Cartoons about capitalism are as old as cartoons themselves, but few have taken its absurdities as far as the early 1990s animated series, Rocko’s Modern Life. The show first aired under the Nicktoons branding, which was an effort to, in the words of Nickelodeon’s then-vice-president Cyma Zarghami, tell stories “about real life in animation, rather than action and fantasy.” Rocko’s Modern Life presented a social critique that was more nuanced than the suburban moral utopia of Jim Jinkins’ Doug or the fuzzy-warm kidland of Rugrats (Arlene Klasky, Gábor Csupó, and Paul Germain). It was more like Matt Groening’s The Simpsons or Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-Head, which were becoming popular on adult-oriented networks for their countercultural take on the abundance, inanity, and occasional desolation of capitalism after the Cold War.
As the US assumed its place as the world’s only superpower, Rocko’s Modern Life found resonance between the growing promise of cartoons that critically portrayed the capitalist culture and the wacky fluidity enabled by animation as a medium. Most importantly, it gave television audiences a lens into the spiritual realties of labor and consumption under global capitalism.
The show’s intro establishes its setting in the “real world”, a cruel cityscape haunted by the faces of rotary telephones and sneering coffee mugs. Alarm clocks literally pummel us into submission with their fists. The Conglomo-O-Corporation looms over everything, its skyscraper topped by a neon martini glass with a toothpick spearing the Earth. Conglom-O’s corporate slogan glows: “We own you.”
The city itself is called O-Town. Its suburbs are populated by Rocko, a wallaby who meekly serves as the show’s protagonist, along with a hodgepodge of other animal characters and their anthropomorphic possessions. Since there are no humans, objects are afforded an equal level of personhood as animal characters. Mops and vacuum cleaners walk, talk, and develop psychiatric disorders. Rocko’s Modern Life presents a world where commodities really are as alive as Congolm-O would want us to believe.
The infusion of real-world sociocultural context with anthropomorphic commodities likely places Rocko’s Modern Life in the category of magical realism. Magical realism differs from fantasy or science fiction because rather than taking place in imaginary geographies or speculative timelines, it searches real places and cultures for underlying currents of the uncanny and the spiritual. It probably includes most animated works, from Satoshi Kon’s neo-noir dreamworlds (Mishra & Mishra, 2014) to Seth McFarlane’s implausible sitcom sketches (Crawford, 2009) to early spirit-infused Disney works like The Old Mill (1937).
Magical realist narratives are driven not only by the desires of its characters, but also the willpower and agency of the mystical forces just beneath the surface of everyday life. Likewise, many episodes of Rocko’s Modern Life develop their plotlines around the woes and aspirations of mass-produced appliances and toys. Animation is the perfect medium for magical realist storytelling; when the whole world is in fluid motion, the life coursing through everything becomes visible.
Rocko and the rest of the show’s animal cast are hardly more anthropomorphic than the stuff they own. They fight a magical version of class warfare against things, which is usually a losing battle for Rocko. In one episode, a laundromat washing machine malfunctions and takes off galloping down the road, dragging him behind. Commodities assert their willpower by transgressing our behavioral expectations. This includes when they don’t work the way they should or when they fail entirely.
Rocko cradles his vacuum cleaner in his arms as it coughs and sputters, pleading, “I’m sorry old friend, I didn’t mean to be cruel to you. Don’t leave me.” The vacuum cleaner responds “Rosebud”, concluding a life of equal spiritual depth as the protagonist of Citizen Kane. To fill the hole in his heart, Rocko buys an even better vacuum cleaner, the Suck-O-Matic. It’s so powerful that it runs amok down the streets. The episode ends with the vacuum devouring the entire house with Rocko and friends trapped inside, the rest of his neighbors suffering the same fate to their own Suck-O-Matics.
Indeed, anthropomorphism muddies the distinction between consumer and consumed, reversing their politics. That reversal also endangers Rocko’s bovine friend, Heffer, who boards a flatbed and tells Rocko he’s “going to market”. He’s horrified when another cow on the truck informs him, “we’re not going to pick up a few items. We’re going to be sold. By the pound, specifically.”
