Jul 202011

Brianna Berbenuik likes to shoot guns and track nuclear disasters. She’s a 20-something misanthropist and student of Slavic Studies at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. She is an avid fan of kitschy pop-culture, terrible Nic Cage movies, the philosophy of Slavoj Zizek, and Freud. You can find her at Love & Darkness & My Side-Arm. All of the above can be deemed occasionally unsafe for work. In this provocative essay, Brianna manages to get Bret Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk and Gore Vidal on the same page and make sense of that collision. It’s an essay about culture, about the end of one culture and the coming of the new and the message loops that whirl in the space between. (See her essay on Tyler Durden and the Fight Club Identity Crisis here,)



People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.
People are afraid to merge.
Disappear here.

This refrain appears throughout Ellis’s seminal work Less than Zero; to put it simply: a novel about a group of entitled and privileged white kids doing drugs and fucking in the 1980’s. Certainly it is about much more, and it is a paranoid, dubious novel of mounting suspicion and tension with no heroics and no payoff.

Everybody suffers, even the rich and privileged. They just have the resources to hide it, or get high enough to forget or become apathetic.

You’d think that reading about poor little rich LA kids would be annoying, enraging and most of all, boring. (Although if you’re like me and follow White Whine on tumblr, you might actually think the opposite.)

But it’s not boring — not when Ellis is behind the novel.

Last year he released the follow-up to Less than Zero, a novel titled Imperial Bedrooms. It’s been a long time coming since in between his first novel and Imperial Bedrooms Ellis wrote classics like The Rules of Attraction and American Psycho, rising to prolific and cult status in the popular culture of North America. Imperial Bedrooms follows Less than Zero‘s “protagonist” Clay who is now all grown up and successful. Coinciding with the release of this novel, Ellis coined the ideas of “Empire” and “Post-Empire”.

It’s no secret that American essayist, author, playwright/screenwriter and political activist Gore Vidal heavily influenced these ideas. Even the title of Imperial Bedrooms is likely influenced by Vidal, who wrote a book called Imperial America and said, “The empire is collapsing.” You don’t really need to be acquainted with Vidal’s ideas in order to understand Empire and Post-Empire, though. Vidal more or less elucidates the concepts in a socio-political light. Ellis does it in a much more interesting way: through pop culture.

Ellis places Empire America circa 1945-2005. Empire is essentially complete delusion: misguided ideas and inordinate investment in the power of celebrity; patronizing political correctness that actually covers up insidious oppression and hides truly damaging opinions. An overall denial of the ultimate frailty and delicateness of human existence. An attitude of self-righteousness and indestructibility, hiding behind politically correct outrage.

The Empire is collapsing.

Ellis has really only elucidated the ideas of Empire and Post-Empire via example. Things that are Post-Empire, according to Ellis? Twilight, Jersey Shore, Charlie Sheen’s breakdown, Tracy Morgan saying he’d kill his son if his son turned out to be gay.

Empire? The Hills, R.E.M., and everyone’s outraged reactions to the emerging Post-Empire zeitgeist. I haven’t read it anywhere explicitly, but I’m pretty sure we can file Oprah under Empire, too. Maybe founding her own channel is a last-ditch attempt to keep the crumbling Empire from entirely collapsing.

Ellis’s twitter account is largely devoted to calling out Empire attitude vs. Post-Empire manifestations in pop culture. Calling out things for being Empire is the new, biting insult – insinuating over-sensitivity, being ‘behind the times’ and generally taking oneself much too seriously.

Empire is ego: ego in the sense that all the arrogance of oneself is in seriousness rather than satire.

So if Empire can loosely be defined as having a stick up one’s ass, what is Post-Empire?

Post-Empire is a new kind of realism. Calling bullshit as it is, stripping celebrity of its bulletproof myths, candidness, breakdowns, testing “politically correct” boundaries, irony, offensiveness in the face of a reserved attitude that hides insidious cultural uptightness for the last 60 years.

