Plumb Lines

February 18, 2009

Re: An Alternative to Irony

Filed under: Uncategorized — Keith Staples @ 3:35 pm

I think what worries Matt about the idea of approaching a basic and universal social reality with “irony” is that it seems to preclude appropriate love and reverence. The winking ironist, we tend to think, is superior,  godlike in his transcendence, merely condescending. He might accept the necessity of playing along, but he will understandably find it hard to suffer or die for notions and allegiances that seem totally arbitrary to him.

Let me suggest a restatement of what I take to be David’s view (and what I am practically certain is Chesterton’s view) that Matt might accept: Gender, in its elusive essence, is to be viewed as a gift of God that shapes and sweetens communal life. It is contingent, but only as all created being is contingent. It was always in God’s blueprint, so to speak. To treat it as normative is the only sane and grateful response.

But this is tempered by two truths: i)Gender does not take absolute priority among the facts about man. It is lower than the fact of coequality as the image of God. ii)Part of its very goodness is a measure of built-in flexibility. As individuals and cultures, we can be creative and playful; we can stylize gender.

Recognizing that much of what we associate with gender is humanly constructed, and humbly admitting that we are prone to mistake accidentals for essentials, it is not only permissible but necessary for us to stave off vicious absolutism by cultivating mild irony about gender stereotypes (I use the term “stereotype” in a neutral sense). After all, healthy irony does not really subvert anything that doesn’t need subversion.  Healthy irony reinforces a sense of right proportion. It  subverts a fascist regime, while merely cutting a bright but pompous student “down to size.”

We need not spend our lives in  crypto-nihilistic winking at the audience. The starkness of this double-mindedness has a kind of aesthetic appeal, but the tension is more than a man can bear, even if the man is an aesthete. We can live our gender roles with sincerity and gusto, including the elements of those roles that are obviously culturally contingent.  There need be nothing unserious, after all, about trying to live beautifully, according to our culture’s aesthetic criteria. But our performance also stands under the judgment of higher criteria, and our awareness of this gives us the slight, salutary detachment that makes irony possible. Gentle, healthy, tempering irony.

-Keith Staples



  1. I’m quite happy to see such an able defense of David’s position. If Chesterton’s position is precisely what David has been driving at, I’m happy to sign on.

    I do have a lingering concern, though. One of the queerest things about David’s theory is his suggestion that the problem with torture and unjust war is that they are not “beautiful.” Isn’t this, to quote a friend, a rather breezy way to describe such things?

    Comment by Matthew Schmitz — February 18, 2009 @ 4:41 pm

  2. Breezy indeed. Especially because many wicked acts arguably have a terrible beauty about them. Let’s ask Hannibal Lecter what he thinks.

    Comment by Keith Staples — February 18, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

  3. […] Please consider this post the beginning of an oblique rejoinder to Keith and Matt, who (unprovoked!) called my rejection of torture on aesthetic grounds “breezy.” […]

    Pingback by Skimming Arendt « Plumb Lines — February 27, 2009 @ 12:22 am

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