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.
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.