Mariah Min: Character and Race in Medieval Literature

Published December 8, 2021

Mariah Min’s research examines medieval materials through modern lenses in the effort to shed new light on the past while simultaneously refining current scholarly methods. Her book manuscript, “Figure Writing: Technologies of Character in Medieval Literature,” explores characterization in medieval texts and the ways in which authors employ it for ideological ends rather than purely psychological depiction. In this Q&A, she considers the fascination that the biblical figure Judas Iscariot held for medieval authors, the intertwining of characterization and racialization in medieval texts, the notion of disidentification, and the power and limits of solitude. She is a Postdoctoral Fellow in International Humanities in the Department of English, the Program in Medieval Studies, and the Cogut Institute for the Humanities.

Can you retrace the origin of your interest in character creation and the process of racialization in medieval literature? How did you become a medievalist?

At the heart of both these questions, I suppose, is the figure of Judas Iscariot. I like him a lot. That might sound facile, but it actually underlies much of why medieval depictions of Judas are so multifaceted; there is an affective pull to this character that exists in tension with the contours of his biblical career. I was drawn to the study of medieval literature after encountering the wildly varied ways in which he is portrayed in reimaginings of biblical material. I was intrigued that the cultural suffusion of Christianity in the Latin West did not function to ossify one of its most notorious villains, but rather, led to a proliferation of interpretations in which Judas could play any number of different roles as the text required of him.

I was intrigued that the cultural suffusion of Christianity in the Latin West did not function to ossify one of its most notorious villains, but rather, led to a proliferation of interpretations in which Judas could play any number of different roles as the text required of him.

The medieval depiction of Judas runs a fascinating gamut; from text to text, he might be anything from an embodiment of antisemitic fantasy to a despairing soul that inspires heretical levels of compassion from the reader. Can there be a happy ending for a character that Christian orthodoxy has pronounced damned? Even for the medieval writers who do not go so far as to view him with compassion or empathy, Judas often holds an intellectual pull that prompts them to question what his betrayal means for doctrinal issues of penitence, despair, and mercy. Can there be a sinner so sinful that even God cannot forgive him? He is, in a sense, complicated; not in the way that a human being is complicated, but in the way that several jigsaw puzzles all thrown together into the same box are complicated to piece together in the aftermath. As with puzzles, what medieval writers — and I — enjoy is the difficulty of sifting through the mess.

Judas in the moment of betrayal, UPenn Ms. Codex 1566, fol. 29v

But if the medieval Judas is a rich tapestry of all these different versions of Judas, might it not suggest that a character might be a product of the narrative that surrounds them, rather than something from which a narrative is produced? The pursuit of this question led me to explore how several instantiations of Judas — even when he does not appear to be in possession of the kind of self-consistent psychology that modern readers value in a character — achieve specific effects in the service of the narratives that produce him. My project has since evolved to address the formation of medieval literary characters other than Judas, but as mentioned above, Judas is deeply enmeshed with the history of Christian antisemitism; accordingly, examining the process of racialization is an inextricable part of examining Judas in the Middle Ages.

You argue against a conception of characters as “linguistic representations of human psychology.” What is the relationship between the creation of characters and the process of racialization?

I see these two processes as being mutually constitutive. A character can be racialized, and the end result of racialization can often be a particular type of character (a racial stereotype). Character informs racialization, and race informs characterization. This mutual informing is possible due to a shared commonality; a character and a racialized figure are both formed out of the motivated assemblage of details. They are deliberate constructions that do not achieve — and, I would argue, do not aspire to — the mimetic representation of human beings. They are built for something, and the hand doing the building is attached to the long arm of power. Characterization is a consequence of the distribution of power in textual narratives, which mirrors racialization as a consequence of the distribution of power in social narratives.

Do you conceive narrative as an effect of historical conditions or rather as a factor that shapes historical reality?

Noah’s wife, UPenn Ms. Codex 236, fol. 30v

Maybe this is exactly the position expected of someone in literary studies, but I would say both! Although I see fictional characters as contentious sites where the ideological currents of the text meet to swirl into the rough shape of a person, this meeting always has the potential to be a collision rather than a homogenous emulsion. That is, the ideological currents of the text include all the things it wants to say, has to say, wishes were true, cannot verbalize, or leaves unexplored. A narrative may reflect the historical conditions of its composition, but it can just as well reflect the conditions of histories that never came to pass, or are as-yet only dreamed of. Whether fiction can induce lasting change in its readers is more of an open question, in my opinion, but the fiction itself certainly can contain imaginative space for intervening in historical reality. I think a thing rarely exists apart from its own otherwise.

