In 2011, Bret Easton Ellis made waves with an essay about Charlie Sheen in which he coined the terms empire and post-empire.
The people unable to process Sheen’s honesty can’t do this because it’s so unlike the pre-fab way celebrity presented itself within the Empire. Anyone who has put up with the fake rigors of celebrity (or has addiction problems) has got to find a kindred spirit here. The new fact is: if you’re punching a paparazzo, you now look like an old-school loser. If you can’t accept the fact that we’re at the height of an exhibitionistic display culture and that you’re going to be blindsided by TMZ (and humiliated by Harvey Levin, or Chelsea Handler—princess of post-Empire) walking out of a club on Sunset at 2 in the morning trashed, then you’re basically fucked and you should become a travel agent instead of a movie star. Being publicly mocked is part of the game now and you’re a fool if you don’t play along with it and are still enacting the role of humble, grateful celebrity instead of embracing your fucked-up-ness. Gaga’s little monsters, anyone? Not showing up to collect your award at the Razzies for that piece of shit you made? So Empire. This is why Charlie seems saner and funnier than any other celebrity right now. He also makes better jokes about his situation than most worried editorialists or late-night comedians. A lot of it is sheer bad-boy bravado—just saying shit to see how people react, which is very post-Empire—but a lot of it is transparent, and on that level, Sheen is, um, winning. And I’m not sure being fired from Two and a Half Men and having to wear those horrible rockabilly bowling shirts for another two years is, um, losing…
In an interview with Vice earlier this year, Ellis was asked to clarify the distinction between Empire and Post-Empire.
Can you explain this empire and post-empire distinction? Because you refer to it a lot.
Empire is the US from roughly WWII to a little after 9/11. It was at the height of its power, its prestige, and its economic worth. Then it lost a lot of those things. In the face of technology and social media, the mask of pride has been slowly eradicated. That empirical attitude of believing you’re better than everyone—that you’re above everything—and trying to give the impression that you have no problems. Post-empire is just about being yourself. It’s showing the reality rather than obscuring things in reams and reams of meaning.
But can you ever present a "real" version of yourself online?
Well, turning yourself into an avatar, at least, is post-empire. That’s a new kind of mask. It’s more playful than hiding your feelings, presenting your best self, and lying if you have to. Unless, of course, you argue that that’s just a whole new form of empire in itself.
Ellis's podcast is one of the more consistently interesting ones out there (listening to it is what reminded me of his empire and post-empire missive) though it's always funny to hear him tout his sponsors like Dollar Shave Club and try to detect even the slightest undercurrent of irony.