You may have noticed recently the internet exploding with “socially conscious youth” calling out establishments previously thought of as benevolent and beneficial as inherently racist and oppressive horseshit. This is Post Empire. Really believing “Multiculturalism” actually means colour blindness and equality is so very Empire.

North America is crumbling and it is denial vs. realism. Entitlement complexes everywhere are being challenged. The indoctrinated children of Empire do not like this. It might be worth noting that Empire children are largely made up of baby boomers, who are now, as a collective generation, being blamed for shitting on the most recent generation’s chances at the American Dream. Or to put it more succinctly, lying about the American Dream, and becoming a generation of greedy liars who killed their grandchildren to feed themselves. It’s a harsh depiction but this is how Post-Empire eyes might see it.

Ellis has boiled down these concepts into useable, and I’d like to say palatable terms – and these terms are coined for and owned by the masses. This is not academic theory with complex ideologies that must be distilled in condescending pablum form for consumption of the uneducated. Hell no – Empire and Post-Empire are the observances of those who can’t or haven’t accessed the Ivory tower; these concepts come from “the bottom up.” And academic arrogance? That is so fucking Empire.

And when I say “uneducated,” I don’t mean stupid. I mean simply those who haven’t gone through the motions of paying for a post-secondary education. In a lot of ways not paying through the nose for education in this economic climate is far more intelligent and utilitarian than doing so. In a lot of ways not entering college or university is Post-Empire. In so many ways, Post-Empire is about street smarts, not book learnedness.

Ellis isn’t the first author to conceptualize the “fall of America,” but he is one of the few who feel that it’s deserved. I have often heard Chuck Palahniuk (author of Fight Club, Choke, Survivor and a short story called “Guts” that has made people pass out and vomit at readings) compared to Ellis. They both do similar things with the grotesque, but I find Ellis a much more elegant and minimalist author, whereas Palahniuk is less refined and more up-front about the gross stuff. Ellis instead builds to near-poignant moments of profound disgust. The difference between the two is simple: while Ellis dissects the grotesque with precision in his writing; Palahniuk hangs it from a tree and guts it.

Not to say one is superior to the other – Palahniuk was recently named the most likely heir to Vonnegut’s throne, and I can see why. He has the same penchant for short, truthful quips that are audacious, hilarious and true.

In Choke, Mrs. Mancini, says:

“We’ve taken the world apart … but we have no idea what to do with the pieces … My generation, all of our making fun of things isn’t making the world any better. We’ve spent so much time judging what other people created that we’ve created very, very little of our own. I used rebellion as a way to hide out. We use criticism as fake participation.”

If you’re like me and come from a liberal education background, and even if you don’t, that statement should give you the chills. You should feel accused, you should feel like a fraud, and you should feel utterly useless. If you don’t, maybe you’re in denial. The thing is, there is no way you are not somehow participating in this attitude.

But once you get over that, you’re Post-Empire. We don’t have to do anything, just sit back, grab a beer or some fine wine, maybe some drugs if that’s your preference, and watch it all crumble. The greatest show on earth is getting our asses handed to us by ourselves.

And here’s the thing about Ellis and Palahniuk: they both give the distinct impression that the decline of the Western, First-World way of life is absolutely deserved. They both force readers to look at what we have done with no sympathy for what has led us here, just the facts. Just the horrifying truth of our greedy, ego-obsessed selves digging our own hole with fervor.

We brought ourselves to this point, and now everything we held so dear is being shown as nothing but illusion perpetuated over the last six plus decades. And guess what? We’re pissed. We are in the Post-Empire now, and there is no going back.

The most chilling part is that neither author nor the concepts of Empire and Post-Empire give us a solution. This is simply the way things are and we don’t really have a choice.  We’re left cut loose to figure it out for ourselves because nobody is going to save us from this one. Don’t bother looking to God – he died with the Empire.

In the end of Less than Zero, Clay narrates the final lines; perhaps as a prophet of the Post-Empire era that, at the time, the world was gearing up to enter.

