A Fragile Civilisation: Collective Living on Australian Soil

Stephen Muecke

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


At the same time as a headline in The Guardian announced: ‘Indigenous Australians most ancient civilisation on Earth, DNA study confirms’,[1] we could also read that $3 billion had been left by healthcare tycoon Paul Ramsay to set up, under the direction of right-wing former prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott, a plan to install courses on ‘Western civilisation’ in major Australian universities.[2] This contrast is confusing, but telling. Civilisation has nothing to do with science as such (DNA is indifferent to it), nor is it something a passing political initiative can uphold. But with a long view of Australian history, the concept of civilisation is caught precisely in this politically charged dichotomy: between an Indigenous civilisation and a recently arrived ‘Western’ one. It seems that the upholders of the latter would like the former to remain dubious and ‘ancient’, of little relevance to the future of the country. This essay is a personal reflection on the possibilities for a more reasonable hybrid definition of ‘civilisation’ based on Australian soil.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWriting the country
Number of pages8
Publication statusPublished - 2018
Externally publishedYes

Publication series

NameGriffith Review
ISSN (Print)1448-2924


  • civilisation
  • etymology
  • Aboriginal Australia
  • collective living
  • hybrid definition


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