Tracing Cynical Reason in 20th Century America

In this blog I trace cynical reason of 20th century American history as a phenomenon in two aspects: in the sphere of economics and in the sphere of cultural arts. Instead of complaining about the so-called poverty of contemporary politics or whining about the decline of contemporary morality, I insist on cynical reason as a dominant sentiment of the post-Fordist capitalist existence. In this respect, cynical reason extends further than the emotional or psychological response to the contemporary existence, and closer to a sociological analysis.

Empire thesis*

Prior to 1914, The United States of America had been a developing country, dependent upon foreign investment. In 1914, New York City replaced London as the world’s financial capital, and the United States shifted to a creditor nation, becoming the motor of the world’s economy. The Empire is the post-war global American hegemony that began in 1945, after the world’s powers destroyed themselves.

However, in 1985, the Commerce Department announced that the US had become a debtor nation, which meant the US Empire was finished. It had been sick since 1968, and American power had relied on economic strength, unlike the military superiority of previous empires in history.

Post-empire is the realization that the Empire is finished, a glamorous nihilism blooming in contemporary popular culture. The empire/post-empire dichotomy turns on cultural lines, according to Bret Easton Ellis, where Old Empire is the serious political correctness of modernism, and the Post-Empire is the rejection of this seriousness as the hypocritical oppressive regime. However, much like postmodernism, post-Empire isn’t about reality or authenticity because the Internet allows for switching between carefully crafted identities, where the “mask of pride” is slowly erased in the face of technology and social media. The logic of post-Empire is what allows Kim Kardashian to take her media persona to its logical extreme, where she’s in on the joke.

Kim Kardashian cynically attempts to break the internet
Kim Kardashian cynically attempts to break the Internet


Post-empire denotes the aesthetic of subtle nihilism – an affirmation of nothing that risks the affirmation of everything, all with a cynical sneer. Indeed, the term “postmodern” works just as well for this crisis of critical distance, but the notion of post-Empire adds an underlying brutality of this aesthetic hollowness. If the postmodern is Andy Warhol’s Factory printing out silk screens, then the post-Empire is Warhol and friends dining on the ravaged corpses of pre-teen undocumented workers brought into the Factory to make those silk screens. Thus the difference of degree from the postmodern is the blank violence of the post-Empire.

Similar to postmodern, the post-Empire does not denote a periodic distinction. None of us was once Empire, and now post-Empire. The difference is aesthetic rather than historical. The vacuous smiley face nihilism of the post-Empire first emerged in Reagan’s morning in America. Perhaps the entire career of filmmaker great Stanley Kubrick, particularly in A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket, is an instance of walking the fine line between Empire and post-Empire.

The War on Terror. Bin Laden’s assassination. The vivid and gleeful arrogance of American media’s celebration with vapid and callous tautologies all dovetail into the passive nihilism of post-Empire. Rock and Roll, baby. Lock and load. Git ‘er done.

Culture thesis

The Baby Boomer generation was the first generation to become disenfranchised from historical context. They lost the support of their heritage: once knowledge of Latin stopped being the qualification of the educated American, and Greek mythology no longer provided a foundation for the artistic or philosophical articulation of modern life, the Baby Boomer generation resorted to pop culture.

Once global capitalism mounted its throne and the US became a hyperpower, the legacy of the next generation, Generation X, became obvious: irony as the chief tool of the artist. However, irony too lost its satirical power, the power to critique, it became another tool of entertainment for profit and the advancement of social status. In the art world this was represented by Andy Warhol. His pop art originally was an acidic criticism of the middle class capitalism, until the upper class embraced this experience and paid the artists to oblige them. Andy Warhol became what he always made fun of: a filthy rich joke.

Baby boomers shocked their parents by relying on rock music and movies for inspiration. The next generation shocked baby boomers by looking at their pop culture ironically, and used that vision as an amoral networking tool: e.g., television commercials as art.

Today’s post-classical, post-pop generation faces the dilemma of cultural disenfranchisement: pop artists studied the cheapening of the image by market forces and found a new source of abject aesthetics. Then postmodernists recycled the modernist’s palette. But the post-pop and post-Postmodernists of today are stuck with the poverty of all image and shittiness of all aesthetic devices available to them, including the end of Irony. Today’s generation observes all these elements in a cynical smile that laughs all the way to the bank. Bored with the celebration of the emptiness and sensationalism of the grotesque for its own sake. Even the cleverest tricksters of today, like Banksy, are little more than court jesters. They have turned cynicism into the subject of their own art.


*At this juncture, it behooves me to point out that Gore Vidal’s original thesis of the Empire relies on a paradox: on one hand, Vidal argues that since the American Civil War, politics had degenerated into consolidated power where too much of it belonged to the few that could not be answerable to the rest. Then again, he also claims that the rest of the citizenry cannot be trusted with such serious responsibilities. This paradox is another instance of cynical wisdom in the full decadence of Pax Americana.

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...a philosophisticator who utters heresies, thinks theothanatologically and draws like Kirby on steroids.

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