“The images I had were of people being driven mad by living in the city. Images of parents who were so hungry and unfulfilled that they ate their own children. Images of people, teenagers my own age, looking up from the asphalt and being blinded by the sun. These images stayed with me even after I left the city. Images so violent and malicious that they seemed to be my only point of reference for a long time afterwards. After I left.”

People are afraid to merge. Disappear here.

We’re all fucked now.

It’s Post-Empire, baby. Grab a seat and enjoy the show.

—Brianna Berbenuik

  34 Responses to “In Hell We All Burn Brightly: Bret Easton Ellis’s Empire vs. Post-Empire — Brianna Berbenuik”

  1. Berbenuik brings post-empire! Sweet n sassy!

  2. B, this made me so uncomfortable while reading; probably because I both long for and loathe the idea of Post-Empire. Sometimes I really want those baby-boomers to get what’s coming to them for living it up making bank during the dot-com explosion and great stock market years and then leaving us in a position of complete bankrupcy in more than one way. But then, I aslo want to get my piece of the pie. I wonder where P-E really exists if it exists in North American culture, of which I assume the US is somewhat different than Canada, particularly politically. I listen to the news and don’t understand what my culture is or what is happening politically…for the most part I feel like my generation has turned its back on politics and given up (and I know P-E isn’t just about politics) politically but they continue to make art, to build weird stuff, to create gorrilla veggie gardens along city streets, get tons of tattoos and shave half their heads. I go back to writing essays about childhood and relationships….and just the other day a close friend informed me he’d finished his novel titled “Eve Antichrist” and I thought, jeez, shouldn’t I be writing about the antichrist. Thanks for this review, fabulous writing, loved reading it even if I squirmed.

    • I think the best compliment I can get is someone saying they loved it even though they squirmed. I love writing that makes me do that (in a weird, sadistic way) because it means it’s forcing me to face something or think about something I don’t want to, and that’s always interesting to examine (if uncomfortable).

      I absolutely agree with your feelings of wanting a piece of the pie, my god! At the end of the day, so many people preaching the “downfall of civilization” go home in their nice cars to their nice houses, and I just think…can’t you even admit this is comfortable? I mean, we have it GREAT, we really do. Not without problems, but still.

      I also think the USA is somewhat different than Canada in manifestations of P-E, however I often think (as a Canadian) that Canada thinks it’s more different than America than it really is. Yes – there are some marked differences but I definitely see that gap closing when it comes to things like pop culture. So many things have been adapted for Canada (Canadian Idol, MTV Canada to name two), just to reinforce that somehow we’re “different” and “independent,” but at the end of the day, it’s the same shit in a very slightly different package.

      Thank you for your comment – it was fantastic! Glad I could bring you enjoyment and also discomfort. That sounds terrible, but truly I don’t think it’s so bad!

  3. Brilliant and fascinating! From one very “complex” young lady. I knew that when she was a teen.

  4. Comment readers should pop over and read this – it’s great!

  5. What I find confusing is conflating “Post-Empire” in terms of arts and culture and “Post-Empire” in terms of political action and literal apocalypse. Twilight, Jersey Shore, Charlie Sheen, etc. would suggest that we are starting to like entertainment that is grotesquely fascinating, or that allows us to feel superior. Or even, if you’re very cynical, provides an explanation for why a democratic nation would fall upon such hard, strange times: these people are your countrymen.

    The air here in the States is decidedly ominous. I know a lot of bitter young Canadians who are drowning in debt, but their debt tends to be less than a young American graduate by a factor of 100. Our schools are cheaper, our banks are regulated; a moderately successful Canadian is never going to get bankrupted by a broken leg or even a cancer diagnosis, which is just par for the course down here. Obama, the last great bastion of change, revealed that the most powerful office in the the nation is just about as frustrating and impotent as being an average citizen.

    These are two separate things, and they are not excuses for apathy nor excuses for each other. A writer who reacts to rejection letters by saying, “What’s the point? Look at all the Twilight-crap they’re publishing these days,” is like a citizen who decides it’s too late now, reform is impossible, might as well sit back with a beer and not go to the polling stations – they hurt themselves, and they hurt all of us. If you perceive a dearth in the kind of art you want to see, that should be all the more motivation to create it. Labeling things “Empire” is just more fake participation.

