No Particular Place to Go

from opinion to particularity on the world wide web.

I like that the Internet allows information to pour in to me indiscriminately….How did I not see the world this way before? I’m an information fiend….I really liked…to make a work without a gesture or opinion. I realize, more and more, that I don’t even have an opinion….I’m not opinionated but I am very particular. I don’t know how I can be both, but I am. — Keegan McHargue, The Believer

The artist Keegan McHargue makes his way toward an intriguing distinction in an interview from 2010 in The Believer. McHargue notes that in his relationship to the contemporary world of information he does not have an “opinion,” but remains very “particular.” I wonder if this is a keen insight about the digital age.

Keegan McHargue Mishap
Keegan McHargue, Mishap, 2006.

In the early years of the Internet’s spread, idealists thought that more information meant better opinions. People would become more reasoned and factually-grounded through access to information. And this would facilitate both robust debate and the achievement of consensus. Instead the opposite occurs. The information, as James Gleick calls it, renders the exercise of discerning, definitive opinion futile. The flood of details, data, perspectives, and more unleashes small insights. But at a larger scale, public debate seems dominated by relativism of an irrational sort—a kind of enraged learned helplessness.

Keegan McHargue Sterile Environment
Keegan McHargue, Sterile Environment, 2005.

McHargue’s insistence that he has no strong opinions but remains “particular” is nonetheless provocative. But what does this mean exactly?

It suggests a kind of aesthetic attention to navigating the torrent of information. It suggests an ability to navigate scales: from the micro to the mid-size to the macro and back again. It suggests that we must develop a new kind of radar of the mind, a detection system that allows us to apprehend, collate, and arrange information in the name of communication, and learn how to assess those particularities when others do so.

What it does not suggest, necessarily, is the loss of individual agency or autonomy, but rather a recalibration of what the individual is and what the individual does in the digital age. And in doing so, it also poses challenges for the commons and the collective given this new individual sense of what feels right, or in McHargue’s case what feels slightly wrong but the reality nonetheless.

In short, McHargue’s comments imply that we need to imagine and enact a whole new critical facility. We’ll need to rethink both criticality and argument itself as well as the public spaces and the very subjectivity of the citizen if McHargue’s observations (particularities? opinions?!) of himself are accurate.

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3 thoughts on “No Particular Place to Go

  1. Mike: Good stuff. It seems that McHargue’s particularity is really just an analogue for filtering and sorting. That’s all well and good, but we live by synthesizing information into useful little lessons and narratives. In other words I’m with you on collation, which is why I see the transferable skill of history as inculcating the ability to sort, rearrange, collate, and generally make better sense of our world. Historical thinking is not a new skill, or a new critical faculty, but it’s newly relevant in our age of information. But the emphasis, sadly, is still on “our” and subjectivity. Our filters have created islands of opinion, or rather fortified already existing islands. We formulate our narrative from our filters. How do we create consensus? How do we foster a useful common culture that allows us to transcend our subjectivity? – TL

  2. Yes filtering and sorting, but also discernment and judgment. There’s something going on with the media that is preventing the right combination of strong opinion emerging from interaction. We only get waves of strong opinion that seem driven by conspiratorial, paranoid thinking or a kind of paralyzing ambivalence and apathy. The paranoid style has a long Hofstadterian history, as we well know, but it’s the other register that is more confusing and intriguing—the Warholian sense of indecision and a kind of blankness of opinion, a weird futility of moving from perception to opinion and really, I sense, a kind of embrace of that mode of being in the world. A kind of motivated immobility to act, a ideology of distrusting the process of deciding through reason and information on a strong ideological position. Why, I wonder, in terms of the linkages between power and culture, is this occurring?

    Great to hear your thoughts about this.

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