Bill Cosby Just Fell Victim to Bret Easton Ellis’s Post-Empire World, and It’s a Good Thing
I’m not a fan of social networking. I find it distracting, invasive, and nauseatingly narcissistic. I don’t wish to see countless photos of people’s food, I don’t care about their poorly written opinions on just about everything, I do not find most of their attempts at 140-character jokes to be all that funny or even interesting, and I especially loathe the lack of any attempt at grammatical conventions, which only make those frequently insipid opinions and observations that much more easy to dismiss.
I also don’t like the way that it fosters a culture of envy and encourages people to play the game of one-upmanship, competing with their Facebook “friends” to craft a more compelling and contrived image in order to foment envy in others. Social networking is, largely and at its worst, a platform to both indulge one’s narcissism and cultivate it where it may not yet have metastisized.
But I also recognize that it is an indelible part of our world today, and one may no more wish it away than one may wish away the weather or the release of yet another terrible Adam Sandler movie. I also recognize that despite its flaws, it represents an important tool with enormous potential that is occasionally realized in events that harness that potential and impact the world in a positive way heretofore unavailable prior to the rise of online social networks.
In several essays and discussions on the topic of the new social media landscape, Bret Easton Ellis has characterized this cultural shift and the rise of new media as “post-empire,” describing this new media environment as one in which one’s identity or one’s “brand”—insofar as social networks allow everyone’s identity to be sculpted in such a way as to make them indistinguishable from a brand—is no longer beholden to those traditional seats of authority. In fact, Ellis argues that this mostly has to do with making one’s private identity indistinguishable from one’s public identity. That is, after all, what Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all the rest are about, and even if this all amounts to a “new kind of mask,” Ellis says that it is “more playful than hiding your feelings, presenting your best self, and lying if you have to” (qtd. in Olah).
In this new post-empire landscape, celebrities and artists need not supplicate themselves to the traditional rules of “empire” celebrity, wherein authority resided in institutions that operated behind curtains and closed doors and offered the public only fleeting, prefabricted glimpses of celebrity designed to embellish that already palatable, marketable image. And while this “empire” world may still be the realm of politicians and celebrities who fail to understand the post-empire landscape, even the president and Bill Clinton have Twitter accounts, George Bush an Instagram, and Anthony Weiner famously Snapchat (whoops, he should have had Snapchat, but he definitely Facebooks).
Today’s “celebrities”—and I use quotes only because so many emerge from cultural spaces different from those of the past—must have a media imprint that encompasses all or most of their lives, and if they don’t, then that media imprint will find them. “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” (Ellis). In Ellis’s post-empire world, it is as much to say that status itself has become only a self-reflexive examination of status, where an unsuspecting clerk at Target can become an internet meme and earn a guest spot on Ellen or where some of the most compelling artists make all or part of their celebrity a self-reflexive examination of fame (see Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar, Mechanical Animals, etc., Janelle Monae’s distopian cabaret as part of her The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady albums, or Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster). The new social media landscape, in sum, is a turn away from the empire world of guarded prefabrication governed by remote powers into one that vests power in the hands of the many who more actively participate in that fame, both as creators and consumers of it. According to Ellis, “It’s a (for now) radical attitude that says the Empire lie doesn’t exist anymore” (Ellis).
And of course, the lie to which we are all presently becoming increasingly and repeatedly aware, as more and more women come forward in what is becoming a horrifyingly commonplace routine, is the lie of “America’s father figure,” Bill Cosby. And what makes his present downfall reflective of Ellis’s post-empire world is that in the former empire world, Cosby’s carefully crafted image could exist synonymously with his private, predatory rapist one. In today’s post-empire world, Bill Cosby has learned that he does not and cannot control that image, and his risible attempts to cling to that empire world through denial and refusal to discuss recent events (the hubris of empire) only make the contrast that much clearer. And as much as we may loathe and deride that “exhibitionist display culture” or bemoan the loss of some puritanical garden of propriety that lies desiccated and discarded in its wake, this post-empire world does have its benefits, no better expressed than when a former beneficiary of that empire who used it as a protective cloak and a means by which to exploit and intimidate his victims into silence becomes a victim of post-empire’s indifference to what may have once been his “hallowed” status.
The question now facing many of us is: What happens to the legacy of Bill Cosby’s work? What happens to all of those stand-up specials, TV shows, and books? How do we reconcile such a malevolent and vile private life with the artistic products that would seem to be independent of it? In larger terms, when should the personal life of the entertainer/artist ever impede upon the reception of the work of art, if ever, even when those acts are criminal in the most horrendous of ways?
