Mudlarking on the Thames: An exploration of the meaning behind things disposed of and disposable
Waste, or Discard Studies is a growing field of enquiry that has emerged from a range of disciplines, including Environmental Studies, Post-Modernism, Consumerism, Anthropology, and Literature. The central theme across these disciplines is the examination of definitions of waste; what is thrown away and why.
The premise of such an examination is that the things you (personally or as a culture) throw away – what you dispose from your life – defines you just as much as the things you keep.
This is a notion that, in the wider context of Discard Studies, extends to important contemporary topics: social policy, refugees, welfare, employment (and the concept of work), consumerism, capitalism, the environment. Microcosmically, this can also be applied to private-sphere structures and support systems: notions of family, relationships, communities, lovers, friends.
Both levels can find meaning or metaphor in the form of an unwanted or lost object.
Domestic waste items invariably end up in a space of phenomenological exile, areas on the outskirts of what might be deemed home: landfills, ditches, gutters. Or else, they are submerged in seas, swamps, and rivers. In these places, exiled objects are periodically found again, and sometimes even searched for.
‘Mudlarking’ is a term for such an activity. In Victorian times, a mudlark was a riverside scavenger, driven by poverty to seek financial gain or sustenance from tidal scraps and surpluses such as coal, metal, and coins.
Nowadays, mudlarks see themselves as ‘treasure hunters’, finding dearness in the unlikeliest of debris, from false teeth, dolls heads and buttons to broken plates and bottles. What is “mostly rubbish”, – that is, something likely to be broken or surplus, and thus deliberately thrown away because it no longer serves a purpose or has a use – is, for a modern mudlarker, a gem.
Such a stance shows similar sympathies to the French Surrealists, who defined ‘waste’ items as objets trouvés (found objects). To them, the fact that discarded objects demonstrated no financial or functional value did not make them purposeless. Rather, their ‘wasted-ness’ – their emptiness – left them open to interpretation and multiple meanings.
It is with these aspects in mind that I want to discuss the notion of value and non-value (alongside emptiness and fullness) in waste, through the lens of objets trouvés that – by chance or design – are thrown from the home or the self into the Thames.
These are things that can be shored up, appearing anything from decades to hundreds or thousands of years since they were last seen, held, or used. They are things that are found on the foreshore, which is a place “between high- and low-water marks”, thus only visible and accessible at low-tide. As such, it is a sort of ‘magic’ temporary space from which the remnants of everyday living and trading of London past can return.
The charm is derived from this very notion. Because the Thames mud is anaerobic, it provides an oxygen-free environment which keeps anything within it intact.
These objects – mostly mundane and quotidian – are thus preserved relics from a time that is gone.
The magic that a mudlark can forge from everyday things – domestic items for domestic lives – indicates how an objets trouvé can conjure beauty from the prosaic. This beauty is rooted in the sense of personal connection; mudlarkers frequently speak of the thrill in holding something that no-one else has held for hundreds of years, the window it offers into people’s lives, a reminder of the fleetingness of life in which so little is left behind.
In this way, the physical intimacy of false teeth, and the emotional intimacy of love tokens are both a kind of communion with others across time; the lonely inner worlds we inhabit within the boundaries of a shared physical space.
But it also shows how these two spaces of inner and outer worlds awkwardly co-exist, never fully meeting to depict one clear, identifiable story or truth.
Things that have found their way to the Thames, whether that be flotsam (something dumped) or jetsam (something lost), may be relics of history, but they generally do not come with their own history; the story of how they arrived there.
And it would be easy to regard anything used-up, emptied or broken to be ‘useless’, and to have been thrown away for this reason. Similarly, something pretty, personal or personalised (like a medal or a necklace) might be more quickly regarded instead to be ‘lost’ (see for example, the consideration of the ‘tiny Tudor treasure hoard’ found in the Thames a few years ago).
Both types however, are merely objects at the bottom of the Thames that are open to interpretation, and both could be something deliberately cast off.
Waste, from this point of view, is a dynamic of ‘out’ and ‘in’. Something can be discarded because, from a functional perspective, it is emptied of meaning. But it could also be thrown away for the opposite reason, in which from an emotional perspective, it is full of meaning. A ring, a diary, or a photo, for example. Or less figuratively, a message in a bottle.
These things may be dispensed with as part of a ritual, a symbolic declaration, or simply a sudden, swiftly regretted impulse. From a psychological perspective (the psychology of ‘stuff’), the driver of this kind of throwing away is the urge to expel something beyond the object, something intangible and invisible.
In this way, the object fulfils a different purpose, in which the very act of being discarded is its point of utility. The object absorbs the intangible, emotional parts of human experience (themselves often broken ones; a love, a hope, a dream) and gives these experiences a place to live.
Such an object is not so much a manifestation of an emotional landscape. Rather, as a reification of the emotional world (to validate it and make it something of substance), it is a receptacle; something that can house this world.
In making an emotional landscape something physical and dually allowing it to belong somewhere physical, it can also be physically parted from. In this way, it can be emptied out of heart and mind, where it no longer belongs. This then is a kind of psychic transaction between person and object – an approach sometimes used in grief therapy.
When considering the potential for this type of meaning in any object, it is possible to believe that the part that is thrown away is not necessarily that which is valued least, or is valueless.
Rather, its cost – whether as cast off, a fragment, or something lost – cannot be known.
And, as the French surrealists would argue, therein lies its ultimate creative potential. Its story occurs at whatever time it is able to tide up to the surface, ready to be found and able to be seen – not as disposable – but as a gem.
Ready once more to find a home, or perhaps, to something or someone, be one.