You Dare Call That Thing Criticism?!?: A Short Post on Bill Maher’s “Adulting” and Postmodern Literary Criticism

I am terribly sorry that I need to talk about Bill Maher: an introduction

This may or may not be relevant to most people’s lives, but the very irrelevant late night show host Bill Maher has blogged today about “Adulting”. This rather short blog post (three paragraphs’ worth actually) has incited quite a bit of outrage for disrespecting the legacy of late Stan Lee. Indeed, it begins with him mocking the grief a Reddit user had over a figure who is considered the creator of comic books. He ends his diatribe by suggesting those folks who are so hung up with literary criticism on comics might be the reason why Donald Trump could be elected as president of the United States.

In essence, “we’re using our smarts on stupid stuff.” That’s where his notion of “adulting” comes from: it’s when those “professors” have to pay real adult stuff like “auto insurance” (Maher, 2018).

Now, this mostly Japanese media criticism blog is not the space to criticize Maher’s politics, but I do want to go after his hot takes on what he perceives as juvenile literature and the literary criticism behind them. People might argue that this is just a forgettable topic and I should move on, but what Maher is saying on postmodernist criticism is worth critiquing. There is value to discussing comic books and postmodernism, but first we need to situate where Maher’s thoughts are from.

Oh no, I’m really talking about Maher and the alt-right

Comic books and other forms of childish literature should be left behind once you grow up, so claims Mr. Maher: you are supposed to move onto the “big-boy books without the pictures.” Writing articles like “Otherness and Heterodoxy in the Silver Surfer” is what’s wasting the “smarts” and geniuses in these universities. They’re not looking at real literature! Hence, the collapse of literary criticism (Maher, 2018). Ahh, those postcolonialists, poststructuralists, and postmodernists! They go after pipsqueaks like The Silver Surfer with their galaxy brains and waste their parents’ money when they could be doing some good like hosting a late night show on HBO. Such is the state of disarray in our universities.

Of course, this is just some dude’s opinion and making a big deal out of this would be silly. But this strand of thought is rather prevalent and we can flesh out his sparse blog post with other writers who have a similar ideology: Prager University — not a real university but some random YouTube channel — has a video titled “Who Killed the Liberal Arts?” which argues the degree has mutated into victimization thanks to discussions on race and imperialism (Mac Donald, 2015). Favretto in Quiliette cries over the decline of the liberal arts because deconstruction murdered truth and the degree has become “a useless endeavour for aimless students” (2018). Postmodernist literary criticism has destroyed free thought or something like that and its perceived impracticality has doomed future students. They like to boil these down into phrases like “cultural Marxism”, “political correctness”, or plain ol’ “postmodernism” before decrying the “Death of the West” (2010) and Christian values.

Hence, Maher’s insistence that “we’re using our smarts on stupid stuff” (2018). To grow up in these perspectives means not only to leave our comic books behind but also our textbooks on Derrida and Foucault. That’s what “adulting” actually means. An “adult” who writes literary criticism only talks about the greatness of Shakespeare, not some rando named Stan Lee.

The value of postmodernist thought and going beyond

But this is a mischaracterization because none of these people understand what postmodernist literary criticism is. They get hung up about Derrida problematizing truths and not what his project is all about. The core of postmodernism is questioning the meta-narratives that surround our lives (Lyotard and Bennington, 2010). Why do we fight wars? What is the good life? Can we love? These simple thoughts denaturalize the concepts of wars, good lives, and love — and we do this all the time. Literature is in fact such a critical project (“What a piece of work is a man!”, cries Hamlet) and comic books are just the same.

When Busiek and Immonen (2013) writes about an average Kansas boy who is named after Clark Kent from the Superman comics and how his life is messed up thanks to pop culture references, they are examining what pop culture does to people. Claremont (1994) plays with the premise of the X-Men and argues that our definitions of humanity are in fact quite inhuman. And of course, who couldn’t forget the contradictory statement, “Who watches the Watchmen?”, and how Watchmen criticizes the hypocrisy of superheroes (Moore and Gibbons, 2011)? These writers may not have picked up a Foucault book, but they are doing something quite similar to his works.

