There can be no doubt that one of the most remembered thinkers of 12th century al-Andalus is Ibn Rushd. How he is remembered varies from author to author, with some focusing on his philosophical achievements, crediting him as ushering in the foundations of the European Enlightenment through his Neo-Aristotelian exegesis and others preferring to contextualize his philosophical achievements within their political-religious contexts. In her book, Ornament of the World, Maria Rosa Menocal falls into the former category, elevating Ibn Rushd to the level of extraordinary and even characterizing him as a victim of the “single-mindedness” of the Almohad conquerors who overtook al-Andalus in his lifetime.[1] While this makes Ibn Rushd’s successes seem all the more incredible in the face of the alleged fundamentalist, unReasonable Almohad regime, the fact is that only part of Ibn Rushd’s story is being told. Both Richard Fletcher and Olivia Remie Constable paint a much different picture of Ibn Rushd as not only a revered philosopher but also a supporter of the Almohads, and a physician and advisor to the Almohad rulers. Why is there such a discrepancy in these recountings? The answer to this question has less to do with Ibn Rushd himself than how he fits into the overall project of each author. Ibn Rushd as an Almohad protagonist compromises Menocal’s overall counter-myth-making plan of upholding al-Andalus as an integral part of the European Renaissance and later Enlightenment against the typical “barbaric” African fundamentalist backdrop of Almohad al-Andalus.

In “The Myth of Westernness in Medieval Literary Historiography,” Menocal follows in similar footsteps as the likes of Hayden White and other Critical Memory theorists who concur that “our writing of history is as much a myth-making activity as that of more primitive societies.”[2] She explores Western discourse’s preoccupation with their own intellectual heredity, shattering notions of the East-West dichotomy by pointing out how their particular myth comes with a dominant and selective forgetting of al-Andalus’ instigation and propagation of the so-called “West’s” intellectual Renaissance.[3] Her call for the inclusion of Andalusian influence in Western literary historiography is characterized as involving a major paradigm shift of unimaginable proportions because it requires the reimagining of Western civilization as “indebted to and dependent on a culture… regarded as inferior…and as the quintessence of the foreign and the Other.”[4] As such, a reading of her more popular text, Ornament of the World might be read as the development of a counter myth challenging the hegemonic discourse that excludes and Others al-Andalus from European intellectual history. Indeed, Menocal is unabashed about her project in its introductory chapter, Beginnings, arguing that much of Europe “was shaped by the deep-seated vision of complex and contradictory identities that was first elevated to an art form by the Andalusians.”[5] And while this project might be noble in itself, especially in terms of more accurately nuancing our understanding of the development of European intellectualism, Menocal’s book is permeated with instances of problematic Othering – upholding al-Andalus as exceptional and acceptably European (particularly for its legacy). This is done at the expense of the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties who are conflated together as both barbaric, fundamentalist and, ultimately, foreign Muslim conqueror. The underlying story that is then told is that the Muslims that are acceptable for Europeans are those that most resemble Europeans.

One of the most glaring instances of this unfortunate consequence of Menocal’s project is found in her depiction of Ibn Rushd. Flip to the name Ibn Rushd in the index of Maria Rosa Menocal’s Ornament of the World and the reader is directed to “see Averroes.”[6] Though it can be argued that this choice was that of the publisher, particularly for a commercial book whose audience might not be aware that Ibn Rushd and Averroes are the same Muslim person, the point is that an Andalusi-Euro-fication of Ibn Rushd is definitely at work elsewhere in Menocal’s book. When Menocal formally introduces us to Ibn Rushd, she sets him alongside Musa ibn Maymun, arguing that their work was shaped “by the advent of the Almohads” and their “single-mindedness” or “repressions” that dominated Andalusian society.[7] She goes on to pitch him as primarily a philosopher in an age of great Andalusian discourse, where the place of Reason beside religion was negotiated or accepted and rejected, back and forth, by the likes of Ibn Sina, Al-Ghazali, ibn Maymun and Ibn Rushd himself.[8] She concludes that although Ibn Rushd’s work made him a hero in Europe, he died in Marrakesh under “suspicious circumstances” (possibly Almohad house arrest) and implies that his philosophy received “a markedly different reception” within his own culture.[9] Is she referring to his Islamic culture, Andalusian culture or to the Almohad-dominated culture of his day? In all instances, and any combinations of these as well, her implication that his death or house arrest had something to do with his philosophical paradigm might be purposeful conjecture and requires an equally purposeful dismissal of the important political roles he held under the Almohads which allowed for his philosophy to develop.

