Reimagining Campus Space: Fantasy as Social Practice

There is no place that is not haunted by many different spirits hidden there in silence, spirits one can “invoke” or not. Haunted places are the only ones people can live in—and this inverts the scheme of the Panopticon. — Michel de Certeau,The Practice of Everyday Life

“…fantasy is now a social practice.” —Arjun Appadurai, “Global Ethnoscapes”

“Under this rock there is $20.00.”

In his book, The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau describes how the tactics of everyday life resist the strategic efforts of individuals and organizations that exert power over us. Despite the best managerial planning and effort, however, he argues that human beings ultimately can only live in spaces that they have made human through everyday habitation. A key aspect of this is his emphasis on narrative—stories, myths, and memories—that make places meaningful.

This semester in my Pilgrims, Travelers and Tourists class we have spent quite a chunk of time discussing the stories of tourism. How tourism narrates space creates value, but the stories it recounts and the representations it disseminates do not necessarily need to be related to the everyday lives of people in the locations it colonizes with meaning. We discussed essays from Susan Stewart on souvenirs and De Certeau on “spatial practices”.

Last week, during a class conversation that ranged widely across readings from many weeks, we got to discussing the way that the space on our campus demonstrates the exchange between “everyday uses” by members of the university community, and the strategies for controlling and policing those activities. If humans crave meaning and, as De Certeau claims, need to live in places that are “haunted” by human meaning, then wouldn’t the neutralization of everyday practice affect the sense of community or feeling that the campus was authentically “our” place?

When he writes, De Certeau clearly seems to assume that the stories that make places meaningful are real in the daily lives of the people that live there. They are historically significant and organically result from of the everyday buildup of meanings as people go about their lives.

Yet, in our class we have seen many cases where the narratives of tourism create meanings and values—to satisfy the desires of tourists—that are virtually unrelated to the local social and physical geography of the place. Stories don’t have to be locally true to be meaningful to tourists. Fantasy is a social practice.

“A giant invisible mushroom is suspended 100ft above this spot.” Photo by Brian Hoffman. Used with permission.

So, since it is nearing the end of the semester, and like my students I was feeling the need for some work that would get us out of the classroom, I thought we would play around with with the space of the campus—renarrating the geography of the campus with fantastical stories. What if we came to campus and instead of the same old neutral spaces of lawn and sidewalk, or the meaningless movement across these spaces from class to class, we imagined something different? What if there was treasure beneath the lawn, invisible magic mushrooms suspended in the air or places where dragons and heroes were born?

The students agreed it would be a fun exercise and last Thursday at the end of class we took a few minutes for folks to come up with one sentence narratives that would say something about a space. On Friday I went to buy stakes at the local hardware store, printed the signs and had them laminated. Yesterday in class everyone assembled their signs.

This morning sometime around 9am the twenty-three signs will appear in designated locations around campus. At the end of the day they will be removed. Next week they will reappear for a day, and then be removed a second time. Yesterday when we left class, everyone was very excited to try this out and see how it is received,

One additional note that everyone in class certainly enjoyed—and proved part of De Certeau’s point. Our use of campus space for this activity had to be scheduled with the Office of Space Management.

The signs read:

    1. On this spot, if you listen closely, you can hear the wind telling songs and stories of dragons.
    2. You will be assimilated here within your lifetime. Resistance is futile.
    3. 37 seconds ago, Jimmy Johns made a delivery to this location.
    4. On this spot you can still hear the Piper clap of our Hamline ancestors.
    5. 30 feet below this spot there are remains of an ancient Viking warship.
    6. Beneath this building, in an underground warehouse, the Canadian government houses used Mounties’ uniforms.
    7. If you can read this, you are standing precariously close to radioactive material.
    8. Here you can hear the call of the wild.
    9. The answers for the Calc I final are buried here, five meters under the ground.
    10. If you remove your shoes, on this spot, ants will carry you to their hill.
    11. On this spot on December 21, 2012 zombies will walk the earth, and the human race will be all gone.
    12. On this spot, 5 feet below, Bishop Leonidas Hamline’s pet rat “Patches” is buried.
    13. On this spot, in 1782, famed explorer Sir William the Bearded was born.
    14. Under this rock there is $20.00.
    15. Stand here and look up to see Justin Bieber.
    16. This is the spot where the authentic Titanic sank.
    17. It happens here. 3:27 p.m.
    18. On this spot, a Hamline student was robbed at gunpoint.
    19. On this spot the 1st and 2nd rule of Fight Club were broken.
    20. In 2129 this will be the only square meter of Earth in which smoking is allowed.
    21. Babe the Blue Ox was turned into delicious hamburgers at this location in 1966.
    22. A giant invisible mushroom is suspended 100ft above this spot.
    23. On this spot in 2032, humans will make first contact with aliens from another world.

Here is a link to a Flickr set with most of the images.

