blank jumping-off point and then diverging. They all leave from the same sort of "Daffy home base," but what happens in one cartoon doesn't have to affect any other.

But how do we know what that starting point is? If none of the cartoons can affect Daffy's nature in any other, how can his characteristics carry over? Why might he not turn out to be a mild-mannered duck who tries to save Bugs from Elmer with comic ineptitude?

For the same reason he's not blue and he has the voice he does. Certain things are central to the character, and they carry over. The cartoons don't start from nothing-- they start from the same point, but one which already has Daffy's personality built in to it. That's how cartoons work-- in seven minutes, you don't have time to really introduce characters, so you start with a lot of the characteristics already built up.

Hmmm. But how do we know what those characteristics are? I mean, if I saw Don the Dingo in a cartoon tomorrow, I would have no idea what his nature was. Where does this abstracted Daffy come from?

From seeing other cartoons with Daffy in them, we already know what to expect from him. We can't directly observe this "abstracted Daffy," so we need to learn about it empirically.

Isn't that circular? Because how did we know what to expect from him in them? There had to be some point at which we met Daffy.

That's certainly true. But the first few cartoons don't necessarily work as well as later ones do. Way back when, we all watched our first few Daffy Duck cartoons, we didn't know who this duck was. But you don't need to know that to learn how he acts. So all this evidence accretes and eventually becomes associated with Daffy, and then his appearance in another cartoon, together with his first couple lines, are enough to trigger the Daffy-recognizer and you know it's him.

Fair enough. So what's the relationship between this meta-Daffy and the Daffy in individual cartoons? Is it like an actor playing different parts?

No, because an actor plays different parts, and we expect different personalities in different films. Sometimes he's a murderer, sometimes he's a cardboard good guy, sometimes he's a hunky romantic lead. Actors are more malleable; Daffy's more stuck with who he is.

Okay. So every time we see Daffy, it's definitely Daffy? He's always "playing" himself?

Yes, that's it. Which makes him recognizable from cartoon to cartoon in a way that a movie actor isn't.

But what about Duck Dodgers or Robin Hood Daffy? What's going on there? On the one hand, they're different characters, different settings, they're clearly comfortable in these roles, you believe they have an existence byond just what the cartoon shows. So the "characters" are more than just Daffy. But on the other hand, they're still extremely Daffy Duck in everything they do, to a level that goes far beyond just saying "oh, Duck Dodgers acts and looks just like Daffy Duck." They really are Daffy.

There is a tension there, sure. It's somewhere between "Daffy Duck in space clothing" and "a Daffy Duck-derived space crusader," but I don't know that there's a good metaphor for exactly what it is. It's sort of like Commedia dell'Arte, with specific stock characters in different quasi-independent plots, except that the Warner Bros. animators made up their own stock characters. Okay, sure there's a tension, but that's cartoons. And there are certain conventions that go with the genre, with having to do everything you want to do in seven minutes. One of those conventions is that you agree to remember certain personality facts about characters from cartoon to cartoon, but you also agree to forget other specifics. Sure, they slip roles on and off, but you've bought into the world in which you have to accept both Daffy and the space-duck suit as equal partners in the cartoon world.

So the scenery and the costumes and the specific details are triggers, also, the same way that seeing a familiar-looking duck is a trigger? It sounds like you're saying that both the characters and their context go through a layer of interpretation first, and that interpretation lets us set up a context in which "Daffy" has a stronger meaning than it does in the abstract. It's a more semiotic argument: that the sense of "Daffy" varies based on which cartoon frame we're using. And the cues to establish this frame are pretty simple and up-front because the cartoon has to move quickly and because it can rely on this established but looser concept of Daffy that we've borrowed from other cartoons.

That's reasonable, I think. To really see things in this perspective, I think the best example would be the one in which Bugs and Elmer are in the woods, Elmer hunting Bugs as usual, and a hat deilvery truck drives by and loses lots of hats which get blown into the air by the wind. So for the rest of the cartoon, every time a hat lands on one of them, they immediately take on the characteristics of the "usual" wearer of that hat. Game warden Bugs demands to see Elmer's hunting permit, and from there they go back and forth. As the viewer, you're completely aware that it's still Bugs and Elmer under the hats, but the transformations are still stronger than just the two of them "acting" based on the hats. And the hats are the semiotic triggers: you know what's going to happen and how they're going to act when the policeman hat and the cowboy hat come falling down.

Kind of a reflexive statement, the cartoon making fun of its own conventions?

Exactly. It's one of those wonderful moment in entertainment that's fully self-aware, and yet pulls it off without breaking stride, you don't need Porky to pop out and say "this cartoon is a-bee-a-bee-a-bee talking about itself, folks," the self-reference feeds the entertaiment.

Given all that, would you still say that it's simple to say who Daffy Duck is?

Oh, certainly. He's black with an orange bill, shorter than Bugs, walks with his back bent forward some, given to explosive fits of temper, talks with a lisp and thinks the world of himself. The only complicated part is trying to puzzle out how such a simple explanation can possibly suffice.

And yet it does?

And yet it does.