While the index of Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain also diverts readers in search of Ibn Rushd to Averroes, Fletcher presents a much less contrived version of this character. While Fletcher notes that the Almoravids and Almohads shared some similar characteristics, particularly in terms of the beginning of their movements around charismatic leaders, their methods of conquering al-Andalus and their characterization as “fundamentalist”, he does distinguish between their brands of Islam. Fletcher is careful to show that the Almohads represented: a rejection of Almoravid (and Andalusian) Maliki legalism, a theology based on the immanence of God, and a move to “spiritual interiority” that would later find its most formidable philosophical expression in the work of Ibn Rushd.[10] Ibn Rushd flourished as a philosopher (and in many other roles) because philosophy –contrary to other depictions – was actually an integral part of Almohad rule in al-Andalus. Fletcher points to the example of Ibn Tufayl who was the physician of Almohad ruler, Yusuf I, who not only sought to marry religion and philosophy in his own writing, but also was responsible for introducing Ibn Rushd to Almohad court circles (which he was an early supporter of) where he served as qadi of Seville and Cordoba, but also inherited the position of physician and trusted advisor to Yusuf (and Ya’qub). [11]

The argument that Ibn Rushd was rejected by the rulers of his time for his philosophical endeavours is simply wrong. He was immersed in Almohad political and cultural circles, and given his prominent position with the ruling group, there is little reason to think that the Almohads were repressive of his way of uniting Islamic creed and Aristotelian Reason. In fact, The Almohad Creed of 1183, composed at a time when Ibn Rushd was the closest advisor of Yusuf I, is explicit in its unification of these two concepts, declaring reason to be the main criterion for religious truths[12]. Olivia Remie Constable argues that, in all likelihood, this important document was written by Ibn Rushd. With its appeal to the use of Reason and the finding of “common ground on which to establish faith propositions,” the creed of the Almohads seriously challenges Menocal’s depictions of them as barbaric exclusionists.[13]

The Almohad openness to Ibn Rushd’s discourse (despite early inspiration from the works of Al-Ghazali which rejected the marriage of Reason with philosophy) is what made his prolific writing possible. And this alone, presents a much different image of the Almohads than what Menocal wants to put forth as part of her counter-myth. Her project, while a response to forgetful European intellectual hereditary myths (which is a noble cause) simply does not go far enough. Menocal falls short of following her own imperative in the study of “Muslims” and “Arabic culture” in medieval Europe by excluding the Almohads from the discussion. If such work is to be done and it “must be…rooted in the rejection of the simplicities an isolations of its own categories and terms, in an appreciation of the profound ambivalence of such readily nameable identities and of the necessary interconnectedness with other (equally ambivalent) identities,”[14] then the inclusion of Almohads in a European narrative becomes the necessary response to such an imperative. Rather than the European Renaissance being derived of purely “Andalusian” intellectual development, tolerance, and reverence for ancient philosophy (which the Almohads allegedly are outsiders to), the rise of Reason in Europe, through the discourse in writings of philosophers like Ibn Rushd, must be seen for what it, at least in part, is: an Almohad inheritance.

[1] Menocal, Maria Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Back Bay Books: New York. 2002, p 208

[2] Menocal, Maria Rosa, “The Myth of Westernness in Medieval Literary Historiography” in The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy, eds. Emran Qureshi and Michael Sells, Columbia University Press: New York, 2003, p 249.

[3] Menocal, “The Myth”, p 250.

[4] Ibid 257

[5] Menocal, Ornament of the World, p12.

[6] Menocal, Ornament of the World, p 307.

[7] Ibid, p 208

[8] Ibid, p 211

[9] Ibid, p 212

[10] Fletcher, Richard. Moorish Spain. University of California: Berkeley. 1992 p119

[11] Ibid, p 132-33

[12] “The Almohad Creed (1183)” in Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. Olivia Remie Constable, ed. Majd Yaser Al-Mallah, trans. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2012:p. 245-6.

[13] Constable, Ibid; Menocal, Ornament of the World, p 195-6.

[14] Menocal, “The Myth”, p 268.

The origins of “The Pact of ‘Umar” are unknown but have been attributed colloquially to ‘Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, the second Righteous Caliph. Scholars have suspected that it derives from a later period, possibly under Umar II, because the need for such a document would have been greater under rapid Ummayad expansion of the Islamic empire. Regardless of the original source, this text is often cited by historians as foundational for understanding pan-Islamic relations between Muslims and Christians. The implication is that its spirit was somehow transmitted across the known Ummah to inform interreligious dynamics everywhere Muslims went. It is included in the reader edited by Olivia Remie Constable (Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim and Jewish Sources) because of a similar presumption. Though this text is difficult to historically verify in terms of origin or influence, there are a number of ways it can be used to illuminate interreligious dynamics between Christians and Muslims in general. Ultimately, with regards to how it can be used in studying al-Andalus, I take the approach of Janina Safran in her book Defining Boundaries in al-Andalus. Her approach is not to assume that the text directly influenced relations there, but rather, to look at how jurists might have invoked boundary-drawing through legal opinions and practice enforcement in a similar spirit as the “Pact” itself.