    As for our art being grim and ironic: just as some people cherry-pick in order to say television reflects the worst of our society, many people describe this moment as a renaissance for high-budget, long-form drama and sweet-hearted comedy (see: Mad Men, Parks & Recreation, etc.).

    As for “society”: we live in the era of democratic information. We are the media. We have the most powerful tool to disseminate ideas that has ever existed. Injustice and corruption come readily to light. And instead of retreating into cool, detached disillusionment – at the risk of being overwhelmed by how much is coming to light – why not rejoice that these things can no longer be hidden? Why would you give up now? Ours could be the era of truth.

    • I’m absolutely not saying that labeling things “Empire” is not just more fake participation. Of COURSE it is!

      I’m also not advocating “giving up” or retreating into “cool, detached disillusionment,” I am writing with a specific voice, and additionally I do think accepting the death of “Empire” is a step in taking actual action. Identifying attitudes that no longer serve a purpose but simply cover up the real problem (ie the Empire concept of multiculturalism) paves the way for action, thought and change.

      I really think that anyone who thinks Post-Empire ends in being apathetic is missing the point – Post-Empire isn’t apathy, it’s realizing that having an inflated ego and taking oneself so seriously is a major barrier. Post-Empire is enjoying crap like Jersey Shore (which is ALL ABOUT not taking oneself seriously, because when you take yourself so seriously you get stuck and defensive) but also being able to take a stance (like the socially aware youth that populate blogging platforms like Tumblr).

      Absolutely you raise good points and I am a cynic and misanthropist at heart. Personally, my “negative attitude” actually motivates me and gives me the drive to really believe that, as a culture and a species, we can DO BETTER. Post-Empire is an awakening of that realization, and discarding the bullshit. This is why I find the idea so appealing and why I wanted to write about it.

      We’re in a world of shit but there’s more potential to go up than down. I mean, we can only go “down” so much further, then there’s literally nowhere else to go but up.

      • Brianna– nice article; it was an enjoyable read and makes we suddenly want to write. I would like to offer one observation, if I may. I think that you’re giving the idea of “post-Empire” a bit too much credence. As you indicate in your essay, it is nothing new. This self-ironic, self-fashioned counter-cultural mode of thought dates at least to the rise of Deconstruction in the European academies in the 1960s. Also, one might say that in the U.S., Civil Rights, feminism, and the anti-war movement are also aspects of post-Empire thinking. And herein lies the difficulty. Such thinking, writing, speech, and action were necessary at times to counteract the unchecked power of the federal government and large corporations. That said, post-Empire, irony, postmodernity, or whatever one wants to call it, is by now an institution itself; one that can be potentially repressive, both politically and culturally (as in the explaining away of anti-social behavior as an aspect of “diversity.”). Not does this orientation necessarily being about equality, but can just as often re-hierarchicize society based on who is on the “right” side of the politico-cultural fence. And the answers, as you suggest, are even harder. Take the current debt ceiling debate. In economic reality terms, it must be raised. But in ethico-moral terms, we should probably take the pill, devastating as it may be. Either way, the debt will continue to plague the U.S. as a catastrophic problem for years to come, in large part due to the very Baby Boomers who brought us post-Empire. Round and round we go.

        • It’s an interesting dilemma, and I’m not sure what you mean by saying I am giving post-empire “credence.” It is what it is: a compelling way of looking at pop culture and society – and eventually it will change. I find it fascinating. As with every ideology or zeitgeist, it has the potential to become repressive, etc. It’s the age-old criticism. As soon as something becomes “accepted” or “the norm” it switches to something insidious and used by those who would want to oppress. Which is why culture is in constant flux – there is always some form of oppression to fight and we need to find new ways to do so.

