Disintegrating Truth:
Byung-Chul Han’s Infokratie

Mathieu Buchler

Byung-Chul Han, Infokratie, Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 2021
In this short collection of aphorisms, Byung-Chul Han examines how rapid digitilisation and the proliferation of information is slowly but surely dismantling a stable concept of truth and replacing it with the empty, directionless noise of a “defactualised universe [defaktiziertem Universum]”. [1]

On the surface a response to post-truth and fake news debates, the book takes an interesting turn by announcing the arrival of a new nihilism: the breaking down of a shared world by a general dismissal of factuality itself. The disintegration of truth takes place beyond categories of truth and lies, in a hyper-real dimension in which every piece of information can stand as fact, with no regard to whether or not one is speaking the truth or telling a lie. Lies still imply the intentional disregarding of an actual truth: those who lie know they are knowingly withholding or twisting the truth. In the age of fake news, however, lies give way to a modellisation of available information. Lies play here no role; what matters is that information, data and facts are laid out in meaningful harmony, without any concern for the overarching factuality, the real life referent, of such a semantic construct.

According to Han, digitalisation is to blame for this development. With digitilisation comes “total producibility [totale Herstellbarkeit] and consequently the crumbling of any trust in the reliable facticity of Being itself. [2] Information alone is unfit to uphold a convincing narrative of truth, since its very nature is read as contingent: the information I am shown could also be otherwise. When everything becomes digitally malleable, when information is only shared within the moulds and rhythms of algorithmic pulses, truth itself disintegrates and society begins harbouring mistrust towards the facticity of reality itself.

Standing in opposition to big narratives, big data is an accumulation of empty markings or meaningless signs, which can be read and interpreted in any direction one sees fit. For the same reason, conspiracy theories are flourishing in the age of information: structuring select facts into micro-narratives offers enough stability and flexibility to maneouvre a world lacking conceptual guidance by a mutually agreed notion of truth. Since information by itself only amounts to pure contingency (facts alone are not enough to convince us that something is necessarily the case, the ecological crisis being a perfect example), conspiracy theories narrate away the uncertainty emitted by pure information.

To counteract this, Han is calling for a renewed courageous care and concern for parrhesia, the speaking of truth. [3] Only when there is an effort to speak the truth, to care for the truth, can democracy flourish. This responsibility applies to philosophers, scientists, politicians and citizens alike. This exact care, according to Han, is today diminishing, even disappearing entirely. And it is unbridled digitilisation that is at the heart of this crisis: 

Today, we are prisoners in a digital cave while believing that we are free. We are chained to the digital screen. The prisoners of the Platonic cave are inebriated by mythical-narrative images. The digital cave, however, is incarcerating us within information. The light of truth has fully eclipsed. There is no more Outside [Außerhalb] beyond the information cave. A potent white noise of information [Rauschen der Information] blurs the contours of Being. Truth emits no white noise. [Die Wahrheit rauscht nicht.]
In our post-factual information society, [...] all pathos of truth is headed for the void. It becomes lost in the white noise of information. Truth disintegrates into information dust, gone with the digital wind. It will have been a short episode. [4]

Yet, while Han’s analysis is an excellent one, it also bears certain limitations. One of its shortcomings is its somewhat nostalgic lamentation of the loss of analog reality. In one passage, Han describes digital photography as the harbinger of the destruction of facticity (given the vast potential for the digital alteration of reality), as opposed to analog photography, which is a documentation of that which one day really was (silver halide crystals physically capture light that really was there). [5] This explicit reference to Barthes’ Chambre Claire [6] is somewhat misguided, since Barthes’ project of describing the ontology of photography is itself, perhaps unintentionally, the result of pure mnemonic fiction: the remembrance of his late mother, the memory emitted by the  photographic prints he chose to analyse, the historically contingent selection of photographs that was availble to him at the time etc. There is a mediating, highly contingent layer involved in Barthes’ description of photography which shakes the aim of his project at its foundation. 

Beyond this, however, the denigration of the digital with regard to the analog is, in itself, questionable. Photo editing and even the alteration of photographic facts are not and never were exclusive to digital photography. One only has to think back to Stalin’s Great Purge and how photography became a tool to alter the facticity of documented events. In addition, analog photography involves reversing negative images in the printmaking or scanning process, which is always a matter of interpreting the highlights, shadows, tones and colours captured in the emulsion layers, and never simply a one to one translation of a documented event. Photography is thus always also a mediation of that which (never) was.

This lamentation of the loss of analog photographic reality is perhaps also telling of a deeper flaw in Han’s proposal. Suggesting that truth is only now losing its once glorious flame, the book presents an implicit nostalgia for a lost epoch. However, this itself is again a paradox: isn’t this very nostalgia precisely the fiction which creates, retroactively, the truth that we are yearning for in the present?

Truth is never lost, it is constantly created. In this sense, the crisis of truth is not an event of post-modernity, it is the constitutive element of truth itself: truth is not the stable background to which we should return, it is rather the very disconnect which we now feel in the face of senseless facts and information. Truth clamours, through the white noise of information, as a struggle for meaning against the odds, and this has always been the case. 

Truth is also not the eradication of all things contingent and thus the victory call of a necessary narrative, but it is rather the product of contingent triggers which force it to reinvent itself in the face of its own challenge. The fact that truth is nowadays in disorder should not be read in the sense that order has been lost and needs to be restored, but rather that truth is disorder, that disorder is our stable ground and that the seeds of truth are planted at the heart of it. The upside of this is that truth cannot dwindle, since when caught in a contingent vortex there is always a chance for truth to invent itself anew in the midst of its own crisis.

If we assume this fiction then truth holds the potential to assume the digital age not as a total disintegration of facticity, but as that which, through its inherent plasticity and malleability, allows for a fractal generating of other possibilities for the future. Total producibility would thus also mean the potential for the production of a future truth that is other than the prospect of a past narrative, the false promise of competing conspiracies or the catastrophic present order of things.

Parrhesia, speaking the truth, inventing a truth beyond its current contradictions – or: the digital wind as truth catching an invigorating breath, projecting it, as specks of dust, towards yet unthought but promising directions. Pure noise crackling in the background, its voice slowly rising to a hum.︎

Mathieu Buchler, co-founder of Mnemozine, studied philosophy at University College Dublin and at Freie Universität Berlin. He currently works as a writer, translator, editor, photographer and teacher.
You can find more of his work here on Mnemozine, on his website mathieubuchler.com or on Instagram @mathieu.buchler .

[1] Han, B.C. Infokratie. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz, 2021. p. 64.
[2] Ibid. p. 74.
[3] Ibid. p. 80-3.
[4] Ibid. p. 83-4. Translation M.B.
[5] Ibid. p. 74.

[6] Barthes, R. “La Chambre Claire”. In. Eric Marty (Ed.). Oeuvres Complètes Tome II 1966-1973. Paris : Seuil 1994.

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