21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Towards a Taxonomy of Edgelands Literature

Raphael Kabo


Susan Sontag, in her 1969 work Styles of Radical Will, claimed that ‘there is no such thing as empty space. As long as a human eye is looking there is always something to see’ (10) – foreseeing with the simplicity of her statement a watershed moment in literary and cultural criticism, the spatial turn, the effects of which are still being comprehended and incorporated into the discourse of cultural theory today. As criticism focused its ‘human eye’ upon spatiality, certain spaces – much as certain temporalities in the long nineteenth century – were privileged above the rest. Others have needed to wait until the turn of the twenty-first century to gain their share of critical attention, edgelands chief among them. While the edgelands – the liminal zones where both city and rural fringe end – have recently gained a popular cachet, a critical understanding of their worth and cultural impact remains underdeveloped. This article argues that it is timely to promote a more holistic understanding of the edgelands in contemporary literature, and in so doing, to map the ever-shifting borders of a subversive, contemporary genre.



As long as there is a perceiving eye, there is no such thing as empty space.

[Image by Bradley Johnson under a CC BY-NC-ND license]


While the edgelands are becoming increasingly fashionable – the ‘urban exploration’ and ‘secret geography’ sections of many high street bookshops are filled with works on these zones – it is worthwhile to return briefly to their original definition in Marion Shoard’s  seminal 2002 essay, ‘‘Edgelands’’:

Often vast in area, though hardly noticed, it is characterised by rubbish tips and warehouses, superstores and derelict industrial plants, office parks and gypsy encampments, golf courses, allotments and fragmented, frequently scruffy, farmland. All these heterogeneous elements are arranged in an unruly and often apparently chaotic fashion against a background of unkempt wasteland frequently swathed in riotous growths of colourful plants, both native and exotic (117).

Shoard calls upon her readers to reassess the edgelands at a time when the overwhelming pressure of late capitalist modernity and the strategies of globalisation threaten to contract the universe from a heterogeneity of meanings to a single, homogenous moment. For Shoard, ‘town and country may show us the surface of life with which we feel comfortable, but the interface shows us its broiling depths. If people were encouraged to understand this world more, they might feel less alienated and puzzled by the circumstances of their lives’ (142).

Indeed, the edgelands remain a uniquely relational space. They are liminal, as liminality is understood by Thomassen: ‘This limit is not simply there: it is there to be confronted’ (21). These are spaces that exist on the margins of our collective consciousness, and demand – more than ever in the current, late capitalist moment – real engagement. Such an engagement is manifested through a wide variety of artistic and cognitive approaches, echoing the multiplicity integral to a liminal and subversive space. Thus, in the thirteen years since Shoard’s essay was written, the edgelands have been apprehended in literature by such heavyweights as Iain Sinclair (London Orbital, Ghost Milk), Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (Edgeland), and Nick Papadimitriou (Scarp), as well as by newer authors such as Gareth E. Rees (Marshland); in zines by Laura Oldfield Ford (Savage Messiah); in films by Patrick Keiller (Robinson in Space), Andrew Kötting and Iain Sinclair (Swandown); in music by Karl Hyde (Edgeland) as well as by mainstream musicians such as Arcade Fire (The Suburbs) and Lorde (Pure Heroine). Most of these works come from Britain, where the function and manifestation of the edgelands has been under interrogation, as reveals James Bird, since the 1930s (101-2) – however, the edgelands are a truly universal spatiality, existing in every liminal urban zone, requiring further exploration within a cross-cultural, cross-spatial framework.


Country and City

Edgelands – liminal zones where both city and rural fringe end

[Image by Paolo Margari under a CC BY license]


Much as the edgelands have been explored in a variety of genres and forms, each author treats the zone itself differently. In London Orbital, Sinclair wonders if the edgelands of London’s M25 corridor are a ‘grim necklace‘ or a ‘tourniquet … to choke the living breath from the metropolis’ (3), though in Ghost Milk, his stance has softened, and as he flees from the ‘theme park without a theme’ (11), the London Olympic Games development in the Lea Valley, he finds himself in unexplored edgelands, contemplating that ‘Walking where there is nothing familiar, nothing to stimulate personal memory, we are not ourselves; we must begin afresh, and that is the excitement’ (131). Indeed, for Farley and Symmons Roberts in Edgelands, ‘these unobserved parts of our shared landscape‘ are ‘places of possibility, mystery, beauty‘ (6). While Edgelands is a work of Romantic, poetic ruminations, Ford’s Savage Messiah zine project stems from her hope for more active political engagement in the edgelands, so that in exploring these resistant zones, ‘one might find the truth, new territories might be opened, there might be a rupturing of this collective amnesia’ (xvi). For Win Butler of Arcade Fire, the edgelands take on a mythical, nostalgic tenor – a childhood home where ‘Dead shopping malls/Rise like mountains beyond mountains’. Patrick Keillor, in Robinson in Space, sees them as a space of flows, both for the necessities of the hypermodern urban machine, and for the psychogeographical wanderings of his two mysterious characters.