If we accept the text’s assertion that it was written by Syrian Christians petitioning ‘Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, certain points come to the fore. First, it would imply that the contents of the text were consensual, rather than a tool for subjugation of Christians by Muslim masters. This would make the enforcement of these rules among other Christians much easier because Christians had originally sought them. It would also imply a greater voice for Christians with the Caliph than one would first assume. Declaring that they “shall not teach the Qur’an to [their] children”[1] would seem more like an assertion of their religious freedom, rather than a stipulation from an Islamic authority dissuading them from conversion. Additionally, the forbiddance of engraving Arabic inscriptions on their seals would seem to be a linguistic-cultural rejection, in addition to the religious one. The points about differing from Muslims in terms of dress, burial of the dead and even house construction would also signify an anxiety among Christians about establishing demarcations between themselves and Muslims. It implies that, like other points in Christian history[2], Christians were well aware of some of the prerequisites of religious conversion (including economic, social custom and linguistic acquisition of a conquering group[3]) and the Pact of ‘Umar represents their attempts to stave off that influence as long as possible. This boldness is only slightly curtailed by the addendum of two additional stipulations by ‘Umar which might then be seen as a reassertion of Muslim dominance over this list of conditions.

If, however, this document is seen as a Muslim composition, then the boldness of the Christian petitioner falls away. It still remains that a Muslim author claiming its Christian origins would make subjugation of future conquered Christians much easier; however, this gives the document a tone of coercion or propagandas that highlights the dominance of the Muslims. In this case, the additional conditions tacked on by ‘Umar signify their ultimate authority over their dominated subjects. Perhaps one of the most interesting turn-arounds in meaning is the clause about forbidding the teaching of the Qur’an to Christian children. Seen as an act of religious self-preservation for Christians, this clause takes on a completely different meaning under a Muslim authority and raises all kinds of historical questions about why Muslims might have been trying to temper conversion rates (likely for taxation purposes or to avoid biddah). This complicates the narratives of Muslim religious coercion by force and, along with the stipulations about dress, other identifying markers and the selling of fermented drinks, signals a Muslim anxiety about mixing with Christian populations.

While thought experiments might be useful for showing how a different text can be viewed in terms of the memoryscape of the group it is ascribed to, it is difficult to historically corroborate its actual use in places in like al-Andalus. In her book’s introduction, Janina Safran notes that Maliki jurists of the ninth and tenth centuries “do not refer to the ‘Pact of ‘Umar’, nor do they detail comparably specific terms of any other surrender treaty or contract of protection between Muslims, Christians and Jews.”[4] Rather, while jurists did address issues found in the ‘Pact of ‘Umar’, their engagement with these matters ought to be considered independently of its template because overemphasis of the Pact threatens to obfuscate the historical complexities particular to al-Andalus and specific time periods. While differentiating between Muslims and their Christian and Jewish subjects was of immediate concern to jurists, how this was conducted and negotiated was less straightforward than the Pact would have us believe. Finally, as we have seen, the difficulties of establishing basic facts about the text make such extrapolations speculation at best.

[1] “The Pact of ‘Umar” in Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim and Jewish Sources. Olivia Remie Constable, ed. University of Pennsylvania Press: 2011, pp. 43-44.

[2] Markus, Robert. The End of Christianity. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 1990: pp. 27-43.

[3] Katznelson, Ira and Miri Rubin, “Introduction” in Religious Conversion: History, Experience and Meaning. Ashgate Publishing, Surrey England: 2014.; Rambo, Lewis R. and Charles E. Farhadian, “Converting: Stages of Religious Change” in Religious Conversion: Contemporary Practices and Controversies. Cassell: NYC. 1999.; David Baer, Mare. “History and Religious Conversion” in The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2014.

[4] Safran, Janina. Defining Boundaries in al-Andalus: Muslims, Christians and Jews in Islamic Iberia. Cornell University, 2013: pp.15 – 17.

In “Legends of the Fall: Conde Julian in Medieval Arabic and Hispano-Latin Historiography”, Denise Filios uses the figure of Julian and his various representations to examine the role of the historian in the use of primary source materials. Weaving together both Arabic and Hispano-Latin sources according to chronology, Filios drains Julian of any essential, a priori qualities and shows him to be a culturally-saturated figure around which political-historical contingencies orbit. In doing this, Filios reminds students and scholars alike that some of the tasks of the modern historian are in uncovering the meaning inscribed in cultural representations, the weight of their social currency, and how they fit into the larger worldviews (or memory-scapes) in which they are found. As such, the article can serve the learning needs of a wide readership, subtextually introducing them to some of the methodologies found in memory studies and narrative theory, regardless of interest in the historical particularities of her subject.

