All That Is Solid Melts Into Information

The torrent of accelerated time without narrative is disorienting our society and fragmenting community, says philosopher Byung-Chul Han. Art can help put the pieces back together.

Sophie Douala for Noema Magazine
Byung-Chul Han is a South Korea-born German philosopher and cultural theorist whose recent books include “The Burnout Society” and “The Disappearance of Rituals.” He recently spoke to Nathan Gardels, Noema’s editor-in-chief.

Nathan Gardels: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once commented that: “When eras are on the decline, all tendencies are subjective; but, on the other hand, when matters are ripening for a new epoch, all tendencies are objective. Each worthy effort turns its force from the inward to the outward world.” 

By that definition, ours is an era of decline that has turned from the outward to the inward obsession with identity and “authenticity,” both personal and tribal, fueled by digital connectivity. Paradoxically, social media in this sense is antisocial, leading to the disintegration of community through a kind of connected isolation. 

What is the dynamic and what are the mechanisms behind what you call “the crisis of community?” What are the consequences for how we feel and live in our daily lives?

Byung-Chul Han: The inwardly turned, narcissistic ego with purely subjective access to the world is not the cause of social disintegration but the result of a fateful process at the objective level. Everything that binds and connects is disappearing. There are hardly any shared values or symbols, no common narratives that unite people. 

Truth, the provider of meaning and orientation, is also a narrative. We are very well informed, yet somehow we cannot orient ourselves. The informatization of reality leads to its atomization — separated spheres of what is thought to be true. 

But truth, unlike information, has a centripetal force that holds society together. Information, on the other hand, is centrifugal, with very destructive effects on social cohesion. If we want to comprehend what kind of society we are living in, we need to understand the nature of information. 

Bits of information provide neither meaning nor orientation. They do not congeal into a narrative. They are purely additive. From a certain point onward, they no longer inform — they deform. They can even darken the world. This puts them in opposition to truth. Truth illuminates the world, while information lives off the attraction of surprise, pulling us into a permanent frenzy of fleeting moments. 

We greet information with a fundamental suspicion: Things might be otherwise. Contingency is a trait of information, and for this reason, fake news is a necessary element of the informational order. So fake news is just another piece of information, and before any process of verification can begin, it has already done its work. It rushes past truth, and truth cannot catch up. Fake news is truth-proof.

“Bits of information provide neither meaning nor orientation. They do not congeal into a narrative.”

Information goes along with fundamental suspicion. The more we are confronted with information, the more our suspicion grows. Information is Janus-faced — it simultaneously produces certainty and uncertainty. A fundamental structural ambivalence is inherent in an information society. 

Truth, by contrast, reduces contingency. We cannot build a stable community or democracy on a mass of contingencies. Democracy requires binding values and ideals, and shared convictions. Today, democracy gives way to infocracy.

As you suggest in your question, another reason for the crisis of community, which is a crisis of democracy, is digitalization. Digital communication redirects the flows of communication. Information is spread without forming a public sphere. It is produced in private spaces and distributed to private spaces. The web does not create a public. 

This has highly deleterious consequences for the democratic process. Social media intensify this kind of communication without community. You cannot forge a public sphere out of influencers and followers. Digital communities have the form of commodities; ultimately, they are commodities.

“Today, we no longer have any narratives that provide meaning and orientation for our lives. Narratives crumble and decay into information.”

Of course, there was information in the past, too. But it did not determine society to such a degree as today. In antiquity, mythical narratives determined people’s lives and behavior. The Middle Ages were, for many, determined by the Christian narrative. But information was embedded in narration: An outbreak of the plague was not pure, simple information. It was integrated into the Christian narrative of sin. 

Today, by contrast, we no longer have any narratives that provide meaning and orientation for our lives. Narratives crumble and decay into information. With some exaggeration, we might say that there is nothing but information without any hermeneutic horizon for interpretation, without any method of explanation. Pieces of information do not coalesce into knowledge or truth, which are forms of narration. 

The narrative vacuum in an information society makes people feel discontent, especially in times of crisis, such as the pandemic. People invent narratives to explain a tsunami of disorienting figures and data. Often these narratives are called conspiracy theories, but they cannot simply be reduced to collective narcissism. They readily explain the world. On the web, spaces open to make experiences of identity and collectivity possible again. The web, thus, is tribalized — predominantly among right-wing political groups where there is a very strong need for identity. In these circles, conspiracy theories are taken up as offers for assuming an identity.

Friedrich Nietzsche once said that our happiness consists of the possession of a non-negotiable truth. Today, we no longer have such non-negotiable truths. Instead, we have an over-abundance of information. I am not sure that the information society is a continuation of the Enlightenment. Maybe we need a new kind of enlightenment. On a new enlightenment, Nietzsche noted: “It does not suffice that you realize the ignorance in which humans and animals live, you also have to have the will to be ignorant and learn more. You need to comprehend that without this kind of ignorance life would become impossible, that only on condition of this ignorance can what lives preserve itself and flourish.”