**UPDATE: Foucault Wins Round One

So this morning I set out, with camera in hand, to take photos of my students setting up their signs around campus. I ran into one who had clearly just crawled out of bed to put hers up. Others began to pop up as I rounded buildings and walked through campus. It was a nice pleasant spring morning and the students were clearly enjoying the project—actually claiming space on campus themselves by sinking their stake into the ground.

I received an e-mail from a student which read:

Dr. Davies,
I just put out my sign.  And I’m giggling.  Anthropology is so fun.
Have a grand day,  Angela

In front of the library, I saw a student read the sign about Justin Bieber (#15, above) and actually look up into the air…twice.

“Stand here and look up to see Justin Bieber”

Walking back by the library a few minutes later I noticed the sign had disappeared!  The class had anticipated that a few signs might be taken by students, but when I noticed others suddenly missing I got worried. Not 25 meters away a campus security car was parked with one of my students peering in the window.  As I approached to say “hello,” she responded to me that she got “busted.”

Let me repeat, within ten minutes of its official start, campus security began removing the signs—clearing the space of the offending narratives and neutralizing their effect—returning the campus to “normal”.

Needless to say, I was incensed. People who know me, know that I don’t get angry very often. When I challenged the security officer he responded that he was “following orders”—the communications director had seen an offending sign and told security to remove all of them. When I replied that it was an official class activity and that I had even gone through the office of space management, security, the dean and grounds—he responded that he “didn’t care” about the assignment or the students.


Anyway, I went to see the head of communications and asked her why she unilaterally decided to censor my class activity. Her response was that there was a sign in front of our administration building that she found “offensive” and that was “not true”. It was sign number 18, “On this spot, a Hamline student was robbed at gunpoint.” She was concerned how people outside the university would read the statement—that it was a negative comment about the university.

Sure, that is certainly one of the more threatening narratives of the set, but it is within the guidelines of the assignment. It was overtly a fictional narrative and certianly did evoke a sense of meaning in that space. I might even add that narratives of danger and risk were underrepresented in the students’ narratives. Regardless, it would be wrong of me to censor a student’s classwork. Interestingly, the head of communications basically implied that I should have done exactly that, commenting that the student had “taken advantage” of the assignment.  She was also upset that “we” didn’t understand the purpose of the assignment or what it means.  I replied that she was not in the class and that “I never give the answers before I give the test.”

I won’t bore anyone with any more of the details of our exchange, because they really are not important. The whole experience, however, does suggest some interesting interpretations.  Some that come to mind include:

    1. Finding something “offensive” can become its own rationale for censorship.
    2. Policies and procedures may be ignored in the face of “following orders” from above.
    3. Image management may be more important than education.
    4. Pushing the boundaries is what professors encourage students to do, but this clearly may be at odds with other interests within the university.
    5. Rather than evoke curiosity, which is a goal of education, something that is not easily understood might simply be summarily removed.
    6. Despite the marketing cliche of “teaching outside the box”—it may be the case that the box is where some believe the product should be delivered.
    7. Even the most harmless class activity may be misread.
    8. The limits for reimagining campus space are narrowly confined.
    9. Even fantasy can lead to real effects.

Anyway, after standing my ground on behalf of my students and the assignment, I took the signs back and returned them to the places they had been taken from. I did not find sign #18, however, so the censorship stands.

It would appear that Foucault won round one.

“This is the spot where the authentic Titanic sank.”


  1. Jessica

    This is fantastic. I really wasn’t expecting a response which so perfectly demonstrated “the grid” managing our space, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I can’t wait to see what happens when we put the signs back up next week.


    • Yes, I was actually really surprised how quickly “the cleanup” of offending narratives began–again remarkable because we are a university that takes pride in our teaching. None of the “cleaning crew” exhibited even the slighest bit of curiousity about what was actually going on. Our communications office and security office unintentionally proved de Certeau’s point.

      And to think some students feel professors waste their time with theories that aren’t useful in “real life.” ‘Nuff said!


  2. Brian

    Great assignment. Here’s my story. I stopped to read Sign #11 “On this spot on December 21, 2012 zombies will walk the earth, and the human race will be all gone.” Immediately the emergency sirens went off all across campus – it was 1 PM and time to test the warning system. There was even a muffled voice on a loud speaker providing some instruction that I could not understand. I had this surreal feeling that the zombies were here early and unfortunately I was going to be one of the first to die because I couldn’t understand the instructions on how to escape. Damn HU and its crappy sound system.


  3. evangelina K.

    It’d be pretty interesting to find out what the outcome of this assignment was…

    (I take it there’s no kind of ‘offensive’ graffiti adorning the walls / halls / benches of your educational insitution?)


  4. Pingback: Simulating Victor Turners Liminal of Pilgrimage on Campus | Museum Fatigue

  5. Pingback: Haunting the Campus, Making Spaces | Museum Fatigue

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