May 2014

James Orbesen


The Barbarians: An Essay on the Mutation of Culture by Alessandro Baricco, translated by Stephen Sartarelli

Alessandro Baricco ends his look at Millennial (or whatever you want to call them) culture by taking a walk along the Great Wall of China. The author promises that this epilogue means something. Although he feels a bit bashful for indulging his Swiftian sensibilities by writing and reflecting on an object while walking along it, this journey is symptomatic of a condition Baricco has tried to diagnose in The Barbarians: An Essay on the Mutation of Culture.

"I have to conclude that walking for seven hours along the Great Wall is the best way to walk for seven hours without going anywhere. There is almost no evolution, and you are accompanied, all the while, for miles, by a single architectural act, one that presents you with the same stones, the same color of parapets, the same concept of stairs. Every tower is the same tower, and only the changeable perspective of ascents and descents assures you that, all appearances to the contrary, you are, in fact, moving."

The Barbarians, originally serialized in an Italian newspaper in 2006, has finally made its way into English in this collection. Through numerous digressions and a free associative sense of logic, the author tries to make sense of how culture isn't just changing, it's mutating. We are all growing gills, as Baricco is so fond of saying, because the metaphorical barbarians not only ransack our villages but also make us into them, over time.

So who are these "barbarians"? What is it they want and, more importantly for Baricco, how can we see them coming? It's likely the more important question to answer and it helps this elongated essay sidestep the typical grousing older folks mutter underneath their breath about the damn kids on their front lawn. Baricco actually wants to sketch them, like some sort of old time naturalist on a South Pacific island.

Barbarians, according to the author, are brought about by these trends:

- "A technological innovation that shatters the privilege of a caste, making a form of action possible for a new population."
- "Commercial bliss taking up residence in the expanded playing fields."
- "Spectacularity as the only untouchable value."
- "The adoption of a modern language as the fundamental language of all experience, as the precondition for any occurrence."
- "Simplification, superficiality, speed, middlingness."

Great. What does that look like? A prime fault with this text, perhaps because of its serialization, is that Baricco tends toward too much abstraction. His cherry-picked examples of barbarian infiltration (wine, soccer) are too narrow and depend too much on personal taste to be really seen as symptoms of some sort of a cultural sea change.

Nevertheless, Baricco can tie his thoughts together. Essentially, the barbarians depend on motion, but in a very specific direction. Forget progress. For the barbarians, "They don't quite understand the concept of taking a step forward. What they believe in is sidestepping. Movement occurs when someone is able to break the linearity of development and take a step aside."

Much like his walk along the Great Wall, it is not so much where you're going but that you're going. Movement for movement's sake is the key. Like excited atoms, the barbarians are utterly concerned with being on the move, of rapid experience along the surface of things, of, as Baricco is fond of saying, "surfing."

It is when the author discusses music that his argument gains that coherence lacking from most of the essay. Glib asides such as: "Can we say that the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Madonna or Bjork have surpassed anyone or represent a step forward with respect to anything else?" strike a chord because they actually dive into a subject and provide clear instances of the barbarians breaking through the frontiers.

As are bits like this: "Their success is probably due more to their ability to execute sidesteps, their ability to create differences -- and strong, well-structured, self-sufficient differences at that." One cannot help but be reminded of Frank Herbert's koan-like description of space travel in Dune: "traveling without moving."

And when the barbarians are accused of "hardly looking for something beyond Bruce Springsteen. They want something different from Bruce Springsteen," it becomes clearer what exactly Barrico is trying to pin down.

Perhaps the most interesting piece of this entire essay is its timeliness. For 2006, The Barbarians does describe numerous trends only now finding expression, such as in Douglas Rushkoff's Present Shock or Hartmut Rosa's Social Acceleration. This was written years before Twitter even hit the Web, the ultimate tool to communicate surfaces, rather than depths.

Baricco is perceptive but vague, though continually entertaining. However, The Barbarians walks a narrow road. The author makes clear that trying to fight against the barbarians is futile. Hence the tour to the Great Wall. In order to preserve what, in his words, "civilization" deems important, we must mutate. By doing so, we can become the barbarians and they can become us. The rough edges of both sides can be sanded smooth.

But the very superficiality that Baricco constantly decries, whether it be in mass production of wine, showboating soccer players, or a frozen music scene, is exactly what his book indulges in. This attempt to diagnose the barbarian is breezy, rapid, and not all together convincing. It lacks depth, the stability that Baricco's civilization is said to allow and endorses. Again, this may be the fault of its prior serialization but, I think, if you're going to condemn shallowness, don't be shallow in your condemnation.

Overall, The Barbarians is an engaging read by a narrator with a lot on his mind struggling to put it all on paper in a challenging format. It gets lost in the translation. It gives the impression of an over-caffeinated sage constantly jumping up and down from his fireside lounger. That alone is entertaining but it feels as if Baricco has already undergone the mutation without providing an effective enough guide for us normals looking at the approaching Terrigen Mists.

The Barbarians: An Essay on the Mutation of Culture by Alessandro Baricco, translated by Stephen Sartarelli
Rizzoli Ex Libris
ISBN: 978-0847842919
164 pages