This breadth of creative approaches signals that the edgelands are best apprehended as a thirdspace, described by Edward Soja as a ‘disorderly, unruly, constantly evolving, unfixed’ conceptualisation of possible space (70). For Soja, thirdspace must be articulated as a trialectic, a third argument extended from an existing binary (Self/Other, Traveller/Landscape), which provides a conceptual framework while allowing freedom to explore the manifold possibilities produced when existing paradigms are destroyed (5-6). As a thirdspace, the edgelands are definitionally resistant to simplifying and homogenising overwritings, and are therefore a space where multiplicity is not only present, but where multiplicity is the only effective mode of engagement. When text is taken as a focus, this multiplicity is, furthermore, not uni-directional: at the same time as space shapes the heterogeneous form of the text which describes it, the heterogeneous text reshapes and informs the space. Crucially, this discourse is polyphonic, with neither text nor space overwriting the other, but creating a unified text/space as the product of their discourse.

In the light of the radical heterogeneity of edgeland space, an attempt to create a taxonomy of its manifestations – even while limiting oneself to literature – seems a counterintuitive task. However, the recent movement of literary geocriticism, developed by Bernard Westphal in France and Robert T. Tally Jr. in the USA, provides a strategy that balances the innate heterogeneity of the edgelands with a formal understanding of contemporary literature. Westphal describes geocriticism foremost as an interdisciplinary field, taking cues from ‘literary studies, geography, urbanism and architecture, with pathways to sociology and anthropology’ (xiv). It is by nature outward-looking, taking space as its primary subject, rather than focusing on the Self/Other relation which has preoccupied literary theory in the last decades. Furthermore, and perhaps with the goal of avoiding further limitations as its purview expands, Westphal underscores that geocritical writing should be polysensous, diversifying critique to include not only sight, but all senses, and spatiotemporal, by locating place in ‘a temporal depth in order to uncover or discover multilayered identities’ and highlight ‘temporal variability of heterogeneous spaces’ (xiv-xv). Far from being an essentialising school, geocriticism embraces the inherent multiplicity of thirdspace, both material and textual.



Iain Sinclair’s novel London Orbital considers the ‘grim necklace’ of the M25. 

[Image by highwaysengland under a CC BY license]


Taking its cue from geocriticism, and developed in a comparative analysis of both the literary texts mentioned above and other popular edgelands-conscious books, a guiding taxonomy of the recurring elements of edgelands literature follows:

1. Formal flexibility. As a genre which embraces fluidity and multiplicity, edgelands literature is defined by a natural heterogeneity of form. Publishers have struggled with appropriate categorisations of edgelands texts – Farley and Symmons Roberts’ Edgelands is classed by Jonathan Cape as ‘Literature/Travel writing’; Sinclair’s London Orbital by Penguin as ‘Travel writing’, while Granta declines to give it a classification, as does Influx Press with Rees’ Marshland. In an article for The Quietus, Rees notes that there exists ‘a category of work in which the fusion of fictional and non-fictional forms is not an experiment but a fundamental mode of communication: a key to accessing a deeper truth about human existence’. Citing a coterie of authors whose work refuses to be demarcated by simplistic formal and generic categories (including his own), Rees claims that since human experience of place is ‘historical, geographical, topographical, sonic, visual, emotional, anecdotal, and many other things besides’, readers and authors should ‘ditch the labels altogether and embrace that uncategorisable writing which lingers outside the walled garden of literary fiction’ (n.p.). Edgelands literature is unquestionably part of this trend.

2. Psychogeographic modes. Naturally, the space of the edgelands lies at the definitional centre of the texts associated with it. The agent of much edgelands literature is not the human, but the constant interplay between the human and the landscape, between mind and space. In favouring a narrative built from the psychological effects of space on the traveller, this genre seeks to put discourse at the forefront – as is characteristic of the most creative of psychogeographical explorations – rather than any single agent or even any single space.



The agent of much edgelands literature is not the human, but the constant interplay between the human and the landscape.

[Image by John Perivolaris under a CC BY-NC-ND license]


3. Transgressivity. In Geocriticism, Westphal writes: ‘Transgression is not just crossing porous boundary lines. It assumes a closed and striated space and a will to penetrate, which the state apparatus … establishes as a form of burglary’ (42). By nature, the edgelands are liminal – they only ever exist on the margins of the urban, and are rarely permanently inhabited except by marginal figures such as sex workers and Romanichals, and so, any journey there is a border crossing: a transgression. The importance of transgressive movement in edgelands literature is evident from the subtitles of a number of books in the genre: Papadimitriou’s Scarp: In Search of London’s Outer Limits; Sinclair’s London Orbital: A Walk around the M25; Farley and Symmons Roberts’ Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness; W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn: An English Pilgrimage. Furthermore, the edgelands are the location of Augé’s non-places and Baudrillard’s simulacra, the foundations of supermodernity. In adopting the strategies of psychogeography, and in exploring spaces perceived by the literary establishment as the domain of low culture (or absent culture), the edgelands genre subverts and resists the goals of late capitalist society.