From the beginning of the article, Filios is clear that her purpose in analyzing the source material is not in determining their “historical reliability” which “misconstrue[s] the nature of the truths that the chronicles attempt to construct.”[1] While it is important for the historian to determine if a source is a complete fabrication (and even that is valuable to explore in terms of how and why that might occur), Filios is clear and adamant that the best “truths” to be found in these sources are in determining how they were used to represent and develop “a meaningful reality”.[2] In “Collective Memory: In Search of a Meaning,” James Wertsch highlights this difference in scholarship as divided between determining “accuracy criterion” of texts versus how they provide us with a “usable past”.[3] Previous scholars such as Nora and Halbwachs (the fathers of continental memory studies) pitted collective memory against history. However, what Wertsch further outlines and Filios negotiates very well is that the tasks of differentiating accurate representation from the creation of a usable past need not be mutually exclusive endeavours for the historian any longer. In focusing on what social memory expert, Ehud Ben Zvi calls “Future Memories” or how these texts sought to persuade their readers about the future, Filios is careful and quite right to not label them as elite propaganda of their time. Studies on collective memory, particularly where narrative theory is concerned, view a narrative “memory” (or in this case a cultural representation or text) as neither a simple copy of reality, nor entirely active (re)constructions.[4] Filios balances both in her analysis of Julian by asking poignant historical questions. Rather than trying to determine if Julian was real per se, she is instead focused on what he meant to his authours and his audiences.

In textually-mediated collective memory studies in particular, narrative theory can be useful because it presumes that narrative plays a central role in human consciousness and that it is a cultural tool developed in historical and institutional settings that will invariably be reflected through the text.[5] Moving effortlessly through the chronicles of Yulyan in Ibn ‘Abd alHakam and ‘Abd alMalk ibn Habib, and Iulianus’ presence (or absence) in Hispano-Latin sources like Duclidius or Historia Silence, Filios shows how Julian comes to stand as a metaphor for the Strait of Gibraltar – either making it passable and losing relevance quickly after Conquest or as a reflection of Christian views of Muslims through time. In the latter formulation, the Strait often comes to represent a border through his figure. As such, through these juxtapositions, it quickly becomes clear that Julian has no essential characteristics and, in fact, cannot even be said to have existed! Since the latter is not Filios’ research question, that is of little consequence. The point is that even seemingly important narrative details about him vary widely, depending on their author and their historical situation which tell us more about them than Julian himself.

This relatively short article is valuable to readers who are unsure of how to deal with primary source materials, particularly narratives. While not being explicit about her connection with narrative theory or critical memory studies (other than a reference to Hayden White), Filios has provided such readers with an excellent, well-researched example of what is possible through memory studies, regardless of their individual research areas.

[1] Filios, Denise, “Legends of the Fall: Conde Julian in Medieval Arabic and Hispano-Latin Historiography,” Medieval Encounters, Vol 15, 2009, p 377.

[2] Ibid

[3] Wertsch, James. “Collective Memory: In Search of a Meaning” in Voices of Collective Remembering. Cambridge University Press. 2002, p 31.

[4] Ibid. p.32

[5] Ibid. p.56-7

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The Drawing Board owner, Nakita Valerio, had the pleasure of sitting down with graffiti artist and community leader, AJA Louden to talk about his art, his genre and all of the incredible social justice work he is doing with both. As always, Louden proved himself thoughtful and eloquent beyond measure and it is our joy to speak to such passionate, intellectual individuals, as well as uplift their work by providing it with the public platform it deserves – something to which Louden is no stranger. As the founder of the Aerosol Academy, a participant in CypherWild and avid supporter of First Nations community causes, Louden has the perfect marriage between doing what he loves and doing something that matters: his art is where those two principles meet.

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Louden grew up in Calgary and recounts his first distinct memory of seeing an incredible graffiti display when he was around ten years old. “I don’t have a lot of contextual memory for it, but I know I was traveling in the backseat of a car, even if I don’t know where I was going or anything. These kinds of memories are the best because they are hazy but so foundational – something really jumps out at you through a fog. I saw a series of five or six light posts and each of them had the word “Trikone” written on them vertically. I couldn’t help but wonder “Who was doing this? Who would do this?” It was like a rabbit hole of questions I was falling into trying to reconstruct the story behind this public display. I just kept imagining six people standing there and painting the posts at the same time – I could see it like a film in my head, and for me it represented something hidden and esoteric – a private world made public that not a lot of people have access to. After that, I started seeing tags all the time – they stopped fading into the background for me.”

