There is a structural inevitability to all discourse, such that as it progresses, it inheres learning within itself, creating more, growing, until ultimately it begins to query its conditions of possibility. This is irony, and it is not necessarily purely out of some sort of cognitive paralysis, as irony is all too often dismissed. It is not some disease of modern thought. It is a part and parcel of all discourse. It is in fact a permanent fact of all expert systems (Fernand Hallyn, The Poetic Structure of the World: Copernicus and Kepler, pp. 20-2), literature, and indeed to the vast complex of a culture’s discourse in toto. Irony is an effort to reconsider the structural presuppositions that a discourse relies upon, most likely because of a perceived need for improvement and an awareness that the discourse one is using is coming up to the limits of its usefulness. It is the intuition that a discourse could operate better, could be more precise and efficient.
Often irony proceeds as a knowing and saying too much, as a show that one has mastered the vast amount of materials available in a given field (one cannot be ironic without this overflowing of knowledge), to the extent that jokes, puns and other diversions not only become possible but may seem necessary to maintain interest in a given topic. With this, interest ceases to be “constructive”, and rather becomes a performance, and aesthetic. One is ‘knowing’ rather than knowledgeable. If we consider the pyramid of David McCandless below, it seems that in irony we slide back down from knowledge into information. We no longer have coordinating ideas to pull information together into a coherent structure. Irony is a kind of decoherence rather than incoherence. If we use the analogy of the stock market, then irony is a symptom of massive overvaluation, and any backlash against it such as “The New Sincerity” (see here for the neutered and here for the enthusiastic versions) is a crash, and an inevitable one (or necessary depending on your view). What emerges after this is that which has run a gauntlet of functionality, as it has demonstrated its worth via its robustness in the onslaught of critique.