On Materialism: Embodying the Procedurality of Being
A close reading of Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Waves’


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In terms of great circularity, editor of Becoming (a!kira) was writing a book chapter that had a lot to do with materialism, and it was interesting to find, through reading the work of Thomas Nail, a parallel drawn between Lucretius and Virginia Woolf: the only true Philosophers of Movement. Woolf is framed as a part of what Louis Althusser called “The Underground Current of Materialism”, a form of materialism that is distinctive from any other form, including various New Materialisms, in that it takes motion as a fundamental property of matter; it is a reading of materialism unlike Spinoza, who avoids the Lucretian Swerve entirely, or Deleuze, who explains it through a form of vitalism. Much to our luck, the author of this paper, hom0gram, seemed to appear out of nowhere, clutching a rigorous essay about Woolfian Materialism.
          As a close reading of Woolf’s work The Waves, it is the kind of academic work that is necessary to bridge the gap between Woolf’s literature and any theoretical understanding of her demonstrably unique Materialism. To make it easier to digest, we have made a copy of The Waves available in our library so that you might follow it alongside, to help follow the arguments and so on. We have isolated in this trace the Chapter on Woolf’s Materialism, and making the full essay available here.
          We are also presenting this close reading of Woolf as a part of the run up to M.Y.B.’s Where Does a Body Begin?, as a way of weaving together as many threads as possible. The materialism of Woolf is a really fascinating topic and something that readers of M.Y.B. might really enjoy.

Consciousness does justice to the experience of nature only when […] it incorporates nature's wounds.
–T.W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory

This self now as I leant over the gate looking down over fields rolling in waves of colour beneath me made no answer. He threw up no opposition. He attempted no phrase. His fist did not form. I waited. I listened. Nothing came, nothing. I cried then with a sudden conviction of complete desertion, Now there is nothing. No fin breaks the waste of this immeasurable sea. Life has destroyed me.

–Virginia Woolf, The Waves

5—Woolfian Materialism.

           5.1—THE ISSUE WITH
While Woolf may have ensured non-anthropocentric environmental visions a central space in her novel in the form of the ten interludes, they ought to be read against the backdrop of the soliloquies pronounced by our protagonists. Elvedon might not be apotheosised as pristine and pure ‘nature’ in the vein of overly simplistic pastoral, yet solely focussing on these short, a-personal intermissions (as some critics like Derek Ryan have done) obfuscates the fact that Woolf does not merely confront us with a vision of ‘nature’ supposedly deprived of ἄνθρωπος, of hegemonic human intervention – this purposefully evades tackling her very human ideas on materiality, perception, and representation all present in the rest of the novel and resorts to confining Woolf back into the mould of a writer who has retreated to their interior, penning down her environmental reverie in “a nostalgic, not quite a visionary” novel (Kronenberger).
           As has been shown, the protagonists feel a personal connection to the environmental space that is Elvedon. Having demonstrated in what ways Woolf’s interludes appeal to pastoral notions, confronting these with the novel’s soliloquies is essential in grasping the philosophical and discursive vision behind the novel: Not only should a successful pastoral contribute to the protagonists’ urban life, this reciprocal relationship between the pastoral space and its visitors should also inform the reader about the author’s ideology and opinion on the issues of (environmental) representation. Since Woolf clearly demarcated the frontier between Elvedon and the adult life of the protagonists, one can easily presuppose the existence of a dialectic relationship between the two formally distinct elements. In any literary work preoccupied with the environment, one ought to remember that who “engages in ecocritical work is neither as individual nor as extricated from social institutions as one might think” (Buell, Environmental Criticism 8). Buell furthermore requires that all “inquiry into artistic rendition of physical environment must sooner or later reckon with the meta-question of how to construe the relation between the world of a text and the world of history or lived experience” (ibid. 30). The following examination of the soliloquies pronounced by Rhoda, Bernard, Jinny, Louis, Susan, and Neville will hopefully shed light on Woolf’s environmental consciousness, as well as her philosophical awareness concerning the nature of symbolic and semiotic representation of reality.
           Throughout the recent history of New Materialism as a philosophical and literary current, ontological issues have been questioned constantly. One of the fundamental divides between materialists is one already introduced in this paper: (object-oriented) ontology vs. deep ecology. Object-oriented ontology attempts to form ontological statements concerning the constitution of ‘things’ (in the broadest sense of the word), creating taxonomies and categorising from a non-anthropocentric perspective, which propose a Copernican Revolution in human thought based on Heidegger’s philosophy (Harman, Tool-Being 16).17 While widely heralded and praised, the radical focus on the non-anthropocentric other has lead to criticism as well, with some even claiming it to be a form of ‘human hubris’ and semiophobia – “an unease with human reality as embedded in semiotic reality” (Boysen 225f.). Deep ecology, on the other hand, attempts at making sense of the world in a more holistic way influenced by systems theory, aiming to overcome divisions of “dull matter (it, things) and vibrant life (us, beings)” (Bennet vi).
           Crucially, I will argue that Woolf exposes exactly this component of human reality, its embeddedness in symbolic and semiotic structures, by analysing how our protagonists follow the courses of their lives while cyclically and conceptually retreating to Elvedon, a space they have in actuality dwelt in but never return to in the flesh. We will observe how the idealised Elvedon, one of “the central metaphors of the novel” serves our group of friends as a world-building tool and “cyclical model of subjectivity – a process of self-constitution and dissolution represented by the image of a wave rising and then crashing” (Monson 173) and why the interludes read against the backdrop of the rest of the novel do reveal an anthropocentric air that does not take away from Woolf’s complex pastoral. By understanding her ideas about ecology we can then extrapolate a Woolfian materialism somewhere in between anthropocentric ontology and ecological string figures.18

