Ah, Bourriaud. Coiner of terms and thinker of thoughts, he always gives us something to chew on; as the curator of the Tate Triennial in 2009, he gave us both the exhibition and accompanying essay of the same title. In Altermodern, to the best of my understanding, he is positing that postmodernism has been displaced and that post-postmodernism has emerged, which he thankfully gives the new name "altermodernism." While I’m not in love with the term, I’m just glad to have a slightly less unwieldy name for our current predicament. He contends that while past cultural works drew on deep but specific knowledge bases (nationalism, artistic convention, etc.), postmodernism razed many of those divisions. We have moved into an era of entanglements, and art is able to function as nodes in a network rather than self-contained objects. In the wake of postmodernism’s Kool-Aid Man-esque cultural impact, we have to figure out what we’ve got to work with and what we keep. While his essay is larger than just the issue of the specific versus the diffused, I'll keep my reaction brief.
For the most part, I’m on board with Bourriaud’s assessment. In fact, I’m not sure he goes far enough into culture; the shift is hardly unique to art and has profoundly shaped our lives and identities. This network thing becomes a way of looking and interacting as much as something artists do, though they/we are perhaps well-suited to acting as guides and using this trend in a very directed and concrete way to communicate. But at this point we all have to deal with the increasingly connected world, if only because the barriers between public and private grow increasingly thin, through both the intentional publication of our activities via social network and the lingering residue of our "private" emails and text messages.
There has been a lot of dismissive sniffing over how younger Americans have become the sum of our “likes” online, and a good bit of disdain for the notion of curated identity as seen on social media. However, what if we thought of it in terms of node activation? These ”likes” then position us within networks and indicate how we are relating to/activating larger ideas. Granted, some of it is a matter of wanting praise for good taste and appreciation for identity (rather than actions), but I’m opting to be an optimist at the moment.
At this point I’d like to detour into linguistic psychology (not that I'm particularly qualified, but hey, I think I read it someplace). Most European languages are largely noun-based and rely heavily on categorizing stuff into discrete categories. Those of us with this sort of primary language are conditioned to think this way, and have an ingrained expectation that understanding hinges on static definition. By comparison, the structures of many Native American languages (I’m thinking the Algonquin>Anishinaabe group in particular) rely on verbs and relationships for understanding. The example given to me when I was an undergraduate: rather than defining someone as a “criminal,” and thus changing their categorization, the person would be “one-who-did-something-that-hurt-another,” emphasizing instead the relationship between actors. That's a gross simplification of a deeply complicated language based on my memory, but the takeaway was that language both reflected and shaped our understanding, and this gap in understanding between Native Americans and Europeans helped to exacerbate the many problems the groups had in dealing with each other. It was also a reminder that the tensions of globalization aren't exactly new. However, at this point, globalization, postmodernism, the Internet, etc. have confronted us with these issues of fundamental relationships and we are now (more than ever) forced to deal with the issue. Though we’re historically resistant to the notion of our interconnectedness, it isn't really optional anymore.