On bullshit

A few weeks ago I was on the invite list, along with my colleague Professor Gary Foley, to the opening of a major Indigenous art exhibition at the University of Melbourne. The reasoning for the invitations was threefold: we had both, at one time, been senior curators at the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum (the museum is involved in the exhibition); we had both been recipients of the Chancellor’s Prize for the best PhD in the arts faculty; we are both, obviously, alumni of the university. We are also known, not to the extent that Lefty is known across the five boroughs of New York in the great crime film Donnie Brasco, but known just the same within the Aboriginal community of this state.

As the date of the opening approached, several people mentioned the event. ‘See you at the opening,’ one person said. ‘Want to catch up after the opening?’ another asked. I had no idea what they were talking about. When reminded for a third time, I asked, ‘What opening?’ Further enquiries were made. Matters were investigated. Protocols were found to be in disarray.

As is turned out, our invitations were … well, I am not sure what word to use here, as I am not fully aware of the facts. We may have been uninvited, as Germaine Greer was apparently uninvited from this year’s Brisbane Writers Festival. We may simply have been withdrawn, which sounds benign enough, although the humiliation would be the same. I also heard various other rumours: that our invitations had been secreted, or perhaps ferreted away by a clandestine individual who remains unnamed.

I was not particularly pissed off that I had not received my invitation, that it had seemingly been retracted, recused or refused. At the time, Professor Foley was blissfully ignorant of the fact that his A-list status had morphed into a D-grade dismissal. At the time of the opening, he was holding court, as tradition demands, at Jimmy Watson’s wine bar on Lygon Street, Carlton, with a Foley spritzer in hand. When I raised the matter with him in the days after the opening, he appeared uninterested in the apparent snubbing, instructing me to ‘Get over it, Birchy.’ His display of casualness is understandable when considering I was speaking to a man who has attended both the Cannes Film Festival and the Newstead Short Story Tattoo.

For a reason I am yet to fully comprehend, Professor Foley’s nonchalance sparked an inner rage in me. I wanted answers. I made phone calls and wrote abusive emails. All to no avail. I should have known better. Anyone working in a public institution governed by bureaucratic systems underpinned by technological paranoia should be aware that when you send an email to a person of seniority, you are actually having a one-way conversation. While I wrote that I was outraged, disgusted, shattered AND somewhat annoyed about the outrageous behaviour of the petty lemming who had un-/dis-/fuck-off-invited us, the reply simply read ‘……’ (Those are italicised dots, by the way.)

I could hardly believe that I had been snubbed a second time. Professor Foley, meanwhile, did not seem to, well, give a fuck. That week, he roused another group of young students at our university, the poor but occasionally happy Victoria University, with a series of remarkable lectures on Aboriginal political activism. At the end of the working week he again sat down with the said Foley spritzer. I went back to my computer, shooting off even more gobsmacked sentences to the evil tertiary empire that is the University of Melbourne. In a state of invective delirium, I may have sent emails to the chancellor, the vice-chancellor, the deputy vice-chancellor, the undersecretary to the deputy, senior ground staff and the catering firm responsible for the Town & Gown annual dinner. (Yes, it remains a thing.)

Each staff member of the University of Melbourne (as opposed to simply an ordinary university somewhere in Melbourne) that I had written to responded to me, which I must commend, as I had suggested they fuck off. They each sent me the same brief emailed response: ‘……’

I did not know what to think about the collection of dots, so I asked my barber. He suggested I approach a forensic investigator, an IT forensicologist, to be precise. His sister happened to be one. I presented the University of Melbourne emails to her, which she carefully examined with a magnifying glass and a DNA testing kit. Her full investigation took a week. She finally called and invited me to her office, then placed the magnifying glass in my hand.

‘Have a close look at those dots,’ she instructed. I did. The dots loomed larger.


‘What are they?’ I asked.

‘They are exactly what I expected to find,’ she answered, raising an eyebrow. ‘They are traces of bullshit. Bureaucratic bullshit. It is what they do.’


Image: Scandiacus / Flickr





Tony Birch

Tony Birch is the author of Shadowboxing, Father’s Day, Blood, The Promise and Ghost River. He is currently research fellow in the Moondani Balluk Academic Centre at Victoria University.

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