Middenstead. The ‘place where a dunghill is formed’. This is the dust-heap, the rubbish pile, the flecked land of litter and waste. Here we find the discarded; the despoiled; the contaminated and the forgotten. These are spaces we shun or, more passively, we fail to see. They flicker at the margins of sight. For Shoard, the edgelands — the industrial, wasteland areas between town centre and country — are the ‘repositories for functions we prefer not to think about’ (Shoard, 2000).
And the liminal is a tainted land. Mary Douglas, in her analysis of societal attitudes towards dirt and pollution, observes how the blurred and contradictory are regarded as unclean (Douglas, 1966). There is a stain to that which cannot be categorised. This violation of boundaries disorientates and subverts. We crave clarity and the liminal resists our desires. And the result? Nausea, perhaps, disgust, revulsion.
In a fascinating study of filth, liminality and abjection in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, Robert Lougy views the novel as ‘congested with slime’ (Lougy, 2002). With relish he describe Krook’s spontaneous combustion as ‘extraordinarily slimy’. His body is rendered — literally — to ‘black fat’, ‘a thick, yellow liquor’ and a ‘stagnant, sickening oil’. And slime is, undoubtedly, a liminal substance. Neither liquid nor solid, it both flows and adheres. For Sartre, the slimy offers ‘a horrible image’. It is an ‘aberrant fluid’. A something in-between; a something that is a non-thing (Sartre, 1973).
And the rubbish of the middenstead is also betwixt and between. Materially, it disintegrates from what it was to what it will become. Bottle, can and bag — all fade, splinter and decay. And, spatially too, the middenstead, this realm of the unwanted and the consumed, is consigned to the margins. As I walk the local lanes, the middenstead is all around me. In the hedges, on the verges, by the styles. For many this litter is shameful, a taint that must be removed. Diligent volunteers, tabarded in luminescent yellow, painstakingly and enthusiastically remove each polluted item from its lair.
Yet, is there perhaps not strange beauty and mystery here too? For there is agency in every can and wrapper discarded. And where there is agency, we sense causation, plot and narrative. Who was drinking from the bottle of Budweiser discarded half a mile from any road? What were they doing there? Were they alone? Why were they drinking: celebration, relaxation — or a forgetting? And, occasionally, these items seem not abandoned, renounced nor forsaken, but carefully offered. Placed with care and devotion — strange and curious gifts to Gods we will never know.
And the land is not indifferent to these votive goods. It embraces and covets. It envelops in greenery and growth, claiming each item as its own. For the land is jealous and guards what is given to it. It consumes what we discard. And who are we to deny what it desires.
Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and danger: an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. Routledge.
Lougy, Robert, E. (2002) ‘Filth, liminality, and abjection in Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House”‘, ELH, 69(2), pp. 473-500.
Sartre, Jean Paul. (1973) Being and nothingness: a phenomenological essay on ontology. Washington Square Press.
Shoard, M. (2000) ‘Edgelands of promise’, Landscapes, 2 (August), pp. 74-93
Wedlich, S. (2019) Das buch vom Schleim. Matthes & Seitz.
All illustrations, Ian Rodwell. South Norfolk, December 2019 – March 2020.
8 thoughts on “Middenstead”
Part of the liminal quality is how the world accepts what humans reject. Most people see the trash as out of place or as a sign of degradation or pollution. But plants, insects and animals don’t care, don’t see a bottle or wrapper as anything different than a rock, or leaf. In nature, it all merges together and human debris is slowly reabsorbed into the natural world, even if in some cases it may take a million years to fully break down.
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Yes, it’s the indiscriminate indifference of the natural world to the things it encounters. Thank you!
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Two thoughts. It seems to me that Krook is reduced to the basics of his ‘Humours’ especially yellow bile and black bile.
And as any younger child and their parents has come to know, slime is so delightful that there are myriad recipes online to make it. There is a delightful revulsion in squishyness. Like liminality itself, it invites and repels.
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@Katie Bradford – I had similar thoughts when I read that part. I’d add some context. Humoralism, in relationship to purity and pollution, has been tied up with diet. Diet became an obsession in the 1800s and it was often informed by Galenic though, but there was also much writing on humors and diet going back the middle ages.
The medieval Church Christianized humoral theory in order to apply it toward social control, in terms of perceived good and bad behavior. For example, red meat was believed to increase the ‘blood’ leading to aggression, violence, and the body burning up. So, authorities enforced regular fasting where fish was eaten instead and had edicts to ban eating red meat prior to Carnival to avoid riots and revolts.