           5.2—THE SYMBOLIC ORDER;
           OR: THE DEATH OF
The initial chapter in between the first two interludes reveals Woolf’s preoccupation with perception and representation. “There is an order in this world; there are distinctions, there are differences,” according to Neville (Woolf, Waves 10). Bernard is already versed in storytelling during this childhood epoch, yet in his unstoppable ruminations he is reprimanded by Susan for being escapist in his phrases and reminding him of his immediate surroundings: “‘Now you trail away,’ said Susan, ‘making phrases. [...] You have escaped me. Here is the garden. Here is the hedge. Here is Rhoda on the path rocking petals to and fro in her brown basin’”, reminding him of his immediate material surroundings (ibid. 9).
           Bernard’s escapism grows when the children are finally separated and leave for school. “Heaven be praised, all ceremonies are over! [...] I must make phrases and phrases and so interpose something hard between myself and the stare of housemaids, the stare of clocks, staring faces, indifferent faces, or I shall cry,” he exclaims, revealing his anxiousness and discomfort when it comes to being perceived as some kind of semiophilia: for him, language is something hard that he can (ab)use to mark the frontier of difference from being to being, existence to existence (16). This is mirrored in the obsessive taxonomic thinking he develops already at a young age, promising himself that he “shall carry a notebook – a fat book with many pages, methodically lettered” (19f.), which is also not left uncommented by Neville: “Let him describe what we have all seen so that it becomes a sequence. [...] Bernard says there is always a story” (20). In other words, Bernard uses the symbolic, he “harnesses the power of language to domesticate experience” (Monson 178).
           Bernard later seems to be aware of the conflicting duality of his wish to always come up with a fitting signifier while at the same time succumbing to his taxonomic interventions. “I require the concrete in everything,” he comments, “It is only so that I lay my hands on the world. A good phrase, however, seems to me to have an independent existence” (Woolf, Waves 37). Shortly after he seems to realise that pinning down ‘the concrete in everything’ is an impossible task, questioning his own existence: “What am I? I ask. This? No, I am that. [...] Then it becomes clear that I am not one and simple, but many and complex” (ibid. 42). He furthermore realises that existence is a reciprocal process and remarks to his friends “Let me then create you. (You have done as much for me.)” (47). Not that this would be something they wished for – “We are all phrases in Bernard’s story, things he writes down under A or under B,” Neville complains, “He is never at our mercy”, implying that he is the one constructing and deconstructing their reality with his words (37f.). This ideological evolution continues throughout the novel, as Bernard loses more and more confidence in an external continuity of material beings and the direct relation of the thing to the sign, as expressed by Foucault (59-63). Bernard’s taxonomy fetish establishes a direct reference to the “encyclopaedic project as it appears at the end of the sixteenth century,” whose aim it was to “reconstitute the very order of the universe by the way in which words are linked together and arranged in space” (ibid. 37). The following quote further illuminates his relation to the external:

There is no stability in this world. Who is to say what meaning there is in anything? Who am I to foretell the flight of a sword? It is a balloon that sails over tree-tops. To speak of knowledge is futile. All is experiment and adventure. We are forever mixing ourselves with unknown quantities. What is to come? I know not. But as I put down my glass I remember: I am engaged to be married. I am to dine with my friends tonight. I am Bernard, myself. (Woolf, Waves 65f.)

In his opinion, though, the others are not affected by this loss of stability: “Thus my character is in part made of the stimulus other people provide, and is not mine, like yours are,” he protests, accepting his fate as unstable matter – “I am made and remade continually” (ibid. 74). The others also begin to question their subjective reality when growing older. Consider the following examples: Louis accommodates the past identities he relives in his mind in his person, “a vast inheritance of experience”, concluding that “I have fused my many lives into one” (93). He also notices a kind of semiophobia in Rhoda, who, at one of their group parleys, he notices wishing “to put off as long as possible the shock of recognition, so as to be secure for one more moment to rock her petals in her basin”, with a contrasting reference to her childhood game underlining the pressure Rhoda feels by being perceived (67), while she herself grumbles “I hate all details of the individual life”, foreshadowing her eventual suicide (58).
           The ambiguity and uncertainty of materiality alluded to already in the interludes (e.g. 103) pierces through the figures’ thoughts about language and perception as well. Neville is the first one to explicitly express the shortcomings of language when it comes to describing and defining reality:

‘Yet these roaring waters,’ Neville said, ‘upon which we build our crazy platforms are more stable than the wild, the weak and inconsequent cries that we utter when, trying to speak, we rise; when we reason and jerk out these false sayings, ‘I am this; I am that!’ Speech is false.’ (76) 

Rhoda shares his deception and wonders “‘Like’ and ‘like’ and ‘like’ – but what is the thing that lies beneath the semblance of the thing?” (90). Here we can observe her explicit reflection on similes and representational value, alluding to Foucault’s taxonomy of resemblance (17ff.). Their doubts are most lucidly expressed by Bernard, the poet, when he discovers another image for his notebook:

‘A fin turns. This bare visual impression is unattached to any line of reason, it springs up as one might see the fin of a porpoise on the horizon. Visual impressions often communicate thus briefly statements that we shall in time come to uncover and coax into words. (Woolf, Waves 107)’19

        5.3—THE DISSOLUTION OF    

Generally, this chaotic notion of dissolution of the relation between the thing itself and the language used to represent it (the mechanism of Merchand) expands along the life of our protagonists and grows into the feeling of complete loss of subjective individuality. On page 121, Neville is convinced that his existence does not limit itself to his corporeal matter.

