Saturday, April 5, 2014

Quantum Objects: Transvestism in Estoire de Merlin

"Cest gent qui me cuident 
connoistre ne sevent riens de mon estre"
[Those who believe they know me 
know nothing of my being]

Suite du Merlin

The following is a transcript of a talk
given at the Catholic University of America
Medieval Objects Conference
on 4 April 2014

The Mantle of Merlin

In the early 20th century, Nature, it is accounted by Karen Barad,(Meeting the Universe Halfway), was under threat of being unmade by the splitting of the atom. Not only was matter burst apart, creating the atomic bomb, but the very meaning of nature set by Newtonian physics. Explicating the work of quantum physicists, Barad explains that at an object, such as an unobserved photon, can be determined to pass through two different points simultaneously, as in the famous "two-slit experiment." This unobserved bi-location in multiple contradictory states occurs, argues quantum theory, because of the "superposition" of matter.

The implications of this superposition on the changes of larger bodies is summarized by Schrödinger's Cat, a though experiment postulated by Erwin SchrödingerA cat placed into a sealed box with a cyanide pill set to go off at an undetermined time, will in fact exist both in an alive and dead state simultaneously. Only after the box is open does quantum reality collapse into a singular event. Through such theories, Quantum philosophy works to bring together disparate experiences in philosophy and science back to a unified whole. In a very real sense, quantum theory attempts to defend the nature of things against the increasingly disparate observations where matter itself seems to be in a constant state of flux and multiplicity.

In the 1940s, with such power at work in the Sciences, CS Lewis suggested, in his sci-fi fable That Hideous Strength, that the Humanities had its own quantum being lurking in its archives, waiting to be unearthed: Merlin. Why this turn to medievalism to engage quantum physics? Lewis himself acknowledges that modern day scientists are "not likely to be influenced by any poetic fancy about Merlin's mantle having fallen on them." Yet, quantum theory boasts a lineage going back to Aristotle and touching upon such 13th century medieval theologians as John Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas. Turning back to the 13th century in fact demonstrates an ongoing intellectual engagement with the quantum problem: how to unify bodies that seem to be made of such diverse parts? It was a question answered as much by abstract prose as by literary imaginations of Arthurian Romance. 

In this paper, I argue (I) that the postulation of univocal beings like Merlin, allow for a quantum ideology of constancy through change to perpetuate the Arthurian figure throughout later Medieval and late modern literature. (II) Placed in the center of diverse world that seems at many moments to be coming apart at the threads, (III) Merlin acts as an exemplar and a judge that at times violently over-rides hybridity and change in order to carry out his project of unification. (IV) By attending to the work of Merlin, scholars in medieval studies may speak back in their own terms, the dangers of grand unifying theories in natural sciences and philosophy. Like Lewis, we may resurrect Merlin to oppose the violent eugenic industries that seek remake mankind in the image of a ruthless and univocal god: Nature.

Quantum Medievalism

The 13th century saw a resurgence in quantum theory as medieval theologians began to reengage with Aristotle’s Metaphysics in order to develop unified theory that brought together the equivocal liminality of natural philosophy with the univocal eternity presented in Christian thought. 

Among the great metaphysical treatises of the century, Thomas Aquinas's (1225-1274) Summa Contra Gentiles stressed the "analogical" mode of thinking whereby the wholeness of the soul, ultimately rooted in God, can only be grasped indirectly through the power of metaphor (SCG.I.32-34). The angelic doctor was a careful scholastic, emphasizing the gap between signs and signifiers, meaning and messengers, the soul and angels. This epistemological doubt, which may be recognizable to many post-structuralist thinkers, left some at that time, as today, unsatisfied.

In England, contemporary philosopher John Duns Scotus (1264-1308), tried his hand at bridging the divide between the natural and super-natural in his Questions on the Metaphysics of Aristotle. Standing firm on the "univocality" of being, Duns Scotus emphasized and reinvigorated Aristotle's notions of "the quanta." The Subtle Doctor, so called for his attentiveness to the most small and brief of intellectual objects, brought quantum philosophy into the 13th century, explained as manifesting when “the whole time and the parts of motion are joined to some ‘mutated being’ which is not one in the same motion” (Scotus, V.X). What does this mean? Consider an object, like a mantle. Over time the object will be sewn, worn, torn, mended, and torn apart. Each of these instances can be considered as an isolated thing, defined by its "quiddity" (or "thatness"). Insofar as it is itself, throughout time and change, there must be some thing that we call the mantle, that remains constant and stitches together these different moments. The metaphysical significance of this is that objects are mutable.