          There seems to be an “end times” mentality surrounding post-empire, and I have sensed a strong opposition and even panic in response to the elucidation behind the ideas of the overall concept…but I don’t see it like that. End of an era and potentially catastrophic for sure, but as you just said “round and round we go.” Something will take its place. Something is probably already taking its place. It’s never going to be Post Empire Full Stop. Just Post Empire Until Something Else.

    • I’m also of the mind that entertainment, politics, etc. are not able to be disentangled from one another. For me, pop culture is incredibly relevant and reflective of entire zeitgeists. I’m not trying to create excuses or claim Canadians have it just as bad as Americans – BUT our entertainment is startlingly similar, and that’s the angle I was taking. Of course America and Canada diverge on key issues – health care being the big one and trust me, I am so glad I am Canadian on that count – but in terms of pop culture consumption? I’d argue there’s not a whole lot of difference (except maybe America’s censorship of sex but glorification of violence and sensationalism – but Canada has this too just from a slightly different angle).

  6. The whole Empire/Post-Empire argument is fascinating. In some ways it mirrors the Modern/Post-Modern debate of a few years ago, but this time politics and economy have created an edginess that was missing in past arguments. Now it reminds me a bit of Turgenev, say, Fathers and Sons–the younger generation’s drift into Nihilism & Revolution where all value is obliterated and the general feeling is one of ressentiment as Nietzsche would say.

  7. “The greatest show on earth is getting our asses handed to us by ourselves.”

    so cool!

  8. Okay, so Bret Easton Ellis just tweeted this:

    “The smartest analysis on Empire-Post Empire I’ve yet come across: “In Hell We Will All Burn Brightly” by Brianna Berbenuik on Numero Cinq…”


    Nothing like having the author say you got the book right.

    • I don’t think I have yet had a more vindicating or more motivational compliment/response.

      • Funny thing is. Yesterday I tweeted the link to your article and tagged Ellis in it on Twitter and the next thing you know he “retweeted” it.

  9. The maybe-sobering fact that isn’t being embraced by those among us with the inclination to bother writing, or even feeling, anything about it at all is that Post-Empire is dying too, may already be dead, an inconvenient truth about which I oscillate between horrified and ecstatic, but towards which am confident that the real standard-bearers of the next generation will feel almost total indifference. What happens when Twilight and “Jersey Shore” are no longer worthy of our cynical, arrogant awe? How are we gonna take it when youtube clips of Charlie Sheen banging seven-gram rocks and B-List porn stars aren’t guilty pleasures anymore? The next stop is checking our deluded self-importance at the door; accepting that we are all, whether by nature or a macabre shift in the cultural tide, just as pathetic as the next cog in this maudlin wheel; shedding the illusion that we follow Lindsay Lohan’s spiral (although the real apostles won’t even recognize it for a spiral at all) as a “guilty pleasure” and realizing through bloodshot eyes that we aren’t any better and it doesn’t really matter. None of it matters. When will the next Less Than Zero come in which Clay isn’t haunted, repulsed, depressed by the vacuity of his 80’s LA incarnation and just moves through it, accepts it as the world he can’t or won’t change and doesn’t bat an eye. When he goes to that hotel room with Rip not to see the worst, because that idea won’t even mean anything to him, but just because it’s something to do. Dostoevsky, Post-Empire before his time, saw his vapid society’s impending demise and asked, in The Brothers Karamazov, what would happen in a world where everything is permissible. That world is now, here. The barriers are broken down. The ones who will try to chronicle what follows won’t get it, because the first through the gate won’t even see why it’s worth recording.

    • Ideologies and zeitgeists are born and die all the time. Post-Empire isn’t permanence. It’s just a reaction. What generation wants to be like their parents? Ideologies and zeitgeists are constantly waging war and trying to carve out their own space while piggy-backing on what came before. Nothing is stagnant – culture is a living entity the way I see it.

  10. I’ve said this before: it’s probably not a good idea to take [the] label at face value because instead of glorifying what seems to be the state of “post-empire transparency” Ellis is making an acidic commentary on the state of symbiotic consumer news-entertainment relationship with a copious amount of irony.

