Mr. Potato Head is an ontological nightmare

Where is Mr. Potato Head?

I’m not talking about any particular Mr. Potato Head toy, even though the whereabouts of my four-year-old’s are currently unknown. (It’s probably in the nether realm that exists somewhere between the underside of my couch and the Oort Cloud.) Nor am I wondering where I can find one to buy.

I’m asking a more fundamental question. Mr. Potato Head is modular, with swappable arms, legs, hats, and facial features. In which of those parts resides the true essence of Mr. Potato Head? Which are the ones without which he ceases to be MPH? Is it one in particular? Is it some combination? Or is his true being immaterial?

It wasn’t until about my 12,000th viewing of Toy Story 3 that I started wondering about this. Before then, I would have blithely assumed that the heart and soul of Mr. Potato Head resided within the potato. It’s the obvious choice. Right there in the name. A Potato Head lacking accessories may be trapped in a ceaseless torment of lucid thought and total sensory deprivation, but he’d still be Mr. Potato Head. Right? Well, I’m not so sure.

There’s a scene in Pixar’s movie in which Don Rickles’s Mr. Potato Head character makes his way across the grounds of Sunnyside Day Care by plugging his various parts into different foods: a tortilla, a pickle. As physical comedy, it’s some of Pixar’s best work. As an ontological proposition, it’s what David Foster Wallace would call a real two-handed head clutcher.

If Mr. Potato Head retains his identity across different corporeal foodstuffs -- if the nexus of his various non-culinary pieces turns out to be irrelevant -- then the potato body is far less than the “true” MPH. It’s not even as crucial a vessel as the most ardent spiritualist would consider our own squishy bodies to be. At best, It’s a prosthesis. A Mr. Potato Head who is also Mr. Tortilla Head who is also Mr. Pickle Head clearly relies on none of those things to call himself “Mr.”

Does this mean, then, that those plastic hands, feet, and mustaches are the containers for what we might call Mr. Potato Head’s soul? If so, which one? Or are they mere conduits? Is MPH a distributed consciousness across all of his parts? Does their physical proximity matter at all? What about mixing and matching? What happens if you exchange pieces between separate Potatoes Head?

From Pixar’s depiction, it seems clear that the soul of Mr. Potato Head is indivisible. When he reunites with his friends after his long night of body-switching, he’s still clearly himself. He’s relieved and grateful to be back with his loved ones. There’s no sense that he’s left behind a part of himself in the soggy tortilla, nor are there replicant Mr. Potato Heads out there inhabiting stray French fries and corn cobs, each one believing himself to be the real MPH. Whatever you want to call it -- his spirit, his soul, his essence -- it’s clearly portable. The irreducible being of MPH requires no permanent home; perhaps it needs no physical home at all.

As a committed materialist, I find this possibility troubling. Where was Mr. Potato Head’s soul prior to the fabrication of his original plastic pieces? Was it already fully formed, or did it come swirling out of the ether at the moment of manufacture? (While we’re at it, just when precisely was that moment? Before or after the packaging was sealed?) Will this non-corporeal but “true” MPH continue to exist after all of his physical parts have ceased to be? Where is Mr. Potato Head?

This is giving me a headache. Anyway, Mr. Potato Head is a crappy toy. The pieces are always getting lost.