What postmodernist literary critics and students do is to go beyond the author and ask even more questions. The reader, or really the critic, creates the meaning and the author can’t do much about it (Barthes and Heath, 1978). Critics poke the work for new kinds of meanings through poststructuralist and postcolonialist theories and that’s how you get those essays Maher doesn’t really like. Anatol (2003) finds great insight when they explore the “ethnic Otherness” in Harry Potter; their essay is an interrogation on the banality of Potter‘s multiculturalism and how Rowling seems to call it a day after checking off the list for what feels multicultural to her. Rostad goes further by focusing the novel onto Cho Chang with her poem, “To JK Rowling, From Cho Chang”, and Chang “thanks” Rowling for giving her “no heritage” and “a name as generic as a ninja costume” (2013). This is the kind of postmodernist response that challenges readers and lovers of Harry Potter and asks them what the “truth” of the series really is. Even if a fan encountered this postcolonialist criticism and still loved the series all the same, they at least learned something new to broaden their perspectives.

And in respects to postcolonialism, this allows voices from an already oppressed minority to speak out against the mainstream narratives (Said, 1975). These concepts like “Othering” come from real people trying to find ways to describe their alienation and outrage against colonialists (Fanon and Philcox, 2008; Memmi, 2016). They may not be as articulate and elegant as Orwell, but the so-called “victimization” doesn’t come from nowhere as detractors suggest — they come from the pain and deaths of people who suffered under the hands of colonialism. Fanon, one of the major thinkers who inspired postcolonialism, died from a wound he received in Morocco while undergoing a mission for the Algerian National Liberation Front (Bhabha 2012, viii).

Indeed, if postmodernist literary criticism touches the hearts of its readers and causes them to challenge the status quo, then the perceived impracticality of it disappears. These are the kinds of “adult” questions people have to face in the humanities and sciences — and even real life. They are tough questions that make us wonder what in the world we are saying and the truths behind them. Postmodernist literary criticism of any kind and other critical theories are meant to be uncomfortable and abstruse for this very reason. They seek to go beyond normal truths and values to expose the ideologies in our lives (Cox, 1981).

Without them, we merely accept what is given to us. The existence of subcultures and postmodernist criticism shows that people do want to fight the hegemonic narratives and widen others’ perspectives to include them. The essence of postmodernism can thus be summed up as “we minorities are here and please listen to us”!

You dare call that thing “criticism”?!?

In Claremont’s God Loves, Man Kills (2011), the antagonist is an evangelical preacher who has funded hate groups to go after the mutants. When the remnants of the X-Men arrive at his altar, he points to Nightcrawler and says, “You dare call that thing — human?!?” Nightcrawler is Othered as this unnatural being that should be wiped out from this world while the antagonist treats himself as a natural artifact from God. It is the kind of hate speech we have come to associate with US President Trump and Claremont’s works are quite forward-thinking when we consider that this comic is in fact published in the year 1982 (alas, Harvard citation forces me to use the publication year for the reprint copy I own and not the original).

So we return to Maher’s hot takes on postmodernist criticism and comic books and how they supposedly helped get Trump elected. Maybe that’s not true because there are comics going after far-right thoughts. Maybe that’s just bullshit coming from a guy who knows nothing about literary criticism and comic books.

Indeed, the opposite of what Maher is saying is true: we need more postmodernist criticism and more discussion on comic books. Literary criticism may not be the salvation people need, but it is one avenue for those who want to speak out and be active. The value of postmodernist criticism is implicit in its democratization of voices, of thoughts, and so on. We let others speak their mind and they get their place on the map too. To infantilize these attempts like what Maher did is the opposite of what liberal arts students are striving to do — to examine the human condition through the study of literature. They’re just following the Socratic dictum of “an unexamined life is not worth living”.

And that’s what adulting actually entails. Literary criticism is a form of examination we participate in our everyday lives and postmodernism is one variation of it. Learning these will help us understand what we may find confusing and frustrating. That’s what I call using our smarts for the smart stuff.

References

Anatol, G. (2003). Reading Harry Potter. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, pp.163-178.

Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1978). Image, music, text.

Bhabha, H. Framing Fanon, in Fanon, F. and Philcox, R. (2013). The wretched of the earth. Grove Press.

Busiek, K. and Immonen, S. (2013). Superman. [United States]: DC Comics.

Claremont, C. (2011). God Loves, Man Kills. Marvel Worldwide, Incorporated.