This is the same commodity-dominated society in which a sock is appointed judge and, jabbering like a puppet, sentences Rocko harshly. Rocko is mired in financial difficulties, barely able to pay his meters for electricity, water, phone, and oxygen, yet his food processor makes it big as a casino tycoon. Rocko doesn’t just struggle to afford the resources necessary for survival; he has to wrest them away from the commodities that people his magical capitalism.
The show’s magical realist lens brings to life what Karl Marx termed “the fetishism of commodities”. In the first chapter of Capital, Marx identifies commodity fetishism as a magical belief that pervades the proletariat. Commodities are alive, acting and relating to us as social beings. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, Marx chastises the unenlightened workers for their foolish embrace of consumer trappings. The life lost to the movement of the assembly line was alienated from the worker, who couldn’t recognize any of themselves in the product of their labor. From the marketplace, those same consumer goods call to us with the promise to reconnect with that lost part of ourselves.
Rocko’s Modern Life takes this literally, its department stores replete with food processors barking in a puppy pen and tea kettles whistling atop bird swings, begging to be picked from amongst other appliances. Commodities speak to us, Marx argued, through the religious voice of the fetish. In nearly every culture, fetishes such as effigies, statues, shrines, or amulets are made by hand, often by a leader in matters of the spirit. By creating a fetish, humans can communicate with plant and animal spirits to cooperate and share concerns.
That same domain of spirits is described by Marx (2015, p. 48) as the “mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life.” Just as the fetish holds the totemic power of the human intention that pieced it together, commodities seem to take on the life that hands have put into them. Like other European modernists, Marx disparaged animism and other ways of understanding that consider reality to be a product of plant, animal, and human agency. For Marx, commodity fetishism is a capitalist iteration of animism that entrances the proletariat with the immaterial and the illusory, distracting them from their material deprivation.
By contrast, Rocko’s Modern Life visualizes commodity fetishism by animating the spiritual dimensions of labor and consumption. Whereas real capitalism mystifies the origins of commodities behind global tangles of supply chains and subcontracts, Rocko’s magical realist capitalism lets commodities show their human face and make demands.
For a while, Rocko is the cashier of a tiny comic book shop, working late nights as the stacks of merchandise cackle and bellow at him. He has another terrible job at the competing comic emporium, where the PA system sprouts lips and screams at employees in the voice of the boss. It’s not clear whether power lies with the higher-ups or the cultural artifacts that materialize their authority.
In an episode titled “Power Trip”, Rocko’s boss goes out of town for hair implants, leaving Rocko in charge. Rocko sits upon his supervisor’s leather armchair, whose spirit possesses him with an administrator’s rage. He articulates the inhuman logic of market fundamentalism to his terrified underling: “Supply and demand, Filburt. People demand Big Man comics and we supply them. If you, Filburt, can’t supply Big Man, the system breaks down… I don’t make a profit.” He fires Filburt, who tumbles, bound by rope, down the staircase.
Work conditions at Conglom-O Corporation are hardly better. Executives summon employees with the push of a button, which deploys robotic claws to grab workers by the scruff of their neck. The system sends them flying through the building on an overhead conveyor line until they dangle above the Jacuzzis of their reptilian managers. Conglom-O’s offices ascend like elevators for rapid promotions and swing open trapdoor floors for instant firings. The skyscraper whirls with the energy of the things that are truly in charge, resembling the frenetic, dystopian bureaucracy of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
As theorized by French sociologist Guy Debord (2005, p. 10), the spectacle of commodities invokes a “concrete inversion of life, an autonomous movement of the nonliving.” For the nonliving, profit is survival. The faster the Conglom-O building shuffles around its meek office-working lizards, the deeper their souls are sucked into the corporation’s products, and the more alive commodities become.
To cope with this spiritual wasteland that cedes life to things, Rocko and his friends strive for belonging within the society of commodities. Rocko’s neighbor, Ed Bighead, is brought to existential despair by his job as a Conglom-O manager. The ceiling tiles open and drop stacks of paperwork onto his desk. Ed descends into hysteria while trying to decipher the endless corporate jargon. His boss manifests as a specter floating above him, shrieks “keep up or get out”, and vomits paperwork all over Ed’s office.
