Reflections on an academic career

Dr Bruce Buchan

Dr Bruce Buchan

Our inaugural guest blogger is Dr. Bruce Buchan. Bruce is an Associate Professor in the School of Humanities, Languages, and Social Sciences at Griffith University, and is currently Program Director of Master of Arts (Research).

The text of this blog comes from a presentation Dr. Buchan gave to postgraduate students at the University of Dundee on 8th May, 2018. Jillian Beard, who he mentions below, has subsequently been awarded her PhD.

My own research career is atypical, and there is quite a lot about it that, for good and bad, has not quite gone to plan. Nonetheless, I’d like to offer you some thoughts, which I would like to do not as an example of the ‘right thing to do’, but as a reflection on the peculiarity of research and the unexpected places it can take you to. The thing I have found in the course of my own experience is that there is no single pathway for an academic career.

At the outset, let’s acknowledge frankly that the academic world has changed a lot and there is much in my own professional experience that can not compare to the pressures that you now face as postgraduate students. The forces of neoliberalisation, privatization, industrial precarity, and the corporatization of universities have each had such corrosive effects on our vocation. Indeed, the very idea of the vocation of scholarship, as opposed to the profession of academia, seems to have become hopelessly anachronistic. Yet I think for many of us, or maybe just for some of us, it is the very idea of that vocation – of the life of ideas and argument, the pursuit of research problems, the reflection on paradoxes and questions, and the creativity of writing – that brought us into these hallowed halls in the first place.

The profession of academia – the viability of academic careers – is not what it was. The pace of change has been relentless, and I for one am not entirely sure where these changes are likely to lead us.

Academia today is an almost unrecognisable profession from what it was when I started out on my own journey in the 1990’s. My own PhD was awarded at the Australian National University in 2000. My first full time academic post was a two-year research associate position working alongside my former thesis supervisor at the ANU. That led on to tenured appointment in the School of Humanities at Griffith University where I’ve been ever since. While at first glance this may not seem to be a very remarkable career, it is one that has been rather interesting: it has taken me to many places across the globe, introduced me to many inspirational people, involved lots of challenges along the way, a lot of hard work and sacrifices, and has involved a fair amount of sheer good luck.

If there’s one single thing that I think it important to say to you, it is that each and every pathway reveals itself to us in its own idiosyncratic way and unfolds underneath our feet at its own pace. These days, we live our lives to the relentless prescriptions of normalization. They are the very stuff of our daily lives conveyed in government policy, activated by markets, and ubiquitously manifested in the pervasive presence of social media.

We can’t escape these pressures of course, but speaking solely for myself, if there is one thing I would like to have heard in those precarious days as I was completing my PhD, and whatever was coming next seemed completely unclear and uncertain – it is that I should learn to trust myself, to have a little more faith in my skills and abilities, and know that the pathway on which I was embarked was not a facile choice, like those we are constantly offered by the markets that surround us – multiple, momentary and entirely meaningless. My pathway was a purpose, and it might not lead me exactly where I thought I would or should be going – or indeed where others thought I ought to be going – but it was my pathway. I’d get there. Somewhere, sometime, in its own meandering way, and in its own good time.

My own research career really developed after I obtained my PhD which focused on conceptions of violence in liberal political thought. The PhD was the culmination of a whole series of degrees, my BA, Honours, and Master of Arts, which had all been focused on what might broadly be called ‘political studies’ (with some history along the way). Within the field of political studies I focused my attention on political theory, which might superficially be defined as the study of the ideas and concepts we use to ascribe meaning and value in the practice of politics. When pushed, I still call myself a political theorist, but I have not worked in a school or department of politics now for many years, and have not been a regular attendee at political science conferences, and do not even publish exclusively in politics journals.

After my PhD, in 2001, I commenced 2 years working as a Research Associate on an Australian Research Council grant as part of an interdisciplinary team comprising an anthropologist, a sociologist and social theorist, and me – a political theorist. The project investigated the colonial origins of the concept of society drawing heavily on early Australian colonial history. This work led eventually to my first book, and to a series of papers. The book was titled, The Empire of Political Thought: Indigenous Australians and the Language of Colonial Government. Although the book was a mix of history and political thought, I kept my hand in by publishing some papers in political theory, international relations theory, and some papers that were oriented toward colonial history.