I am merely “Neville” to you, who see the narrow limits of my life and the line it cannot pass. But to myself I am immeasurable; a net whose fibres pass imperceptibly beneath the world. My net is almost indistinguishable from that which it surrounds. [...] I have been knotted. I have been torn apart. (Woolf, Waves 121)

At the end of the novel, which is characterised by Bernard pondering on the life of the six throughout the pages preceding the last one-liner interlude, our poet has also lost faith in any form of subjectivity, be it material or transcendental, asking himself “‘Who am I?’ I have been talking of Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda and Louis. Am I all of them? Am I one and distinct? I do not know” (ibid. 162), confirming that there exists no division between him and his friends (163). These moments of multiplicity can also be found early in the novel in the childhood epoch at Elvedon. Here, the paragraphs of the individual protagonists are shorter and the changes between the six occur more frequently (4-7) and we can observe this during the group’s recurring meetings as well (75-81; 127-133). This is sometimes seen as a rejection of “the reductionist dualism of Western philosophy,” resisting and exposing “the kind of rational humanism that came down to us from Plato and triumphed in Cartesian and Newtonian mechanistic models of the cosmos” (Westling 855). In order to precisely express this lack of trust in the stability of the sign, one ought to return to Michel Foucault:

It is no longer their identity that beings manifest in representation, but the external relation they establish with the human being. The latter, with his own being, with his power to represent himself with representations, arises in a space hollowed out by living beings, objects of exchange, and words, when, abandoning representation, which had been their natural site hitherto, they withdraw into depths of things and roll up upon themselves in accordance with the laws of life, production, and language. (313) 

We can observe here the hegemonic assumptions that Woolf includes in her novel as well, the assumptions that also Carolyn Merchant defined as power and order, as man-made, as a ‘natural’ continuity of the symbolic interrelatedness of the human and its surroundings. An explorative, constructivist and reciprocal notion of materiality, such as the one Haraway presents, can thus still be deemed anthropocentric, as the human symbolic web reduces the relation to the power of the subject and the order of the sign.

           5.4—THE DUALITY OF BEING
What does the split between the clearly marked spaces of mixing subjectivities, present in the novel from the very beginning, and the actual expression of the protagonists’ understanding of it, which grows exponentially along the time passing in the novel, tell us about Woolfian materialism? Oftentimes these ideas of multiple subjectivities and abolition of the subject are associated with Woolf’s mental health issues, but upon closer inspection this destruction of the frontier with the other can mean so much more.20 Yet in a text so keen on abolishing the subject-object frontier, how come the pastoral interludes that have been discussed earlier are so clearly differentiated from the rest of the novel?
           In order to answer this question, the character Percival ought to be investigated. Percival, the mute hero21 accompanying the group both physically (at the beginning) and spiritually, can be interpreted as an objectified other, a vantage point or background around which the group defines itself. Percival, in his role as hero, is seen as the one who creates and restores order already since joining the preppy boys during their first days of school. “How majestic is their order, how beautiful is their obedience!” Louis wonders (Woolf, Waves 25). Later on, the six are thankful for his power, as their representational dissolution causes them pain, as “suddenly one hears a clock tick. We who had been immersed in this world became aware of another. It is painful” (ibid. 154), which is also expressed by Bernard: “We suffered terribly as we became separate bodies” (137). Here is where Percival steps in as a kind of tertium comparationis to verify their existence. Shortly before Percival’s arrival at their first reunion, the six anxiously await him, checking the restaurant door constantly for his return. Neville comments on their status without his presence: “Now is our festival, now we are together. But without Percival there is no solidity. We are silhouettes, hollow phantoms moving mistily without a background” (68) and once he arrives, “The reign of chaos is over. He has imposed order. Knives cut again” (68). Percival, thus, should be interpreted as part of a “series of investments in alterity, speculating on a seemingly pure Other which then takes the shape of a definite surety,” according to Lisa Marie Lucenti (77). The heavy duty assigned to Percival must be read as antonymic to our protagonists’ cyclical and flexible ideas on subjectivity and reality, as the profoundly anthropocentric understanding of the Kantian superhuman, who is able to change the course of fate by pure will alone. This truthfully childish understanding of the figure Percival unfolds during his apotheosis. The friends mourn the absence of his person with Bernard claiming “The little apparatus of observation is unhinged. [...] He would have done justice. He would have protected. About the age of fourty he would have shocked the authorities” (Woolf, Waves 138).
           Percival seems to be able, in his absence, to inspire great trust in the humanity of order, of tradition, something that Bernard too expresses the need for throughout the final pages of the novel. While at first he remembers his wife and the child he would eventually raise with her, he begins to repeat “after monday, tuesday comes” (ibid. 137), but as he reminisces on his becoming, he grows aware of the fact that:

here at this table, what I call ‘my life’, it is not one life that I look back upon; I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am – Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda or Louis: how to distinguish my life from theirs. [...] We saw for a moment the body of the complete human being whom we have failed to be, but cannot forget. (156) 

Nevertheless, at the same time as he pronounces these profound insights into his existence, he keeps on repeating “after monday, tuesday comes” (e.g. 151, 153), as if wanting to remind himself that there is a continuity to life – a temporal, linear continuity which only becomes possible if the human understands itself as in-dividual, as complete subject, but that he seems to be losing faith in shortly before his death: “Was this, then, this streaming away mixed with Susan, Jinny, Neville, Rhoda, Louis, a sort of death? A new assembly of elements?” (157). Until the very end Bernard, the poet, is:

hoping for a fixed ontological return. And this last strategy is the one that Woolf indirectly parodies in both the form and content of her novel, betraying the fragility of any pronoun, any ‘I’ especially, since it can only ever be a temporary linguistic embodiment. (Lucenti, 78) 

Percival’s role can thus be read in a dual sense; either as a positive external, connecting force, or as imposing societal order, as the hollow ideal of the false sense of human objectivity modernism distances itself from. From a materialist perspective, Percival represents the inherent alienation that humanity entails, the alienation caused by symbolic representation mentioned by Foucault or the mechanical fetish of categorisation in Merchant’s Death of Nature. The ideological evolution of the protagonists – their continually decreasing belief in the individual human experience – strengthens the notion of the discriminating hegemony of order Percival establishes. The solidity of Percival, his fixed being, only works in his absence and in his role as stereotype, fulfilling the ideal of a forceless, Gramscian hegemony McCarthy also mentions.
           Even while Percival is still alive, Louis seems to notice some hint at another possible way of life during an interaction with him and his ‘preppy boys’:

Now grass and trees, travelling air blowing empty spaces in the blue which they then recover, shaking the leaves which then replace themselves, and our ring [of grass, in a playing field at school] here, sitting, with our arms binding our knees, hint at some other order, and better, which makes a reason everlastingly. (Woolf, Waves 21)

In his stability, Percival represents a linear identity, which Rhoda loses faith in early on in the course of her life (ibid. 34), as well as Bernard (65). The latter one later on describes their feeling of loss of stability more closely; “We grew; we changed; for, of course, we are animals. We are not always aware by any means; we breathe, eat, sleep automatically. We exist not only separately but in undifferentiated blobs of matter” (139), alluding again to the idea of non-anthropocentric equality which can also be found in the interludes. At the end of his life, he fully doubts the order Percival had promised them, as he starts to contemplate “I begin now to forget; I begin to doubt the fixity of table, the reality of here and now, to tap my knuckles smartly upon the edges of apparently solid object and say, ‘Are you hard?’” (162).
           Some critics, as we have observed, tend to purposefully decentre the human in their analysis of the environment in order to overcome a felt anthropocentrism (see Naremore, 244; but also the posthumanism of Derek Ryan), while others, like Madeline Moore, argue that the pastoral tradition fails humans as the protagonists only achieve symbolical unity. Fittingly, though, she argues that the protagonists experience “both its exaltation and its nothingness, and, in order to preserve their autonomy, reemerge into the present of human effort” (Moore, 219), returning to the notion of interrelated, existential materiality evoked through human experience.