    For a great thread on this topic:

    • Glorify? No. Elucidate and find very interesting, compelling and intriguing? Yes.

      Anything that requires glorification is probably something inadequate and built on shaky foundations. Things that need glorifying are things that won’t last.

      I’d also say that “embracing” is not glorifying, and that my piece was meant to explain with a voice of embracing the issue and idea.

      Anyone who takes anything Ellis says at face value is missing the point. It’s far too simplistic.

  11. is it clear enough yet that RON PAUL is the post empire candidate?? or that the “empire” died actually on 9/11/01 as opposed to 2005?

    • I wouldn’t say Empire died on 9/11 – I would say that was its fatal blow. We’re hearing death rattle now.

  12. I really loved the article, and the idea of Clay as a Post-Empire prophet. It also made me think of Palahniuk’s Tyler Durden,particularly some of the sentences that could be his (“We’re pissed” , “Don’t bother looking to God”, “watch it all crumble”). Perhaps Clay was a prophet and Mr Durden a soldier of the Post-Empire era.

    • Interesting – someone brought up that Fight Club was post-empire ahead of it’s time. It’s one of my favourite movies and I have written extensively on different aspects of it.

      Durden is interesting because he embodies and in a way plagiarizes philosophies that came before. He is a replacement for God – just another internalized imaginary friend.

      The “inside joke” about Fight Club is that if you worship Durden and take what he says too seriously, you’re way off base and missing the point (Space Monkeys). Quoting Fight Club excessively does not make you edgy or intelligent (Sticking feathers up your ass does not make you a chicken), it just makes you a sheep just in a different way. Can you escape that? Who knows. I think at the end of that day that’s what Fight Club is really about – considering the things we cling to. Nihilism and rebellion are still laced potently with self-definition and ideology. We put ourselves in box after box until the day we die – then it’s just one last box.

      Fight Club is one of those cult phenomenons that people still cling to as a flagpost of identity definition. The cult of Durden is just as bad as the Cult of Masculinity, the Cult of Personality. Which is what is so highly intelligent and scathing about the film/novel. Yet another thing Ellis and Palahnuik have in common – their ability to subtly skewer the things people rely on to define the self.

      Kind of off-topic, forgive the randomness.

  13. I actually just read this post after reading a blog post framing Ellis’s style and philosophy against David Foster Wallace’s. I’m vaguely ashamed at missing their public feud all these years. It’s actually, I think, a quite profound little essay (though not terribly flattering of Ellis): http://biblioklept.org/2011/06/14/is-american-psycho-profound-artistic-nihilism-or-stupid-shallow-nihilism-bret-easton-ellis-vs-david-foster-wallace/

    • Wow! Did NOT know they had a feud – thanks for that link, I will be reading that later when I have some more time.

  14. Awesome! I didn’t know this has gone so far…

  15. YES! I was hoping someone would recognize the title line!

  16. Post Empire as a new kind of realism; VERY nicely put. I love this article, it’s the best thing I’ve read in a good while! Some Post Empire things/scenarios/whatever’s (in my opinion, I guess) : 1) when a guy approaches you at a bar and goes for the classic question, of course after he’s already made an attempt at a sincere comment on your looks, (“Where are you from?”), just shaking your head and saying you don’t know or asking why it matters-in other words calling bullshit as it is and not having to put in the effort of being fake or “social” I guess 2) purposely not dressing hipster at a hipster infested bar or restaurant 3) not wearing sunglasses in Los Angeles (or if you want to go to extremes like I did then just not even OWNING a pair) 4) not owning an i phone (or, again, if you want to go to extremes like I have then owning an LG Rumor 2 phone that looks like it’s from 1999) 5) wearing an 80’s shade of bright red lipstick and a crazy outfit to a small town diner.
    I can’t think of any more….

  17. Excellent essay on Empire v. Post Empire. I would like to point out, though, that Imperial Bedrooms is named after Elvis Costello’s album Imperial Bedroom. All of Ellis’ titles are taken from Costello’s work.

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