Since 2003, I have worked in the midst of a very interdisciplinary School of Humanities at Griffith University. Here I find myself grouped most closely with colleagues who teach and research history. Indeed, a lot of my work could be said these days – both teaching and research – to fall into the nebulous category of intellectual history with a heavy debt to world history, colonial history and political theory. To cut a long story short, over the last several years my research has involved a variety of Australian and international grant-funded or fellowship projects that have built in sometimes quite varied ways on my interests in intellectual and colonial history. This includes another book on the Intellectual History of Political Corruption, a four year Australian Research Council Fellowship on the conceptual and colonial history of the idea of asymmetric warfare and security – which I’m still trying to wrestle into a book. Most recently, I’ve been collaborating with a Swedish scholar on a project that investigates the conceptual history of race and human variety in the Scottish Enlightenment which we are investigating through a number of colonial travellers trained in medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

Having provided you with that preface to what I think is a rather unusual research trajectory, what I thought I would now do is to give some kind of account of the guiding threads of my research.

Dakota protest

Standing Rock and Lakota Sioux peoples contesting the installation of an oil pipe in Dakota

So, I’d like to start off with an image that I found on Facebook last year that sums up something of a guiding thread of my own research trajectory since I was awarded my PhD. The image comes from the protest in the USA in which the Standing Rock and Lakota Sioux peoples were contesting the installation of an oil pipe in Dakota that was going to be built right across their own burial grounds, and also posed a danger of polluting local water supplies.

To me, the image resonated with a simple truth about history and politics in nations such as the USA, or Australia, where our colonial past is inscribed unevenly on the bodies and lives of its citizens in the present. For me, this image conveys a truth about colonial history: ‘Colonisation never dies. It just keeps colonising.’ The image reminds us that the perils and the promise of our political arrangements are bequeathed to us by history. That the history of these arrangements are rarely apparent, but that the task of the scholar is to make them so. That by making them so, the scholar, and especially the historian, commits herself or himself to political action. In my view, history is never just history. In fact, all history is politics.

So, in viewing this image, my reaction is to ask the question: How did we get to be here…?

To those of us educated in history, the idea that we need to understand the present through the past, or that the present can only be understood through the past is a proposition that may not appear that radical. I have learned however, having spent my entire life growing up in a country in denial of significant parts of its past, that this simple proposition is deeply unsettling to many fellow citizens (and governments). Thinking about the present through the past makes established institutions and arrangements appear as they are – arbitrary, unequal, and frequently unjust. Many people do not want these perspectives to be brought to light. They would prefer the past to remain safe, comfortable, conformable to the contours of myth and fiction. Others prefer to think of the past only as quaint or exotic. These people reify the past, treating it as a kind of Disneyland – a place one goes on holiday; like the L.P. Hartley quote: ‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.’


That our present is bound the past is a realization that many Australians are still keen to resist. For many, the name ‘Australia’ conjours a land without history – a young country in an ancient land, but one whose prior inhabitation seems to reside outside of history – like the dinosaurs. Australia, to them is a land of white beaches and blue skies, where the colonial past simply no longer matters. The history of what happened to the people who resided in Australia prior to its colonisation is either occluded or bent out of shape.


For some time now, Australians have been waging an unpleasant war of attrition over our national day, which is typically prosaically called ‘Australia Day’. As recently as 1988, it has been commemorated on the anniversary of the landing of the first British convict-colonists in 1788. Despite the continuous 60,000-year (or more) inhabitation of the land by peoples rich in culture and knowledge, subjects of laws and of lore since time out of mind, as fully in possession of themselves as it is possible for a people to be, Australians today are still invited by their governments and corporations to imagine that their identity hinges on the commemoration of the arrival of a few hundred malnourished, convict-colonists and their uniformed imperial overlords as if this marked the arrival of ‘civilisation’, in a land where none existed till that date. Imagine the audacity of that claim, and you can compass the sheer cheek of Australian national identity!

So, we have this debate, which has been highly politicized, about whether our colonial past should be understood as peaceful settlement or as violent invasion – as if the two can be neatly separated, good v bad, black v white….

The truth is that our present, and whatever future we carve out for ourselves is laden with a history that we cannot cast off like a dead weight… Again and again, the truth of that saying of Marx from the Communist Manifesto is borne out: Humans make their own history, ‘but not under circumstances of their own choosing. The past weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living…’

Landing of Captain Cook 1770I particularly like that line of Marx’s because it speaks to our consciousness as a kind of dream state, or a waking dream… images that we are not in conscious control of… that for all the focus in modern society on freedom of choice, maximizing liberty, a profusion of preference, and a universe of opinion, the simple fact of the matter is that we don’t really choose anything about who we are and where we are situated. But what we do have are dreams… fictions… comforting illusions…. grand delusions… recurring nightmares… like the hero Cook claiming an empty continent peacefully… Australia – a continent named not for us – the latter day white settlers, but for its original inhabitants…

So, today we think the name ‘Australia’ and ‘Australian’ is a marker of our uniquely privileged identity that we can use to prescriptively exclude those deemed non-Australian. In truth, to call ourselves ‘Australian’ is to compound a historical act of theft so monumental it beggars belief.