This unifying claim affirms Aristotelian quantum being. In Aristotle’s Metaphysics, we find that "Quantum means that which is divisible into two or more constituent parts of which is by nature a 'one' and a 'this'" (Aristotle, Metaphysics V, ch. 13, 1020a 8-10). This definition of being is key to describing change without consenting the either equivocal or analogical logic that would recognize an internal divide or partialness within being. In quantum theory, the one comes to stand in for the many, insofar as the whole cannot exist without its different constitutive parts. In fact, the quantum object is defined by its iterability, being 
"divisible into continuous parts" (Aristotle, Metaphysics V, ch. 13, 1020a 8-10). The metaphysical significance of the whole being present in each of its disparate parts is that an object exists in multiple places in time and space at once. This is superposition.

The effect of this is reassuring for authorities considering bodies undergoing change and transition. In 13th century French and English society, amidst war, economic revolution, and an influx of Muslim and classical philosophy, univocality (the ability to speak in one voice) offered by quantum theory may be incredibly reassuring. Quantum theory promises that the world still makes sense. However the Kings might change, the kingdom remains itself. However bodies fall apart, the soul abides. These shifts may seem counter to experience, because there are significant differences when one King replaces another King or when you lose an arm. Yet, quantum theory insists, that the attributes of a body can be "transferred to other things also" (Aristotle, Metaphysics V, ch. 13, 1020a 8-10). The metaphysical significance of this is what is expressed and explicated in quantum uncertainty. That is, that we cannot know all of a things attributes at once. From Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), we know that we can either know a particles speed or its location, but not both at once. Likewise, we can either know one King of England (qua King) or else another King of England (qua King). While this is possible to experience over time, to attempt to bring them together into the same time and place creates a contradiction - and likely a war.

It might is not surprising then why Duns Scotus's theory of constancy through change should become so pervasive and come to infiltrate contemporary shape-shifter narratives. Among them, few stories of transformation have spread so far and lasted so long as Arthurian Romances. Within and beyond this body of literature, few figures have taken on so many forms and yet remained himself, as Merlin. As of the 13th century Estoire de Merlin, the shape-shifter had become so notable for his (1) power of mutability, the ability to take on the mantle of many forms without being limited to any one, (2) the power of superposition, the ability to prophesize multiple places in time and space at once (e.g. the past, future, and present), and (3) the power of uncertainty, the ability to enter into a tale without being noticed, affect events, and withdraw without his presence ever becoming fully known (see: Quantum Medievalism Part 1).

the Metaphysics of Transvestism

In turning to the 13th century Estoire de Merlin, here dealt with through its 15th century translation to Middle English, commonly called the Prose Merlin, we find Merlin so exemplifying quantum being that he comes to stand outside the world of transformation in order to act as judge of the changes of others. In one of the included tales "Merlin and Grisandolus," a transvestite knight comes into the service of Julius Caesar, bearing a quantum likeness with Merlin and the mantles he wears. Yet the shape-shifters appearance late in the plot comes as a judge who unveils the trans-being of Grisandol, forcing her back into a "natural" station of womanhood, as well as twelve trans maidens in the service of the empress, leading to their death by fire.

An exemplar of change, Merlin's violence against a trans bodies is startling, but in the context of quantum univocality it is evident that this reading of change covers over difference to sure up a sense of constancy and unity in Nature. In doing so, the violence of the quantum narrative of change becomes evident, wherein the trans/forming body is at once a potential challenge and a potential corrective to deconstructive readings of gender. In the end, Merlin stands outside the system, as the transcendent signifier of trans-being, an exception to prove and enforce the rule. 