Desperate, Ed befriends a Magic Meatball that gives answers when shaken. Like Mattel’s Magic 8-Ball toy that it satirizes, the Magic Meatball is imbued with the fetishistic power of divination. But while the spirit medium shapes the fetish from natural materials so that it can communicate with nature spirits, the corporation shapes commodities from artificial materials so they can communicate with capital. Ed knows this, so he pleads with the Magic Meatball to help him navigate the abstract decisions he faces as a corporate manager.
The Magic Meatball makes numerous demands in a Brooklyn accent. Ed serves him Italian food, entertains him as a jester, and even marries him. Rocko also forges reciprocal relationships with plastic toys, like the Mr. Onion Head and G. I. Jimbo action figures he tries to get rid of at his garage sale. Mr. Onion Head is a devoted friend, so he gently reprimands Rocko for severing the trust of his community of toys. Rocko bursts into tears, realizing he has violated the reciprocal nostalgia of his childhood belongings.
He encounters a problematic that has long been at the core of animist practice: how to understand one’s place amongst human and other beings. In a society of things, social responsibility requires a recognition of the influence of commodities upon our most foundational spiritual experiences.
Rocko’s Modern Life directly approaches religious animist themes in some episodes. At one point, Rocko’s dog gobbles up a Fatheads Chewable Vitamin Cheese tablet, which his gut parasites worship like a monolith. In “Feisty Geist”, a vengeful spirit possesses Rocko’s dog, friend, and furniture in sequence. Rocko’s solution is to apply Spirit-Away Anti-Possession Cream, a mass-manufactured adaptation of the fetishes that ward off spirits. Animist capitalism teems with ghosts.
When the Conglom-O corporation shuts down for the night, the drained spirits of employees haunt its gloomy corridors. They appear and disappear, still wearing neckties and droning, “we work here, we’ve always worked here.” While in these moments the show critically depicts animism within Western capitalism, it also often views non-Western practices through an otherizing gaze.
Heffer dons a turban with a sarpech, strikes a feng gong, and hypnotizes Rocko while crudely imitating a miscegenated ethnic accent. Filburt chastises, “I want nothing to do with your voodoo,” exploiting orientalist associations between the East and black magic. In a similar gag, Filburt wears what he calls a “silly headdress” of peacock feathers and attempts to reanimate Rocko’s car by waving a chicken over it and incanting, “boom shwanti oosh”.
Rocko turns to ceremonial resurrection to repair his car because he, like other consumers (Kühn et al., 2014), sees it as a living being. He shares a mutual dependence with his car that is at times both practical and emotional, like when it weeps and pleads for freedom from the impound lot. Yet the appropriative and racist derision with which the show often regards animism reflects Marx’s own contradictory disposition towards commodity fetishism. Marx saw the animism within capitalist culture as an archaic remnant of pre-modern and non-Western society, a Eurocentric perspective sometimes reproduced in Rocko’s Modern Life.
Despite its shortcomings, the animist capitalism illustrated in Rocko’s Modern Life is increasingly relevant. If you’ve ever argued with Amazon Alexa, wondered why your social media profile wants you to befriend a particular person, been surprised by the behavior of your smartphone, or disagreed with its driving directions, you’ve experienced what scholars call “object agency” (Lindstrøm, 2015). The rise of artificial intelligence, automation, and the internet of things has populated the world with nonhuman actors.
More than ever, the workplace subjects human activity to the needs of capital, numbers, and data. Workers are animated by metrics instead of ethical, cultural, and human values, dispossessing them of their agency and transforming their life-work into what Marx called “dead labor”. The worker’s spirit is dispossessed to enchant products with life, pitting human against commodity in a struggle for agency. The immaterial dimensions of this struggle are made visible by the magical realism of Rocko’s Modern Life, as my previously published paper explores in further detail. In reality, it’s more difficult to see within consumer goods the life that has been taken away, to perceive the dead labor that gives commodities their voice. Can we fare any better than Rocko against the willpower of things?