The name ‘Australian’ was first given to the original inhabitants of the land – and I’ll come back to this shortly – in using it now as a standard of belonging – an ascription of national identity is tantamount to maintaining the pretense of terra nullius – the colonial fiction of an unowned land free for the taking. By calling ourselves ‘Australian’ we are telling ourselves that we are who we are not, and those others we took it from were never called anything at all.

So, an abiding interest in my work is to explore the ways in which history is bound to fiction. We are surrounded by fictions of course – level playing fields, equality of opportunity, the free market… Each sustain an image of the social world as something other than it is. My work has sought to investigate many different kinds of fiction – the empty claims of empire and the pretensions of colonization, ideas of civilisation and savagery. Tomorrow in fact, I’ll be presenting a paper on another of these fictions, ‘civility’, and the ways in which Europeans registered civility (and their doubts about it) in colonial settings through sound and noise.

Much of my work over recent years investigates a range of fictions relating to the ways in which we understand politics – particularly those relating to corruption, to security, war, and to race…

Le Roi mort, Heures de René d'Anjou, (f. 53) Vers 1442-1443

Le Roi mort, Heures de René d’Anjou, (f. 53) Vers 1442-1443

One of the most important of these fictions that I’ve spent time thinking about is the fiction that corruption is an exceptional condition – that incorruption is the norm, and that we can put a stop to or even cure corruption… and here it seems to me that the ancients and Medieval Europeans had a more realistic appraisal of corruption as a physical condition – corruption arose in the body, was inscribed on the body, and made itself known, became visible in the decay of the body – as if the pretense of incorruption (like the King’s Crown here) was a prop – meaningless ephemera atop a stinking pile of festering corruption…

Well, that’s a grim physicality, but it was bound with embodied notions of the polity – the body politic – which enabled some interesting ways to think about the political world and its ills. The corporeality in Medieval political thought underscored the idea of corruption as a physical presence, as something that did not only consist in broken rules or norms, but as a shadow that loomed, that physically impended on individuals and communities. Corruption was embodied, it could be felt, sensed, tasted, and touched – it had a sticky, tactile, sentient register.

Sometimes our fictions are simply illusions that distort our perceptions or conceal from our comprehension the workings of power. But not all fictions are like that. Sometimes fictions, like metaphors, can express a profound truth that reoccurs in cultures and discourses, even despite ourselves.

Jeff McCloy's birthday cake

Jeff McCloy’s ‘paper bag’ birthday cake

That Medieval idea of a cloying, sticky tactile corruption had a recent echo in Australia a few years ago when a property developer and former mayor in New South Wales, who had effectively bribed several backbench members of the NSW Liberal government in 2009 (some with brown paper bags stuffed with money), celebrated his birthday with a cake made in the shape of a brown paper bag spilling out crisp $100 notes! He posted the photo on Instagram in the wake of the public scandal that saw the resignation of the bribed politicians. The sickly sweet cake with its confected $100 notes made me think of that Medieval notion of sticky, nauseous corruption. It reminded me of Dante’s Inferno, where he has the corrupt city officials of Italy punished in one of the lowest circles of Hell, roiling in a ditch filled with sticky black pitch. The spirits of these barrators (as he called them), men who betrayed their cities for private gain, who in life caught public coins on their sticky fingers, struggling to free themselves of this pitch which clings to them like glue.

But perhaps the abiding fiction of our current global moment is the fiction of security – a fiction that Europeans have long thought of as comforting, even god-like protection – a divine dispensation… by which the fractures in our political and social world can be healed over and made whole again… It lived in these Medieval images of an angelic figure of ‘Securitas’ or in the comforting presence of a maternal security, salvation indeed, promised under the sheltering cloak of the Madonna of Misericordia.

The Fiction of ‘Securitas’

Left: Lippo Memmi, Madonna della Misericordia, Duomo, Orvieto, 1350’s. Right: ‘Securitas’, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, ‘Allegory of Good Government’, Siena, 1330’s.

Security today however, is an effect not of wholeness but of fragmentation – neatly summed up in Machiavelli’s story from The Prince of Cesare Borgia’s evil henchman, Remirro de Orco. Cesare used Remirro as an instrument of ruthless power to enforce peace and security through terrorising the population, but then he cast him off abruptly by having his body appear one morning in the town square ‘in two pieces’ beside a wooden block and a bloody knife… security here is an effect of butchering the body…

Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes

Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes

Machiavelli said that this demonstration of lethal power ‘stupefied and amazed’ the population, but Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan of 1651, did not mince words either – he said security was only possible through terror – only by means of terror can an awesome sovereign (that he called Leviathan after the Biblical sea beast) stand over us all in threat – security is not just terrifying, it is monstrous.