The narrative presents the twelve maidens as one of many trans body, reflective of Merlin's (1) mutability, (2) superposition, and (3) uncertainty. While Grisandolus likewise reflects the same characteristics as Merlin and the twelve maidens, scholarship on the tale has focused on the trans man and left the trans women largely unconsidered. Furthermore, while Merlin comes to find a fixed but livable life for Grisandol, the violence of his judgement is most evident in the ritual burning of the twelve maidens at the texts conclusion. Regardless of which of the trans figures is being addressed, however, many of the same concepts and critiques are active or applicable. Reading quantum and trans embodiment through a biopolitical analysis, constancy and change are pervasive throughout a text as symptomatic of wider social tensions.

(1) Mutability

Grisandol's arrival into Julius Cesar's court, the narrative tells of a group of twelve men that live as women at the conscription of the empress, detailing the process of their trans/formation: "for the drede that theire beerdes sholde growe, she lete anoynte her chynnes with certeyn oynementes made for the nones. And thei were clothed in longe traylinge robes, and theire heer longe waxen in gise of maydenes and tressed at theire bakkes, that alle that hem saugh wende wele thei were wymen." (PM.M&G.11-15). Forming and transforming their bodies, these servants use of a hormone mimicking oil to prevent the growth of facial hair, the prosthetics of clothing, the surgery of cutting their hair into long braided locks. Their bodies are de-centered, made up through diverse materials and the pressures of the court. Conscripted by the force of the empress to serve as trans sex slaves; nearly enough for a fortnight.

(2) Superposition

While Merlin's prophecies are localized in his body, the trans women in 
Caesar's court project their prophecies through other people. Experiencing the symptoms of indeterminate knowledge, the emperor becomes troubled after some time by dreams in which he sees the identity of the maids and their illicit sexual relations with his wife. 

"He hadde a vision that hym thought he saugh a sowe in his court that was right grete before his paleys; and he hadde never seyn noon so grete ne so huge. And she hadde so grete bristelis on her bakke that it trayled on the grounde a fadome large, and hadde upon hir heed a cercle that semed of fyn golde... [then] he saugh come oute of his chamber twelve lyonsewes, and com into the courte to the sowe and assailed hir, oon after another." (PM.M&G.38-46).

As he sleeps, the emperor sees many things at once. On the surface, he dreams of a great sow that is sexually engaged with a dozen lionesses. An attentive reader is aware at this point that he is also seeing the ongoing infidelity of his wife with her twelve trans servants. The confusion the emperor experiences upon waking reflects the indeterminacy of what and when he is seeing the information. He sees an meeting that has already happened. He sees what may be going on that very night. He also sees information that will not be given to him until a much later date. This ability to glean something of the shifting bodies in his dream and in his court, but not other information reflects the quantum uncertainty epitomized by Merlin. Each of these trans women might as well be wearing Merlin's mantle, or else closed up with Schrödinger’s cat for all that we might know of them.

(3) Uncertainty

The presence of the trans women are given at the start of the narrative but remain invisibly present in the background for the remainder of the tale. In this way, they are like Merlin when he appears among them in the form of a doe and a mad-man, active in the court of the emperor, influencing events but without giving away their definite location at any point in time or space. "longe thei endured with the empresse unknowen." (PM.M&G.15). The emperor might see them, and the narrator might comment as to their activity, but like 
Grisandol, they operate unnoticed in plain sight. In other words, they pass. The work of transvestism, reflects certain aspects of quantum being. To both be and not to be present, until the moment when their existence is called into question, as at the arrival of Merlin to the court. Then, their fate become as determined (and as deathly) as Schrödinger’s cat in a box full of cyanide.

the Biopolitics of Superposition

Given the shifting, projecting, and obscuring nature of the trans bodies in Julius Ceasar's court, the equivocal and analogical lives of the twelve maids and Grisandol could have potentially continued indefinitely if not for Merlin’s laughter. Up until Merlin's appearance in Grisolde's tale, this state of suspension is maintained, but upon his arrival, quantum theory begins to aggregate flux back into definite objects. Arriving in the emperor's court, Merlin uses all three of his quantum powers to set about the fixing of the trans identities. First, he takes the form of a dear (mutation). Next, he runs into the court and delivers a proclamation that Merlin lurks nearby and only a woman may catch him (prophecy). Finally, he disappears without a trace, leaving the emperor to institute a quest to find Merlin offering his daughter and half his kingdom as a reward (uncertainty). One he enters into the narrative, he continually uses these aspects to begin enforcing the logic of continuity on the shifting bodies of Caesar's court.

