Friday, October 24, 2014

Who Frames Roger Rabbit? - Cartoon Characters as Recognized Individuals (Part Seven)

Part Six

To make sense of cartoons as objects of consciousness, I am going to refer to the “moe element” model of Japanese critic/philosopher Hiroki Azuma. Moe is a Japanese term used to describe a feeling of affection, most commonly for a fictional character. Since the term moe has connotations unique to Japanese cartoon culture, I will use the broader term “affective element” in order to apply the same basic concept in a non-Japanese media context, while keeping the term “moe” when quoting directly from Azuma. Describing the mascot-turned-cartoon character Digiko, Azuma describes the affective elements used to create her:

Affective elements of Dijiko
“I will not describe the characteristics of each element here, but note that each element, with its own origins and background, constitutes a category that has been developed in order to stimulate the interest of the consumers. It is not a simple fetish object, but a sign that emerged through market principles...Most of the moe elements are visual, but there are other kinds of moe elements, such as a particular way of speaking, settings, stereotypical narrative development, and the specific curves of a figurine” (Azuma 42).

In the case of Mickey Mouse, these affective elements would be things like big yellow shoes, gloved four fingered hands, or big round ears. But as Azuma points out, affective elements are not just physical. Digiko has an unusual way of speaking (ending all of her sentences with ~nyo) and a stereotypically heroine-esque “cocky and carefree” personality (ibid 40). We might recognize similar characteristics in Mickey's squeaky voice and cheerful attitude.

This can seem like an unusual classification system at first, but the idea of physical affective elements is more or less tacitly acknowledged by copyright law. A character such as Mickey Mouse is covered by three distinct legal protections.

First, Mickey's design is protected by a copyright. This includes physical affective elements such as his round ears, four-fingered hands, and big yellow shoes. The design copyright does not cover individual elements such as four-fingered hands (many cartoon characters, such as Bugs Bunny, use the same physical affective element), but rather their total combination. Second, Mickey's individual animated films are each covered by an individual copyright. Third, Mickey is trademarked as a symbol of the Disney Company.

While the second form of copyright protects particular films (what we might call particular physical objects), the first protects his design without reference to medium. Note that the term “physical affective elements” does not in fact refer to a physical material, but rather a physical relation. It is not a drawing of a four-fingered hand that defines Mickey as an object of consciousness, but rather the design a four-fingered hand in relation to a set of other design elements.

This is why the physical medium does not matter from the consumer's perspective or from a legal perspective. It does not matter if Mickey is ink and paper, binary code, or projected light: all that matters is the proper arrangement of physical affective elements.

It is possible for there to be genuine conflict between these physical affective elements. For example, Mickey cannot be simultaneously defined by “round ears” and “square ears.” Now, a particular animator may draw Mickey with square ears, but this would be viewed as an aberration of the commonly accepted definition of Mickey.

More importantly, the round ears cannot exist simultaneously with round ears in a single design or in a single manifestation of a design (unless a character has two sets of ears). There is a limit to the extent to which these physical effective elements can be played with before a cartoon character is no longer recognizable as Mickey Mouse.

For example, a drawing of Mickey with square ears would be unusual, but so long as all of the other physical affective elements were in play, audiences will still recognize Mickey as Mickey. Certainly, Disney would be capable of taking legal action against a company that created a cartoon character that was in all respects identical to Mickey other than the shape of the ears

 Just as we would recognize a person who has gotten a haircut or lost a limb as still being the same person, minor changes to a cartoon character's appearance do not prevent us from recognizing them (or prevent Disney from successfully pursuing lawsuits against copyright violators).
"What is Doc?"

However, Disney would not be able to sue Warner Brothers for using a character design with long ears, whiskers, paws, buck teeth, and a tail, even if both characters have four-fingered hands. Bugs Bunny is considered a separate character from Mickey Mouse precisely because they have sufficiently incompatible sets of physical affective elements.

The question of copyright violation raises another important point - the Disney Corporation may have the sole legal authority to create physical manifestations of the object of consciousness known as “Mickey Mouse,” but they are not the only ones with the capacity to do so. These copyrights are of vital importance to the Disney Corporation because almost anyone with a pen and sheet of paper can arrange physical affective elements in such a way as to depict Mickey Mouse. More importantly, anyone with the proper tools can recreate depictions of Mickey Mouse onto T-Shirts, backpacks, coffee mugs, and so on.

Counterfeit Disney characters in China
This leaves us the conclusion that the object of consciousness to which the concept of a cartoon character is attached is itself a concept. A cartoon character is a sort of meta-concept; a concept expressed according to a communally-accepted conceptual design, not by any particular physical manifestation of the design.

Much as “Justice” is not defined by any particular object, but rather by a set of legal and social meta-concepts, so a cartoon character is not defined by a particular ink and paper drawing. It is actually quite simple to accurately reproduce an object which can instantly be recognized by almost any human being as Mickey Mouse; much easier than committing an action that would be universally acknowledged as Just.

(Continued in Part Eight)

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