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.











Created with RNI Films app. Preset 'Kodak Portra 160'






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.

7 thoughts on “Middenstead

  1. 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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  2. 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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    1. 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…


  3. 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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  4. 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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