(1) Mutability

Grisandol, as the emperor's finest and craftiest knight, is of course the first to capture Merlin in the form of a mad man of the woods. Dragging him back to court, the old prophetic looks at Grisolde and begins his work of judging her gender, calling her a "Creature formed of Nature chaunged into other forme... Ymage repaired and disnatured fro Kynde" (PM.M&G.147-158). As with Duns Scotus's attempt to find the univocality of God in nature, Merlin here invokes nature as the original foundations for the trans characters' gender. It is important to note that in trans/forming, she has changed or denatured that being. In other words, the question at hand is not social constructionism versus essentialism, but one version of essence in debate with another form of essence. The work of Merlin here is to proclaim to her in private that despite any changes she might have gone through, she nonetheless has a proper being into which he sees. 

(2) Superposition

In due course, Grisolde delivers Merlin to the emperor's court, where he continues to preach his prophecies, performing the work of collapsing the trans maidens into unified male genders. Addressing the King, Merlin unravels the obscure dream that had been plaguing him for some time. "The twelve lyonsewes that ye saugh come oute of a chamber betokeneth the twelve maydenes that be ther with the emperesse. And knowe it for very trouthe that thei be no wymen, for it be men… as ofte as ye go oute of the town, she maketh hem serve in hir chamber and in hit bedde" (PM.M&G.316-332). What began as an uncertain dream that held in tension animality and humanity, female and masculine genders, fidelity and promiscuity, future and present, collapses into a definite narrative. Rather than proliferating meaning, Merlin brings equivocal and analogical visions back into a univocal state. The emperor and the reader are lead to believe that quantum reality, the reassuring fixedness of being must be more true than multiplicity and inconstancy. 

(3) Uncertainty

Invoking the role of the sovereign as the embodiment of the law, the emperor enacts punishment to fix the transgressions against constancy that has been argued for by the embodiment of quantum truth, Merlin. "She sholde be brente and the harlottes hanged; and some seide that thei sholde be flayn all quyk. But in the ende thei acorded that thei sholde be brente in a fier." (PM.M&G.331-337). The proper measure of justice is not definite, leading to a debate between burning, hanging, and being pulled limb from limb - each in a sense fractures the body which is seen to transgress their proper forms and thus loose their right to live according to any form - yet, for the trans maidens, their uncertain position is determined as always already set for death. For the court to speak in one voice, difference must be eliminated. Such is the cost the trans body pays at the altar of univocal being.

The Once and Future Theory

In the 1945 novel, That Hideous Strength, CS Lewis meditates on the world and being of Merlin, “Did the whole thing [Camelot] fail because he died so soon? Has it ever struck you what an odd creation Merlin is? He's not evil: yet he's a magician. He is obviously a druid: yet he knows all about the Grail.” Indeed, Merlin's ability to bring together discordant aspects into a singular form becomes more than a theme within Lewis's text but a material fact. After an excavation under an old college reveals an forgotten tomb, the shapeshifter suddenly comes back to life in post-World War II England. Merlins return, it is announced through prophecy, signals a great turmoil which threatens to tear the country apart. Only a quantum body, like Merlin, is able to bring together the contradictions, overcoming differences, to see England through a period of great change. Yet, as the name of his book signifies, Lewis was conscious that the terrible power of both Merlin and Science to hold things together and to enforce homogeneity onto the social landscape. The meeting of Merlin and quantum science, in Lewis's imagination, ends with none-other than an atomic explosion that leaves countless dead.

As members of the Humanities, and particular Medievalists, like Lewis, we can speak to our quantum colleagues in the Sciences and remind them of the terrible costs and dangerous implications of looking too hard for totality or unity in Nature. This does not mean that we stand in all places opposed to the observations of physicists in a lab or mathematicians at their white-board. Rather, when science begins working through the complex and sorted world of philosophy, looking to quantum particles for a God's eye image of the Universe, they necessarily step into a sphere that we occupy together. To move too quickly to disregarding one another may lead to yet more lives lost in the swift light of atomic "truth" or the slow fires of "justice."

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