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.
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.
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.