He didn’t do much about it but in middle school he got into hip-hop and break-dancing. In such communities, people are encouraged to develop a new identity that will be connected to their work and Louden was gracious enough to reveal (laughing the whole time) that his middle school name was “Spyda.” Of course, we vowed never to let him live it down, but Louden, with his sharp wit and humble demeanour, was quick to offer himself up, telling us the story of his first graffiti experience:

“I remember that one of my first graffiti moments was carving that name into my desk at school and then filling it in with markers. I didn’t think of it as wrong at all. It was just putting myself out there. Later, I wrote an exam and on the back page of the test, I wrote the same tag. Well, not surprisingly, my teacher saw the graffiti and then the tag on my test and pulled me aside. This was my first clash with authority over my graffiti. I was so brutal because I just told him a bold-faced lie: I had seen the graffiti and copied it onto my exam, of course.”

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Despite this first foray into this world, Louden says it left him a bit. He didn’t take visual arts seriously and was not informed on the history of the culture around it early on. In high school, he became rebellious and anti-authority – what some might call “a critical thinker.” He ended up taking a year off after high school and this, combined with moving to Edmonton for university and having more control over his own time ignited a search for his identity. He ended up studying sciences and much of what he learned is used in his painting work now, including lessons from biology and anatomy but also the soft sciences like psychology and sociology. Despite dedicating himself to his studies, he never saw himself working in a lab and realistically, employment prospects were low.

Louden notes that the biggest thing he took from that experience was realizing how passionate he is about knowledge and learning. It has informed how he asks questions and expresses himself artistically as well, especially since subscribing to several academic journals. He credits scientific observation with informing his ability to recognize patterns, activities and methods of expression to elicit affect.

While Louden’s work seems so visceral and spontaneous, he does mention the influence of technology in what he does. He has a graphic design background as well and that has affected his painting as an artist by putting different tools in his repertoire. He admits to being deeply interested in the technology of actual paint which is not something people often think about. “Changes to paint have reflected the commercialization and commodification of graffiti which is not necessarily good or bad. There are some people who have strong opinions about it but I just view it as change, like anything else. As a result, an artist these days has a whole lot of caps, cans, propellants and pigments to choose from, each of which can dramatically alter how they express themselves.”

Of course, Louden is also inspired by the masters like Caravaggio or by those who are really passionate about typography, citing a classic book by Robert Bringhurst called The Elements of Typographic Style which he says is essential for painters using words. The book helps us to understand how words have shapes of meaning and makes us more conscious of those we choose to express ourselves.

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Despite all of this brilliant forethought, Louden still has a hard time answering the question of how he would describe his work now, noting that when he first started getting back into painting, he worked solitarily for four or five years. In the graffiti world, that meant he was using styles that hadn’t been passed down through the community; however, as he broke into the community more, he started meeting more people and getting a variety of influences. And because of this diverse background, Louden is influenced by different, somewhat disparate things. He might describe his work right now as being about realism with some impressionistic effects. He is into portraiture and his lettering varies depending on the project, adapting to his expressive needs: It can be somewhat abstract at times while his subject matter revolves around authority, conflict and asymmetric warfare.

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Recently, Louden has put these themes to good use, doing important community work in indigenous communities and other humanitarian work as well. He had the pleasure of doing an AFA one week workshop at Beaver First Nation, near High Level where participants focused on the theme of finding identity through creativity and in place. A strong understanding of one’s identity becomes a powerful tool in the uneven match between oppressor and oppressed. Louden states that he tends to be less interested in struggles when the power is matched, helping participants to draw attention to discovering who they are, the psychological effects of occupation, reigniting one’s relation to the land, and how traditional wayfinding is communicated. Discussing one’s orientation in their environment and how this is dictated by our historical upbringing and cultural awareness was a particularly moving point in the project.

Additionally, Louden has been thinking to do some work on the parallels between Palestine and the plight of indigenous peoples in Canada, drawing symmetries between their experiences with colonialism and invasion. This has been a driving interest for him and a personal curiosity and is part of how he thinks more critically about the land he lives on and the context of where he paints in the environment it sits. Louden is nothing if not conscious of being respectful of the fact that this is Treaty 6 territory, effectively stolen land, and taking serious steps to avoid the appropriation of settler narratives into his work unintentionally, while at the same time not telling stories that are not his to tell. This careful balancing act is part of the reason he flourishes in graffiti education and in helping others express their own stories as well. Louden notes,

“In reality, I’m connected to the colonial narrative and the indigenous story through the land; it is part of my history too.”

