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.
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.
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.