On Space, Power and Graffiti in Your Underpants

06/03/2013 11:02 GMT | Updated 06/05/2013 10:12 BST

'Marx was a drunkard,' a lecturer once announced to me and my classmates, '...a drunkard and a womaniser.' Marx was a man who actually existed, he was saying, and who was both of these things and much more. He wanted to bring him into the room with us: with all of the baggage which that entails.

In some ways it's not surprising that the ideas and concepts of thinkers eclipse the people themselves, but to overlook the very human grounding of these notions is to enshrine a vision of ideas as somehow supra-human.

The memory of these words was brought sharply into focus for me this week with the sentencing of the Newcastle University academic Stephen Graham. I feel connected to Professor Graham despite the fact that I have never met him. It's because I've had my own distant interactions with him: through the prism of his work.

A few years ago I spent some months deeply immersed in writing my Master's thesis. It was riveting of course - a self-indulgent discourse on space, power and the architecture of occupation in Palestine.

As Professor of Cities and Society at Newcastle University's School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Graham's work has encompassed some fascinating areas including the spatialities of power; cities and war; and urban geopolitics. It was ripe for my work and I was thoroughly absorbed with it all.

As such, it was many a late night I spent in remote, internal conversation with Stephen Graham. Michel Foucault was there too, and Henri Lefebvre, and countless others - all chatting with me over coffee and cigarettes.

And here's the point: I have often thought of the person before the idea. Thinking of Foucault's arcane discussions of the productive capacities of power, or the disciplining of individuals in society, I would often find myself pondering the man behind the ideas.

To do so is initially to acknowledge the fallibility of any intellectual, no matter how revered. But I think that there's also something to be gained from situating their concepts - and their development - in an appropriately quotidian, mundane, setting. Maybe it can even provide further insight into their thoughts.

But the details of Graham's case really brought home to me the absurdity of it all: the chasm between humanity's ideas and its actions. How do we reconcile our notions of ourselves with the bizarre stuff we all do?

Indeed the circumstances in Graham's situation appear to have been quite unfortunate - a heady mix of medication and alcohol - but the resulting crime was almost farcical.

Graham, dressed in his underpants and a suit jacket, proceeded to scratch graffiti onto cars in his neighbourhood with the politest etchings imaginable. It's almost Alan Partidge-esque. The BBC reported that 'Graham scratched the words "very silly", "really wrong" and "arbitrary" on 27 cars'. Despite the judge accepting that his 'dissociative state' (as stated in a forensic psychiatrist's report) was totally out of character, he ruled that Professor Graham is to pay the full £28,000 in compensation. A figure which the BBC suggests is equivalent to the life savings of Graham and his wife.

And it made me think: maybe that's why we champion the ideas over the person - an idea can be eternal, seminal, infinite; something to be held above the murky world of human interactions.

So while it may be no consolation to Stephen Graham: I'll make an effort to remember the engrossing discussions we held about spatial power relations, and not the regrettable, underpantsed, graffiti.

Perhaps also because I can't work out what possible insight I can garner from the latter.