Another high-profile project Louden got to work on was a wayfinding and signage program for the net-zero Mosaic Centre, creating landmark art pieces and using recycled parts from the building construction to do so. It was an amazing project because it got him thinking more consciously about how words perform a communicative function but are also aesthetic. The group collaborated with a neurologist at the University of Calgary who was studying brain cells that define our spatial awareness and how people navigate spaces, their literal place-making cells – research which has huge implications for the creation of landmark artworks and its relation to the interpretive capacities of our minds, even if such landmarks have a long historical use, such as Inukshuks.

Ever humble, Louden casually notes that he has also been fortunate to do a lot of workshops through Aerosol Academy which is a graffiti school he started. Through this group, he has developed an educational workbook – a kind of history of unsanctioned public art which examines culture, graffiti practice, tools and techniques and how to make art in legal spaces. And he has also had the privilege of opening up some street art walls as a lead artist consulted by the City of Edmonton and chosen as the city’s artistic representative. Traditionally, walls are about separating spaces and keeping things apart but Louden is unique in that he has tasked with building communities around walls, as gathering spaces to meet and practice the craft.

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Through these walls and other work, Louden is inspired to resist, especially in breaking down the false binaries between art and graffiti, and graffiti and crime. Louden is aware that there is a lot of scapegoating that happens about graffiti primarily because it is an intensely visual form of protest and the ultimate unruliness to change the landscape around us. However, in this context, it is important to realize that graffiti is a symptom of other social ills and a way for the disenfranchised to express themselves when made voiceless. The public expression of graffiti provides a venue for people to have their voices heard in terms that they dictate.

Louden points to the exaggerative campaigns against graffiti by hegemonic powers that be show an imperfect approach to the understanding and remedying of social ills.

“Graffiti is easy. It makes it easy to look like the government is doing something when they clean graffiti up, but in reality it’s a bandage solution masking what is still simmering below the surface.”

Ever the scholar, Louden cites a criminology theory called Broken Window Theory that continues to influence public policy development because it claims that where signs of crime exist, crime will accumulate. The theory is so named because it uses the example of broken windows in destitute neighbourhoods as an example. For Louden, he doesn’t see how this applies to graffiti at all, except to those who are not sufficiently well-versed in graffiti language to interpret what kind of painting exists in certain areas. Ultimately, it is the quality of graffiti that dictates more information about the state of a community and indicates its richness, not poverty, of culture.

Louden’s project of “gathering walls” seems like the ultimate reclamation of a symbol of colonial oppression, turning its meaning on its head to give the oppressed a voice. But resistance is not the only regular theme of his work. Louden is also inspired by what those in the trade call “them feels” – a term to describe a moment of inspiration or emotion. He is influenced by something as simple as an aesthetic glimpse, the emotional response one gets when they look at something.

The other cause that calls him to certain avenues of visual expression is the study of restorative versus retributive justice. Louden describes the latter as what we are accustomed to in North American settler culture: There is a lack of contact between a victim and their perpetrator because their conflict is mediated through the state and the resolution is usually a state-mandated punishment of the offender. Restorative justice models are based on traditional indigenous models and aim at “restarting” a relationship between “victim” and “perpetrator”. The meditation is not of the punishment but of the relationship that has been damaged without recourse to revenge narratives. The model is based on a circle in which both groups communicate with one another and an authority mediates the discussion to initiative self-reflectivity. The goals are understanding not only why the person violated the relationship but to make them understand the ripple effect it had on the lives of everyone around the victim. Louden says that if graffiti artists were more aware of the effects – positive or negative – of their painting on the world around them, it would go a long way to bridging the disconnect between the painters and the community in which they paint. Venues for communication, breaking down the fear of graffiti, and its decriminalization would go a long way in showcasing the realities of a sorely misunderstood group. Not a lot of people realize that less than 2.5% of all graffiti is gang-related, but the societal obsession with it is a symptom of capitalist society’s obsession with private property – a cultural phenomena, that contrary to popular belief, is historical and not universal.

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Ultimately, this is what Louden puts into his work but he is clear when he says that there doesn’t have to be a higher ethos behind graffiti work. Rather, self-awareness among graffiti artists and changing the language around public art in the communities it exists would go a long way to creating mutual understanding between people.

What all of this boils down to is a commitment, from Louden, to education creating channels of communication. He believes in providing people with tools to understand the Other and argues that sometimes doing this through art is the best way because it often speaks right to the heart, “them feels”. Through his work, something as ethereal and fleeting as empathy is a very real, achievable goal.

As we drew our interview to a close, Louden wanted to leave our audience with the final inspirational thought:

“Look a little closer. There are a lot of rabbit holes to peer into and there is a richness to life you can easily miss. You have you use your eyes and your feelings to see it.”

An incredibly talented and ever humble artist, AJA Louden is just the kind of visionary that the Canadian arts and graffiti scene need – someone to who gathers people and takes back the walls we build between one another.

