Posted by: Nicholas Davis | March 18, 2011

Charlie Sheen and the post-Empire world

Although I can’t for the life of me find the original reference, I read somewhere recently that the rise of the celebrity-chef was one of the signals that heralded the end of the Roman Empire. The argument goes something along the lines of: When a society is affluent and decadent enough to glorify food to the extent that it creates a cult of celebrity around food-preparation, it will tend to lose touch with the basic tenets of social and moral cohesion, which in turn make it fragile to internal or external disruption. has an interesting version of this theory as applied to Ireland (Eimear, your response?).

Of course there are many other competing arguments for the fall or transformation of the empire (including another favourite of mine, Tainter’s idea of declining returns of investment in energy, education and technological innovation in the face of increasing complexity), but the old idea that a combination of economic disparity and frivolous activity can bring a society down remains attractive. Which begs the question whether Jamie Oliver, Martha Stewart et al are harbingers of doom for our modern empire(s).

Which brings me, naturally, to Charlie Sheen.

Brett Easton Ellis, (whose best-known novel is American Psycho), has been riffing recently (in an interview with NYMag in June last year, and more recently on the Daily Beast), on the idea that “We’re in the post-Empire world now”. Ellis is reported as defining Empire in terms of Gore Vidal’s idea of postwar global American hegemony, and dates its end to 2005. Post-Empire seems to be a conscious acceptance of the end of Empire – as Ellis puts it, “it’s a (for now) radical attitude that says the Empire lie doesn’t exist anymore, you friggin’ Empire trolls”. The Empire lie is not entirely clear in Ellis’s writing, but key aspects of it seems to be a willingness to pretend there is meaning in celebrity, to embrace false courtesy and in the process to deny your essential human frailty.

For Ellis, Charlie Sheen is definitively post-Empire. While “Eminem was post-Empire’s most outspoken character when he first appeared”, “nothing yet compares to the transparency that Sheen has unleashed in the past two weeks—contempt about celebrity, his profession, the old Empire world order…”. For Ellis, the mainstream reaction to Sheen – a combination of transfixed horror and false sympathy for his apparent madness and drug use – is “Empire”, which means you they just don’t “get it”. (For other examples of Empire v Post-Empire, see Ellis’s twitter feed). I like this argument actually – Sheen’s lucid honesty and openness seems only self-destructive from the perspective of one particular system – in almost any world he is talented and wealthy, and in a post-Empire one his attitude will surely sell theatre tickets as well as it drives media coverage.

While Ellis isn’t completely convincing, let’s assume he has an interesting point and try to connect the dots. If a overwhelming fascination and uncritical acceptance of celebrity is “Empire”, and a transparent, self-referential honesty is “Post-Empire”, what is the tipping point between the two? Is it, in fact, a saturation point of decadence which provokes a cultural response in the form of Cee-Lo Green, John Mayer and Mark Zuckerburg (three post-Empire exemplars according to Ellis)? More importantly, does a significant cultural shift from Empire into post-Empire mentality in fact allow or enable a form of social transformation rather than social collapse, acting like a safety valve for the more self-destructive elements of Empire, such as reality TV and cable cooking shows? Or is this all nothing more than literary babble that uses arbitrary categorizations to make something sound meaningful when it isn’t (sooo Empire!)?

These concepts bears more (structured) thinking, but perhaps there are interesting connections to the social shifts we’re seeing in other parts of the world. If Mubarak is Empire, who is post-Empire in Egypt? And at the very least, I’m going to start being more thoughtful regarding my choice of celebrity chefs in the future. Jamie Oliver is, now I think about it, relatively post-Empire. I wonder if Charlie Sheen can cook?


  1. my own opinion on culture (warning recovering anthropologist speaking). culture is the glue of empire. Cultures rarely break, if threatened explicitly they are typically resilient imagine millions of marbles held together by a giant wax lump. cultures respond to threat and give way, then bounce back. cultures and empires melt as individuals detach. the signs of that melting are up for conjecture.

    • Thanks Nick. So what happens when a particular set of elites start detaching (as Ellis would have us believe) and influence a large number of young people as a result? Do we get a new lump of wax in opposition to the first? Or is there only one lump of wax that now looks and behaves differently? I’m really interested in this transition and how disagreements are resolved in culture, particularly when such disagreements start to become explicit. Do you think we might be facing a shift in attitude to ourselves and our society similar to the civil rights movement?

  2. Does this mean the Mayans were right?
    check this out –

    • Awesome, thanks Fiona! I can’t wait for the Charlie Sheen recipe book ipad app.

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