While it’s true that there is a difference and a distance between the object and the representation, in this case between the artist and their art, the difference between Bill Cosby and other artists is that other artists, for example those mentioned parenthetically above such as Marilyn Manson, Janelle Monae, and Lady Gaga, is that they first created an identity and then inhabited it, making their art their life rather than mistakenly trying to make their life their art, which is always a mistake not just because it is inherently flawed but also because it is never as interesting or meaningful as artistic representation independent of or even to the exclusion of one’s particular self. And while Marilyn Manson, Janelle Monae, Lady Gaga, et al.’s art may be influenced by and contain references to their particular pasts, it is in no way exclusive to or even necessarily commensurate with it. They could have entirely different pasts and former lives and yet still express the same ideas, and their art would yet retain the same meaning and social commentary precisely because ideas are not exclusive to any particular body or past.
The problem with Bill Cosby’s version of a media imprint, then, is similar to that of James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, when it was revealed that Frey’s account of addiction and triumph was fake. Consider that a book that was marketed as a fictional account of the experiences of an addict would not be compromised by the revelations that later scandalized the veracity of Frey’s “nonfiction” text. Those revelations would not have mattered, if anyone would have even cared to look into them in the first place, since the text would never have been presumed to be predicated upon the actual experiences of the author. Consider that Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting, didn’t have to actually be a long-term heroin addict in order for his book to retain the same cultural salience just as Bret Easton Ellis didn’t have to become a psychopathic murderer in order for American Psycho to be the literary masterpiece that it is. It’s important to note as well that a fictionalized account Frey’s story of redemption would retain the same (mediocre, because Frey is no Welsh or Ellis) meaning because the meaning of a representation is inherent in the representation, not the particular identity or experiences of the author. Even if the author’s identity, namely their beliefs, may shed light upon the particular motivations and intent the author had in mind when creating their text, the text’s meaning is not contingent upon understanding the author’s background, especially their experiences, even if knowing that a text was produced by an author is necessary to presuming meaning in the first place (see Michaels and Knapp’s essay “Against Theory”).
With regard to Bill Cosby, it is because his act was comprised almost entirely of himself and his experiences that that background and his private life become grounds for evaluating his work. His narratives were intended as direct reflections of his life, and he wanted to make so much, if not nearly all of his stage presence an extension of and indistinguishable from his personal life. That he was merely reproducing his true-to-life self onstage, on TV, and in his books was always the crux of his media imprint. Fatherhood wasn’t some sort of fictional text but rather Cosby recording himself on paper. Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids was a recreation of Cosby’s own childhood and, most importantly for the present point, his 1983 stand-up special Himself was just that—a narrative storytelling extravaganza that never presumed to be anything other than comically and poignantly delivered anecdotes taken from the pages of his real-life experiences.
In an ironic twist to his present undoing by a post-empire world, his empire image was a manufactured facsimile of a post-empire self. That is why attempting to distinguish between Bill Cosby the “artist” and Bill Cosby the serial rapist seems destined to fail. Cosby’s was an identity that wanted to erase the distance between the object, in this case the life of the artist, and the artistic representation, and while it is that distance that still leaves room to appreciate (begrudgingly, for this writer) the works of Woody Allen or Roman Polanski, it does not allow that room for Cosby precisely because his “act” was predicated upon a removal of that space. Allen and Polanski’s works of art were never meant to be mere representations of themselves but representations of ideas, some better than others, and so while they themselves are, like Bill Cosby, some of the most vile and degenerate predators (please stop trying to come to their defense and please stop calling Dylan Farrow a liar), we may at least reserve some appreciation for works of art such as Rosemary’s Baby and Blue Jasmine.
His life as a predatory rapist now makes every stand-up special, every TV show, and every book he’s written inherently imbued with serial rape. And anyone who wants to claim otherwise, or inasmuch as Bill Cosby would like to die believing that his work might remain untouched by that private life of violent sexual assault now on display, is wrong. Bill Cosby is no longer America’s father but America’s serial rapist entertainer, and he always was—we just didn’t know it. And Bill Cosby, believing that his empire authority would never collapse, is only now learning just what it means to inhabit a post-empire world.
And it’s a good thing that he is and that we can all watch and participate in the unraveling because each time we participate, we strike another nail into the coffin of that protective empire world and demonstrate what it means for power of the few to be transferred into the hands of the post-empire many who couldn’t give less of a fuck about your concept of authority and manufactured media presence.
So go fuck yourself, Mr. Cosby, and please take care to die knowing that everything you’ve ever done is now the worthless, narcissistic indulgence of a serial rapist whose only impulse is to respond by attacking and belittling the victims you once drugged into submission. Even if the legal statute of limitations has expired, we’ll all take care to continue to remind you of how little your life means to us by enlisting the social media tools at our disposal. Your image will no longer be preserved and protected behind the barriers of that former empire you used to your advantage because today’s post-empire world is listening to the women you tried to silence.
Ellis, Bret Easton. “Notes on Charlie Sheen and the End of Empire.” The Daily Beast. 15 March, 2011. Web.
Olah, Nathalie. “Bret Easton Ellis Says We’re All a Bunch of Cry-Babies.” Vice. 17 February, 2014. Web.