4. Relational author. The edgelands genre is paradoxical in that it favours the spatial over the human, and yet, due to its close links with the reflexive strategies of psychogeography, the author or narrator of an edgelands text can never be far away from the space within which they are travelling (transgressing). Authorial perception seems to dominate the text, and so, eclipses the space itself. A solution is proposed by geocriticism: in putting space at the centre of its argument, this critical mode shifts the author or narrator to the position of the Other, thereby bringing together ‘a series of representations of the Other, an Other to be embraced in its relation to the space within which it operates’ (Westphal 116-117). This Other does not have the classical relation of space to traveller – it is not monological or stative, but relational, and governed by interaction. This relationality is reminiscent of the argument of thirdspace in its breaking down of Self/Other and Traveller/Landscape binaries. Furthermore, when a group of texts is examined together, as in a genre formation, singular relationalities are avoided in favour of a polyphonic discourse: ‘There is no doubt that if the space is perceived and represented by more than one writer, it will be recentered (thus, geocentred)’, concludes Westphal (117). This recentered Weltanschauung is at the heart of the edgelands and their text.

When analysing this taxonomy, it is crucial to keep in mind that edgelands literature has gained fresh impulse and a new, cohesive identity from spatialities and modes of thinking so contemporary that modern society is still searching for appropriate names to codify them. It is precisely this that gives edgelands literature its strange and marvellous force: resistance to codification, limitation and delineation is an inherent part of its makeup, so that whatever formal approach is applied to the edgelands and their spatiotextual realisations, they will always be identifiable precisely by their multiplicity. To borrow the discourse of bell hooks, the edgelands, in their perpetual, heterogeneous marginality, are ‘a space of radical openness’ (145). Due to this unique and powerful position, these zones, rather than the city and countryside which have dominated our understanding of space for the past decades, may be the most important space of contemporary existence – an existence derived as much from the chaotic and creative spaces in-between as from the ordered and rationalised centre. It is my hope with the publication of this article that a critical conversation about the importance of the edgelands can begin in earnest. In my next article for Alluvium I will return to this topic, focusing on the radical heterogeneity of Gareth E. Rees’ Marshland, and discussing the potential such books hold for changing popular opinions of the these liminal spaces.


CITATION: Raphael Kabo, "Towards a Taxonomy of Edgelands Literature," Alluvium, Vol. 4, No. 3 (2015): n. pag. Web. 26 June 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v4.3.01


Raphael Kabo is a postgraduate student, performance poet, and writer. He completed his undergraduate degree at the Australian National University and is about to embark on an MA in English Literature at King's College London with the support of a King's President's Scholarship. His work examines the relationships between contemporary subversive literature, spatiality, psychogeography, and urban existence, with a particular interest in the spatialities of contemporary protest literature from the UK and beyond.


Works Cited:

Arcade Fire. The Suburbs. 2010. Merge. Audio (CD).

Farley, Paul, and Symmons Roberts, Michael. Edgeland: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness. London: Jonathan Cape, 2011.

Ford, Laura Oldfield. Savage Messiah. Introduced by Mark Fisher. London: Verso, 2011.

hooks, bell. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Toronto: Between the Lines Books, 1990.

Rees, Gareth E. ‘Writing a Deep Map: Non-Fiction's Challenge to the Contemporary Novel’. The Quietus. November 24, 2013, accessed October 2014, http://thequietus.com/articles/13961-deep-map-gareth-rees-marshlands.

Shoard, Marion. “Edgelands.” In Remaking the Landscape: The Changing Face of Britain, edited by Jennifer Jenkins, 117-146. London: Profile Books, 2002.

Sinclair, Iain. Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project. London: Penguin, 2012. First edition, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011.

Sinclair, Iain. London Orbital: A Walk around the M25. London: Granta, 2002.

Soja, Edward W. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Malden: Blackwell, 1996.

Sontag, Susan. Styles of Radical Will. New York: Picador, 2002.

Thomassen, Bjørn. “Revisiting Liminality: The Danger of Empty Spaces.” In Liminal Landscapes: Travel, Experience and Spaces In-between, edited by Hazel Andrews and Les Roberts, 21-35. Abingdon: Routledge, 2012.

Westphal, Bertrand. Geocritical Explorations: Space, Place and Mapping in Literary and Cultural Studies. Edited by Robert T. Tally Jr. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.



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