“Academic philosophy needs to turn its gaze to depression and how it is treated within its own ranks”

Author: Jake Jackson
Original: PhDisabled


Content note: This post involves frank discussion of the experience of depression and includes reference to the recent suicide by Robin Williams.


A few months ago, the night before a conference in which I was participating, I let slip to the Chair of a philosophy department that I often have trouble sleeping. He asked why.

Realizing I may have revealed more than is perhaps savory for having just met, I stammered: “Why, I’m an existentialist!”

The catchphrase fit. After all, the next day I was presenting a paper that dealt with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche on (un)certainty and faith. He then laughed, made a joke of it himself, but gave a knowing-yet-compassionate look.

I was safe. Even in the form of a joke, this was perhaps one of only two instances where I have openly implied the presence of my lifelong depression to a tenured faculty member in my field without regretting it or worrying about how it might affect their perception of me.

This post seeks to question the way that academic philosophy perceives depression. I am not writing this with statistics or numbers, but instead from the subjective phenomenological perspective of someone who has depression and who works in – and aspires to build a career in – academic philosophy.

I seek not to grind an axe against any particular persons or institutions, but instead want to focus on the sort of social context confronted by those with depression, based on my lived experiences.

Depression is an alienating illness, especially when coupled with anxiety, as happens frequently. In my experience in academic philosophy circles, that alienation is amplified since mental health is not spoken of as a real entity. It is instead catalogued and discriminated by logic and reason as something other, an outside factor. The depressed are outsiders.

Depression is treated with a deafening silence, both inside of the academy and outside in society at large.

There is a social unseemliness to discussions of depression. Mental illness is a two-fold problem, private and yet public: private in that it is often suffered alone, public in that its effects reach out further than just the atomized individual.

Social behavior is socially determined, or at least, prescribed. This naturally turns the personal experiences and troubles of every private individual into a public concern. When someone admits to experiencing depression, whether chronic or a phase, this fact becomes a public concern. We look to role models, finding only a public-shaming of role models who suffer mental illness. Public figures who admit to mental illness are asked rushed questions on the intimate details of their struggle. Everyone has an opinion on mental illness, and most of them are not only wrong but directly harmful to both individuals who suffer silently and society at large.

We are not beyond a society that sees mental illness as a stain within one’s soul, some present-age demons who continue to torment mortals. Mental illness still stands as something to be ashamed of because we want to believe in karma or something similar. We want to believe that the ills that we suffer are somehow dependent upon something we deserve.

Those of us who are more scientifically inclined want to believe that we can redeem and fix mental illness, as if it were machinery. If we could only figure out the brain, then we believe that we could “normalize” it, or better, “cure” it.

We wish for so much that it blots out the actual condition. All this wishing and hoping is a flight from the actual day-to-day concerns of depression. As Nietzsche states “Hope is the worst of all evils, for it prolongs the suffering of people.”

Anything that disturbs a social norm makes everyone uncomfortable or at the very least brings up strong opinions. The recent suicide of Robin Williams has shown us yet again that the public doesn’t like talking about depression, certainly not in honest terms. Any suicide, but especially one of a public figure, becomes hyper-moralized. Now is the time for people to condemn Williams with words such as “cowardly” or “selfish” for taking his own life, but then also “brave” for struggling with his depression for so long. Other foolish moralists will say that depression is a divine gift as it comes along with comedic ability, hand in hand.

These moral arguments come out again each time in vain. They are in vain since they try to rationalize the brutally irrational. The overbearing social stigma of depression makes a lot of sense at times. It is very uncomfortable to think that one can be one’s own worst enemy, that the mind can so pessimistically stand against reason or external pleasures. It is, indeed, unseemly.

However, it is this very unseemliness that is the reason that depression should be more openly discussed. It is constantly suppressed socially into restrictive norms that only exponentially increase depression’s own horrid effects of alienation and resentment.

Having high hopes for a radical social change regarding mental health is perhaps going to be nothing but a disappointment. This, however, does not mean that one should give up hope for change and radical action.

I think it should be the job for philosophy to demand that society’s discourse regarding mental health gets less awful. Good philosophy should offer alternatives for social problems, or at the very least scold the often careless ideologies that cause social problems.

But first, academic philosophy itself needs to turn its gaze to depression and how it is treated within its own ranks. We treat it with silence. No one finds it polite to speak on it, unless talking about the personal lives of the dead or as a dry systematic theory. We philosophers prefer to hold depression at arm’s length, even though it often lives so close within our chests as a tightening knot limiting our actions.

Depression is brutally irrational. It does not care for one’s successes, relationships, or anything else that is valued for a so-called good life. No matter how much one moves towards eudaemonia in one’s life, depression is there, lurking. As Winston Churchill described it, depression follows one around like a big black dog ever obedient to its master.