Cox, R. (1981). Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory. Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 10(2), pp.126-155.

Death of the West 1of2: Frankfurt School, Cultural Marxism, Political Correctness. (2010). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d4v6CVcHUXY [Accessed 17 Nov. 2018].

Favretto, V. (2018). Postmodernism and the Decline of the Liberal Arts – Quillette. [online] Quillette. Available at: https://quillette.com/2018/05/21/postmodernism-decline-liberal-arts/ [Accessed 17 Nov. 2018].

Fanon, F. and Philcox, R. (2008). Black skin, white masks. New York: Grove Press.

Lyotard, J. and Bennington, G. (2010). The postmodern condition. Minneapolis, Minn: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Mac Donald, H. (2018). Who Killed the Liberal Arts?. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Sxttk5REkM [Accessed 17 Nov. 2018].

Maher, B. (2018). Adulting. [online] Real Time with Bill Maher Blog. Available at: https://www.real-time-with-bill-maher-blog.com/index/2018/11/16/adulting [Accessed 17 Nov. 2018].

Memmi, A. (2016). The colonizer and the colonized. London: Souvenir Press Ltd.

Moore, A. and Gibbons, D. (2011). Watchmen. [United States]: DC Comics.

Rostad, R. (2013). “To JK Rowling, From Cho Chang”. Available at: https://genius.com/Rachel-rostad-to-jk-rowling-from-cho-chang-annotated [Accessed 17 Nov. 2018].

Said, E. (1975). Orientalism. Vintage.

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2 thoughts on “You Dare Call That Thing Criticism?!?: A Short Post on Bill Maher’s “Adulting” and Postmodern Literary Criticism

  1. daysofsummer November 18, 2018 / 2:57 pm

    Y’know this type of crap is something I think about often too–I probably shouldn’t, but I guess dealing with shitty discourse is life on the internet. What I find the most intriguing is that his idea of “adulting” is at odds with the fact that… he’s still talking about media criticism. I’m not American and not interested in Maher in any way: but even I’ve heard of his racism and anti-Islamism. You’d think he’s using his brains to really help the world or something, he at least! I wouldn’t exactly compare him with PragerU, which has a very overt libertarian agenda; I see him as one of those “centrists” who are too in love with the idea of thinking in abstraction to have any consideration for material issues as they may manifest in culture, and any culture which hasn’t been abstracted into pure symbol by our history textbooks. Many people have pointed a relationship between self-defined centrists and conservatism (a recent example that comes to ind: https://jacobinmag.com/2018/10/steven-pinker-enlightenment-now-review), and I think Maher’s shit really relates to this: people like him don’t understand *why* these things happen. They bemoan the loss of “serious” criticism, because after all “back in the day” things were serious–without understanding anything about it, really. He just seems ignorant to me; but that’s the slippery slope toward PragerU crap, which itself leads to Cultural Marxism conspiracies; you can go pretty far with that stuff. The core of the problem is really a lack of understanding of history, for me: if people like Maher stopped a second to think about why postmodernism needed to happen, instead of bemoaning the loss of a mythologized history (which never really happened anyway), he may be a bit better off for it.

    • Kastel November 18, 2018 / 3:13 pm

      For me, the connection between centrists/neoliberals/whatever they like to be called nowadays and the libertarian and alt-right movements are related to the one premise you already pointed out: their loss of a nostalgic past that never existed. The “back in MY day” stuff is how I usually relegate thinkers and writers to this status quo-ist conservatism instead of progressive and revolutionary writers.

      I’ve read that article years ago and it’s interesting how these folks look back to the Enlightenment and think that rationality has always existed — or rather, set into place. Postmodernist projects, to these people, are counter-Enlightenment and to a certain extent that is true: the Enlightenment period is quite racist and justifiably colonialist. Postcolonialist writings are indeed a response to the tenets of imperialism found in the Enlightenment. If imperialism is to be understood as a “civilizing mission”, then those who need to be “civilized” are irrational in the eyes of these thinkers. Indeed, the “noble savages” are uncultured men and men of culture must find ways to instill culture into them according to the mainstream thinkers of the Enlightenment.

      A postcolonialist critique is about criticizing the status quo, which is why I group Maher with various alt-right people. They are all arguing the same thing — the decline of the West — and it is important to put these people into the context postcolonialists are arguing against.

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