That monstrosity, that comes from fragmentation of the body is no new invention – it is inscribed on the development of modern anatomical science since the C16th that rendered the body, dissolved it, literally into bits…

By breaking the body into bits, power was consecrated – the power not only of the sovereign anatomist over the cadaver, but the spiritual power that was once thought to flow into the world through the copiously shed blood of Jesus.

Hans Memling, man of Sorrows, 1475.

Hans Memling, man of Sorrows, 1475.

Recently, this kind of dispensation, based on fragmentation and the consecration of bloodshed, has been claimed by ISIS who violently dismember and fragment bodies. Much of the discourse around these beheadings treats them simply as acts of terrorism – the perpetration of acts of violence so horrifying that they disorient the patterns of mutual expectation that constitute the lifeworlds we inhabit. In fact, they seem to me a pitiless mimesis of an established pattern of bloodshed. By spilling blood, they seek to stake an imperial claim, to consecrate the ground of a new state with blood… there is nothing new here, ISIS are just the latest and least original echo of European imperialism…

So, my interests in the history of political ideas, be it corruption or security, tend to draw me back to the present, and in particular to the legacies of colonisation in countries such as Australia.

And so, let me try to draw this to a close by coming back to the origins of that name – ‘Australia’ and ‘Australians’. The name originated in Captain Matthew Flinders’ circumnavigation of the land in 1800-02. This was a voyage of science and empire – to beat the French – to map and chart what was not known, and to claim it… for Britain’s Empire.

Blood was shed on that journey of imperial possession and naming, most poignantly pictured here at Blue Mud Bay on the northern coast…

Westall, William, 1781-1850. Blue Mud Bay, body of a native shot on Morgan's Island.

Blue Mud Bay, body of a native shot on Morgan’s Island. Westall, William, 1781-1850.

Here an Indigenous warrior who had defended himself and his land was shot and killed… But he was not only shot and killed, his body was claimed and anatomised. His head was cut off and his heart taken out to be preserved in spirits in the name of ‘anatomical science’… a consecration of Australia with the blood of a first Australian.

In my most recent work, I have used this incident to reflect on the role of naming as a mode of colonization that brings history to the fore in the present in the language we use to locate ourselves. Some of the most corrosive ‘names’ in our language are those associated with the poisonous legacy of race and racial classification. So this research is also about the origins of racial thought in Enlightenment Europe and its development in colonial contexts such as the circumnavigation of Australia in 1800.

So this is where I find myself today – reading and writing and speaking on naming and race and colonisation, on security and blood in the history of medicine, the Medieval body politic and corruption, the rise of anatomical science and the political thought of bodily fragmentation in Early Modern Europe. I often think that my professional life might have been more manageable had my career developed around a single research specialisation – in one period, or one region, or one field. On the other hand the eccentricity of my research career has allowed me the enormous personal luxury, but also the professional advantage of being able to make intellectual curiosity its defining feature. This has allowed me to be very wide ranging in what I choose to work on, perhaps too wide ranging for my own professional good at times, but the pay off for me has been the thrill of learning something new and following my nose (as it were). I’m the last person to recommend my own or any other person’s pathway as a viable one for you to follow. Your own choices have to be organic developments of your own interests and capabilities framed by strategies crafted to a much changed and still rapidly changing research environment.

Bruce BuchanIf there is one final insight that my own pathway has revealed to me, it is to be adaptable – to learn, and then to re-learn how to present your work, how to describe its trajectory, and to locate its potential. One of my postgraduate students, her name is Jillian Beard, who has just submitted her PhD thesis for examination, put it to me this way. Today, the pressure is on to adapt and then immediately to readapt to changing circumstances. To do that, graduates are going to need to learn to read the landscape, consult with colleagues and continue to strategise to remain ahead of the game. Communication skills and networks are important. But so too, I would add is your training in asking questions, looking for evidence, and putting pieces of the great jigsaw of your research together. If nothing else, this is a training in intellectual adaptability, methodological agility and creative flexibility that gives you skills and experience that you can use to navigate your way. As Jill also explained however, alongside the skills there needs to be pragmatism. When I asked her what it is I should say to you today, she put it like this: ‘They should have a Plan B but work hard on Plan A.’

We are all realistic enough to know that to a considerable degree these days, our immediate research tasks must ‘follow the money’ – applying for grants and fellowships is not an option whatever stage of the academic career you are at, and the pressure on winning grant money has been ramping up and up over the last 10 years. In response to that, I have to say that a degree of flexibility and adaptability, or thinking laterally about your work in unfamiliar ways has been enormously helpful for me. Among other things, it has helped me to identify new ways in which to connect my work to others, to form productive networks and connections.

Dr. Bruce Buchan

Categories: Guest blog posts

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