Dickens certainly wrote much about food. It was framed in terms of health, poverty, and oppression. The 1800s was a time when agriculture was being modernized, during which urbanization and industrialization were transforming society. There also were concerns about adulterated (impure) foods, such as chalk, sawdust and worse being added as fillers to bread.
I noticed that, in this post, how much of the trash in liminal spaces is packaging for food. With industrialization, packaged food was sold as being pure, clean, and safe. it’s an expression of a desire to live in a controlled world. It’s interesting that the detritus of this controlled food system ends up at the margins of society, outside of control.
About religion, consider how many prophets, monks, and mystics lived at the edge of society or in the wilderness. And that makes me think about Philip K. Dick’s God in the gutter. That God gets thrown out with garbage, lost amidst the refuse. The liminal has often been associated with the spiritual, supernatural, and monstrous.
Click to access SteereWilliams_umn_0130E_11991.pdf
“This is what “unclean” food really is: something discarded, literally dirty, eaten by an unloved, unfed and illiterate child at the door of an organisation whose charitable gaze skips over him to rest on “the precious souls among the coco-nuts and bread-fruit”. […]
“Dickens’s magazine, Household Words, amplified the campaigns of the day against bad food, spearheaded by the medical journal the Lancet, which found every one of 49 bread samples to be adulterated with at best inferior flour, at worst sulphate of lime and alum.
“Even after the Food Adulteration Acts of 1872 and 1875, the cookbook writer Theodore Garrett was warning readers against an alphabet of horrors, from the relatively benign, such as mustard husks in allspice, to the life-threatening sulphuric acid and lead in vinegar. Mayhew reported that out-of-date “Newcastle pickled salmon” was often flogged at public houses to the “Lushingtons” who, pickled themselves, wouldn’t notice its taint, just as the oft-pickled Mrs Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit, invites her friend, Betsey Prig, to a tea of “two pounds of Newcastle salmon, intensely pickled”. Meat could be anything. As Sam Weller says, unpacking a picnic: “Wery good thing is weal pie, when you know the lady as made it, and is quite sure it ain’t kittens.”
“Dickens was appalled by the way livestock was treated and the corruption of dealers who sold the flesh of diseased animals. He wrote for Household Words on the cruelty, noise and filth of Britain’s urban livestock markets. For the ironically titled essay “A Monument of French Folly” he visited the suburban slaughter houses in Paris to report on the more humane, quiet and clean arrangements where the work was done with “plenty of room; plenty of time”.”
Thank you, Katie. I hadn’t thought of Krook as reduced to his ‘Humours’ before and I rather like that analysis. You could argue that the whole of London in Bleak House is reduced to elemental components: fog, mud, rain and dirt. And everything obscures, conceals and distorts. As for ‘delightful revulsion’, I suspect Sartre himself would have appreciated that turn of phrase…
Here is an extension of my previous comment. I mentioned the type of people who live at the margins of society, along with all else that good society throws way or banishes. In the past and to some degree in the present, this included hermits, the homeless, widows, orphans, criminals, the insane, the sick, etc. That touches upon biopolitics, but I don’t want to get into that.
Who else was found beyond the bounds of the acceptable? There were also the Barbarians. The ultimate expression of this in European fears were the Mongol hordes. What did the mongols eat? A diet largely based on red meat and lots of it. Rather than being heavy on carbs, their diet tended toward the ketogenic, especially with fasting. They were the polar opposite of the malnourished and oppressed peasantry.
Those early Mongols lacked central governments. Even their military, under Genghis Khan, was decentralized. To the European ruling class, the very idea of the Mongols was a threat. And the fact that the Mongols were so powerful and had such amazing stamina, being able to go days without food while traveling on horseback, made them formidable enemies. They were unclean and dangerous.
Dietary ideology as social control was important for creating a new kind of agricultural and urban society. Keep in mind that ubanization for Europeans began in the 1300s with the enclosure movement that evicted the peasants from the Commons. As humoral theory made clear, this wasn’t only about control of populations but control of minds and behavior.
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I accidentally posted my comment before I was finished. This was also a pushing further away the liminal, by expanding the territory of civilization, both the physical territory and psychological territory. The liminal was banished further away, along with all that exists within the liminal. It was the creation of a new mindset that we have since inherited. And in our inheritance, we forget what came before.
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