Your work calls for a deep renewal in your disciplinary field. On a methodological level, you argue in favor of a practice of “reading in revolt” which you call “disidentification.” What does this word mean to you?

The concept of “disidentification” that I propose builds on the work of José Esteban Muñoz. In Muñoz’s writing, disidentification is a strategy that the minority subject uses in order to remain in a world that is hostile towards them. It refers to an orientation towards a dominant ideology — or towards an object produced by a dominant ideology — that is neither wholesale acceptance (“This is for me”) nor rejection (“This is not for me”), but a third alternative (“I can rework this into something that is for me”). When applied to medieval studies, Muñoz’s disidentification would gesture to how the minority scholar can engage with the field and its texts by reinventing them, thereby creating a counterpublic to which the scholar belongs.

Where I branch from Muñoz is in calling for a prescriptive disidentification rather than a descriptive one. There is a longstanding and pervasive assumption — both inside and outside the field — that medievalists identify closely with the Middle Ages. That our childhoods were shaped by medieval stories, that our demographics hew to those of majoritarian groups in the medieval Latin West, that we refrain from looking at our texts through “anachronistic” critical lenses. At times, this assumption veers closer to a demand: “To be a good medievalist, you must.” But I believe that activist accomplices in medieval studies can help effect a shift in this disposition of the field by explicitly naming and exploring the ways in which medievalists are not like what we study, and (in particular) do not reproduce the phobic viewpoints of our texts. Disidentification, in this case, is the acknowledgement of how one does not need to ally oneself with a thing in order to be an attentive scholar of it. Rather, it is precisely the dissimilarity between the object and its observer that allows what is interesting about the object to come into sharper focus.

Disidentification, in this case, is the acknowledgement of how one does not need to ally oneself with a thing in order to be an attentive scholar of it. Rather, it is precisely the dissimilarity between the object and its observer that allows what is interesting about the object to come into sharper focus.

In a striking turn of phrase, you write, “I ask for the chance to be disidentified, not disaffected.” What gives the measure for both proximity and distance in your work? How does one go about finding the balance between the two?

The fulcrum on which these terms balance is the word “despite.” Proximity — or the capacity to be affected by the objects we study — is a keen critical tool, and I’m a big fan of listening to what our reactions to texts can tell us. But I think it’s important to always keep in mind that this proximity exists despite distance: the centuries that separate us from the Middle Ages, the identity categories that we do not share with these writers, all the ways that we are not like our materials. A sense of proximity that ignores distance is dangerous because it assumes that someone can only care about that which “belongs” to them by virtue of who they are. It forbids us all but the most insular form of community. The invitation to experience proximity-despite-distance conveys, in essence, the hope that we can remain vulnerable enough to be moved by something that exists outside of ourselves.

A sense of proximity that ignores distance is dangerous because it assumes that someone can only care about that which “belongs” to them by virtue of who they are. It forbids us all but the most insular form of community. The invitation to experience proximity-despite-distance conveys, in essence, the hope that we can remain vulnerable enough to be moved by something that exists outside of ourselves.

You focus on solitude as a condition that can allow for a temporary suspension of the racial dispositive. What is the power of solitude, and what are its limits?

Solitude is like race in that it is a condition of the body that is socially produced. When there is no biological basis to race, the absence of society means the concomitant absence of race; alone, you exist independent of the racist mandate of power to categorize, distribute, and discriminate. Race is other people.

The King of Tars, NLS Adv MS 19.2.1, fol. 7r

Except none of that is true. I think that what I say above can only apply to such a narrow band of human experience that what’s really valuable is how it doesn’t hold water. The power of solitude is composed almost entirely of limits. Socially produced as it is, race does not suddenly disappear when you are alone, because the very conditions of your solitude are enmeshed with how you have been racialized. Not everyone has a door to stand behind. Not every door has a lock, and not every lock is respected. Maybe race does not exist in utter solitude, but race determines how fragile that solitude is.

Socially produced as it is, race does not suddenly disappear when you are alone, because the very conditions of your solitude are enmeshed with how you have been racialized. Not everyone has a door to stand behind. Not every door has a lock, and not every lock is respected. Maybe race does not exist in utter solitude, but race determines how fragile that solitude is.

I remember being in my apartment during the height of quarantine, reading The King of Tars’ description of the princess in her bedchamber, and thinking: “It is a luxury to be able to hide.” Solitude is unequally allocated, fragile in its contingency, and also ultimately unsustainable as an escape route from racialization. What all of that illuminates, I think, is the pressing need for us to create the kind of world where race can be survived. That’s work that can’t be done in solitude.