Depression drives me to gaze into abysses.

My philosophical interests rest at the intersection of ethics, phenomenology, and existentialism. I work heavily in Nietzsche and late Husserl, but have recently expanded into working on Kierkegaard and Sartre. None of these historical figures are light reading in any sense of the term. Nietzsche was clearly the king of the abyss and suffered a horrifying debilitating illness which destroyed his mind and his body. Towards the end of his life, Husserl lost a son to the First World War and witnessed his rights dissolve as a Jewish intellectual in Germany. Kierkegaard struggled with his faith and anxiety throughout his life’s work. Sartre fought in the Second World War in the French Resistance and was notoriously bitter in his personal relationships. None of these figures are happy role models. A certain sadness produces good work, it would seem. That same certain sadness reflects on the page. I could, perhaps, “lighten up” and go towards lighter fare, work on thinkers who don’t reach such sad depths, but I don’t find much interest in such things. I instead stay the course in developing an ethics that looks right into horrible things that people do.

My depression drives me towards a weighted sense of responsibility and is the reason I work in philosophy and ethics.

But we do not want to talk about it in the Academy. Despair and anxiety are seen as more suitable on a dissection table in a sterile setting. Even if depression is what drives us towards prolific writing, we stay quiet on its daily presence. We speak instead of depression as the motive for past generations, holding off from any honesty about ourselves and our motivations today.

In my MA program, I had several interactions with other graduate students in philosophy with different approaches towards depression, but universally, it is treated as a shameful subject. Many act horribly insecure about their mental health, either secretive or, worse, bullying others who show any sign of depression, perceiving it like a weakness and those who evince it as prey.

I did speak with colleagues about my depression and anxiety. It hardly went well. One especially insecure classmate spoke with a nostalgia for the days when depression was called melancholia. In other words, he pined for the ‘good old days’ of misdiagnosis and mistreatment at the hands of deliberately ableist pseudoscience. Another former classmate who studies the intersections of psychoanalysis and philosophy quite hypocritically mocks anyone who is honest about their feelings. So moving forward, I buried mine.

Consequently, I let my depression take too much hold over me during this program. Things got particularly low when I faced a major setback in my studies at the very same time that I had a dramatic falling-out with some family members. My worsening depression alienated me from friends and colleagues. It fed itself. At the insistence of my spouse, I finally sought professional help which allowed me to put my depression and anxiety into a much more manageable condition. Even so, I stayed ashamed of my condition throughout my MA program. I avoided talking to anyone in my department about anything at all, let alone my depression.

At the point where I began antidepressants and laid off of drinking for a couple weeks to regulate, one of my classmates noticed. I mentioned that I was on a new medication; I did not mention what. He too gave that knowing and understanding look.

Both of us looked at each other knowing that we were struggling with the same condition, but saying nothing. Never did we say a thing about it.

There’s a certain intersubjective co-understanding here: the depressed recognize the depressed easily. But ashamed, we say nothing in fear of outing ourselves, admitting anything in honesty. Perhaps it was the program I was in, but insecurities ratcheted up and became more secret, more insecure and ready to explode.

Instead, I spoke to others outside of my department through internet communities that understand and employ an important sense of honesty regarding disability. It just wasn’t ‘proper’ to talk to those who I knew in my program.

All of this shaming stigma needs to stop. Academia, academic philosophy particularly, can get bad enough as a stressful environment. All of our insecurities already rest within the Ivory Tower itself, let alone even trying to stay within it. Impostor syndrome is rife, yet shame in mental illness is pervasive. At the very least, all this mental illness-shaming seems like a waste of time and energy. At the very worst, it creates a subculture of alienated, disillusioned individuals who cannot trust one another, or their own attempts to see the strength inherent in the hard work they invest in living – surviving – with depression.

Soon after the First World War and losing his son, Husserl wrote to Arnold Metzger that:

“You must have sensed that this ethos is genuine, because my writings, just as yours, are born out of need, out of an immense psychological need, out of a complete collapse in which the only hope is an entirely new life, a desperate, unyielding resolution to begin from the beginning and to go forth in radical honesty, come what may.”

Mental illness must be treated with a collective commitment to radical honesty that comes from recognizing our shared responsibility to ourselves and each other.

We academic philosophers must pick up this radical honesty when it comes to mental illness before collapse.

We need to look into our motivations more critically in order to live more ethically together. If we are to claim ourselves as a higher critical institution of people, we must open the discourse on mental health. This is not a call for sympathy, but for honesty among all parties involved in academia. Now, as I start a new PhD program, I am hoping to overcome oppressive silence with radical honesty, staying open before others and combating shaming stigma whenever I find it.

Source: On Critical Abyss-Gazing: Depression & Academic Philosophy