Gardels: As you wrote in your most recent book, societal rituals once created that objective narrative bond that held societies together. They “stabilized life” as you put it. 

Now such rituals are under assault by the wrecking ball of deconstruction as nothing more than the designs of the privileged who had the power to impose them in the past. In today’s horizontal world, with no legitimate value hierarchy, subjective projection steps in to fill the vacuum. 

Out of these ruins of an objective order, how can stabilizing anchors of ritual ever be reestablished? On what basis? On whose authority? What will life look like if that is not possible?

Han: I would not promote a reactivation of past rituals. This is simply not possible because the rituals of Western culture are very closely associated with the Christian narrative. And everywhere the Christian narrative is losing its power. There is little left of it beyond Christmastime.

Rituals found a community. Contrary to the suggestion in your question, it is not inevitable that rituals solidify existing power relations. Quite the opposite. During Carnival, power relations are reversed, so that the slaves can criticize and even mock their masters. Often, roles are exchanged: The masters serve their slaves. And the fool ascends the throne as king. This ritualized temporary suspension of the power structure stabilizes the community.

“After the pandemic, what is most in need of recovery is culture.”

In a world that is completely without rituals and wholly profane, all that is left are consumption and the satisfaction of needs. It is Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” in which every want is immediately gratified. The people are kept in good spirits with the help of fun, consumption and entertainment. The state distributes a drug called soma in order to increase feelings of happiness in the population. Maybe in our brave new world, people will receive a universal basic income and have unlimited access to video games. That would be the new version of panem et circenses (“bread and circuses”).

I am, however, not completely pessimistic. Perhaps we shall develop new narratives, ones that do not presuppose a hierarchy. We can easily imagine a flat narrative. Every narrative develops its own rituals for the purposes of making it habitual, embedding it in the physical body. Culture founds community. 

After the pandemic, what is most in need of recovery is culture. Cultural events such as theater, dance and even football have a ritual character. The only way in which we can revitalize community is through ritual forms. Today, culture is held together solely by instrumental and economic relations. But that does not found communities — it isolates people. Art, in particular, should play a central role in the revitalization of rituals.

“Rituals stabilize life by structuring time.”

What we need most are temporal structures that stabilize life. When everything is short-term, life loses all stability. Stability comes over long stretches of time: faithfulness, bonds, integrity, commitment, promises, trust. These are the social practices that hold a community together. They all have a ritual character. They all require a lot of time. Today’s terror of short-termism — which, with fatal consequences, we mistake for freedom — destroys the practices that require time. To combat this terror, we need a very different temporal politics.

In “The Little Prince,” the fox wants to be visited by the little prince always at the same hour, so that his visit becomes a ritual. The little prince asks the fox what a ritual is, and the fox replies: “Those also are actions too often neglected. … They are what make one day different from other days, one hour from other hours.” 

Rituals can be defined as temporal technologies for housing oneself. They turn being in the world into being at home. Rituals are in time as things are in space. They stabilize life by structuring time. They give us festive spaces, so to speak, spaces we can enter in celebration

As temporal structures, rituals arrest time. Temporal spaces we can enter in celebration do not pass away. Without such temporal structures, time becomes a torrent that tears us apart from each other and away from ourselves. 

Gardels: You have said that you look to art as “the savior” from the conditions you’ve been describing, since philosophy today lacks the transformational quality it once had. What did you mean by that?

Han: Philosophy has the power to change the world: European science began only with Plato and Aristotle; without Rousseau, Voltaire and Kant, the European Enlightenment would be unthinkable. Nietzsche made the world appear in an entirely new light. Marx’s “Capital” founded a new epoch. 

Today, however, philosophy has completely lost this world-changing power. It is no longer capable of producing a novel narrative. Philosophy degenerates into an academic, specialist discipline. It is not turned toward the world and the present. 

“Art is nearer to the heart of creation than philosophy.”

How can we reverse this development and make sure that philosophy regains its world-changing power, its magic? My feeling is that art, as opposed to philosophy, is still in a position where it can evoke the glimmer of a new form of life. 

Art has always brought forth a new reality, a new form of perception. All his life, Paul Klee said: “Immanently, I cannot be grasped at all. Because I live with the dead, just as I live with the unborn. A bit nearer to the heart of creation than is usual. And not near enough at all yet.”

It is possible that art is nearer to the heart of creation than philosophy. It is therefore capable of letting something entirely new begin. The revolution can begin with as little as an unheard-of color, an unheard-of sound.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.