To sum up, it can be argued that Woolf included two points of external referentiality in The Waves which work as catalysts for the human existence of the six protagonists: On the one hand, their lives are structured along a cyclical and conceptual pastoral retreat to their childhood dwelling space, while on the other hand their (dead and silent) friend Percival seems to represent an active imposition of (societal) order. The interludes are clearly separate in form, but can be characterised as an imagined retreat, as none of the six ever actually return to Elvedon. As has been stated, complex pastoral should evoke some kind of reaction, of additional value except that of retreat itself. In contrast to the mechanic order of Percival, the interludes exemplify an nonhierarchical ecology of materiality, one that doubts its stability and fixity, yet at the same time one that affirms the a priori existence of absolute (not ontological) difference. Percival represents the fallacy of human reason, which many prominent philosophers such as Heidegger and Kierkegaard have criticised in their work,22 on which Foucault, Merchant and also Haraway and Bennet base their understanding of reality; as soon as difference is reduced to a formal distinction, when description turns to definition and grouping to taxonomy – so evidently exemplified by Bernard – the human mind has played itself: perception, definition, and representation ought to be seen as the genesis of human intervention, of anthropos, for they stripped language of its ability to reference material reality.23In doing so, Woolf adheres to modern ideas of the study of environment as exemplified in Andrew Biro’s Critical Ecologies (2018); in avoiding a simple, “passive attentiveness” (11) to nature’s otherness, she is able to to mirror the detriments of a mechanic, urban, capitalist, or ontological worldview in “assuming an essential ontological distinction” between the human and the non-human other (192).
           Percival functions as a shared ontological retreat, as clear-cut, unchanging, yet empty referentiality, whereas Elvedon can be interpreted as a differential retreat. Still, there exist similarities between the two in the function they occupy for the protagonists. Elvedon’s fixed value as retreat also seems to work only in its absence. Even though the six share a common material experience (as they do with Percival), the ordering aspect only comes to life in absentia and, crucially, Woolf does not conceal the fact that there exists no pristine and idyllic Arcadia on the coasts of St. Yves,24 as has been stated earlier. Why, then, does Elvedon still constitute a complex and successful pastoral?
           While all of the characters follow different paths after leaving Elvedon, all of them are in need of a material and/or ontological vantage point (Percival/Elvedon), which only exists in absence, which is exactly where being comes into place.
           Materiality, according to Woolf’s construction of the novel, is not to be found in contrary opposites, such as the nature of Elvedon portrayed in the interludes as pristine and unchanging in contrast to London, or in Percival as hero who travelled to India, eclipsing the rest of the friends in his success; it is to be found precisely in difference, ‘capital D’ Difference, as Foucault would call it (340). Nature, the six have established each for themself but still coherently, is not the opposite of the city life or the townhouse: it is that which is not their actual life, thought in such a way that collapses the binary opposition of ontology – nature is not merely the opposite of city, which is what their human brain would enact them via the imagined Elvedon. City, developed land, society, culture are all demarcated not by that which they are not, but by difference. Woolf clearly demonstrates her awareness of the constructedness of categories such as ‘nature’ and ‘society’, while at the same time maintaining a spatial and material basis for these constructions that is shared by all of the characters in the novel. It traces the exit of the environmental womb of the group, impacting their experience of subjectivity and materiality, and it is exactly this moment of exit and later return which defines Woolfian materiality as relational difference.
           Woolf here creates an awareness for the fact that the natural space, as non-anthropocentric as she might have created it, is still a product of human symbolic intervention. Ideas such as the deep ecology found in many materialist currents, fostering understanding of environments as interrelated ecologies, have been prominently criticised by authors such as Slavoj Žižek in Absolute Recoil (2014). He accuses central materialists such as Haraway of a “bening anthropomorphism” revealing vital qualities in matter that supposedly do not exist, famously comparing New Materialist realism to the materiality of Lord of the Rings – there is none (Žižek 9-12). Jane Bennet, on the other hand, claims that literary anthropomorphism especially is useful in revealing isomorphisms, that is the cognitive structures dominating our understanding of reality (99).
           This is exactly where Woolf’s pastoral becomes successful: in combination with the protagonists’ soliloquies, it is revealed to the reader that in whichever way the environment and Elvedon might be described, they remain a fictional product of human praxis, much like the vacant signifier that is Percival. This is not only exemplified by the comments each of the six friends make, but also on the meta-level by choosing to incorporate not St. Ives or any other place she knew, but a fictional place reminiscent of her childhood, just as the six create a fictional space in their cyclical retreat. By combining the anthropocentric idea of a nonhierarchical, pure natural space, with a cyclical model of retreat and return, Woolf allows our protagonists to grasp their existence not as linear and individual, but as ‘complex and many’, to borrow Bernard’s expression. They notice how language does not suffice to express mimetic intents and that the idea of objective material reality (in the sense of an a priori existence of things) constitutes an ontological fallacy that is also explained by Biro, who states that “alienation occurs when we fail to recognize the objects we have built as such, so that they come to appear as external to us, as alien powers over and against us” (194). I argue, thus, that Woolfian materialism is a thoroughly practical one, not detached from a priori reality, but accommodating different ideas concerning the existence of matter and the subjective relativism concerning human perception, similar to what Biro calls an “activist epistemology”, which sees no need for an “appeal to a ‘matter’ prior to practice, once that epistemology realizes that the practices it talks about – the ones through which we come to know the world – are themselves material, which is to say are real practices and not just a matter of a ‘social meaning’ attached to a set of physical behaviours” (200).25It can be argued, thus, that Virginia Woolf tackles a problem central to New Materialist currents today, which the diptych mentioned earlier explains poignantly:

Against the fracture observer/observed/knowledge introduced by representationalism, this new onto-epistemological debate brings matter into the body of discursive practices, including scientific knowledge. If knowledge is an embodied practice, the knower and the known are mutually transformed in the process of knowing, and new levels of reality emerge. (Iovino & Oppermann 455) 

The criticism levelled at Woolf in the New York Times review of merely pursuing ‘our common wish to imprint on our memory all the detail of a scene before it changes, to arrest a moment in time’ could not be more far-fetched. Actually, she does quite the opposite by accepting the procedurality of life, subjectivity, and representation and leaves no doubt that such a thing as a stable scene, or moment in time, does not exist. When even her fictional work provokes this much cognitive dissonance and complete lack of understanding of her text, the option of formulating these ideas as philosophy, as academic and scientific writing, would probably appear to be impossible. It only speaks for her intellect and passion that she was able to express these in a fictional poem-play about, well, nothing and everything, all at once, and makes us remember that “profound criticism is often written casually” (Woolf, Waves 43).

Virginia Woolf actually achieved what many theorists lack in their thinking: She is able to express an entire worldview, or philosophy, not in academic style and form, focussed on exactitudes, data, and definitions. What The Waves show us actually is, ‘in a mystical flash, the universe’. The complex materiality she presents is essentially that of the anthropos, of human praxis. She avoids dichotomic taxonomies and categorisations, as well as the fallacy of a duality or split between the human thought and matter, which are only realised reciprocally: the conceptual, symbolic practice of pastoral retreat and return is permeated by real, material experience, and, consequently, influences material experience itself.
           The Waves’ materiality expands ontological notions of British modernism, such as ‘the individual’ vs. ‘the constructed world’ and the idea of an objective reality. In such a sense, the term ‘material’ fits a Woolfian worldview as in the notion of mutual construction as is portrayed in her novel. It can be argued that she utilises the pastoral idea of retreat – clearly observable in the childhood era at Elvedon and further underlined through Woolf’s use of the recurring interludes framing the novel – to absorb the reader in the cyclical construction of what we call life. This use of the pastoral mode can be interpreted as a form of a common focal point in the reality of the six characters, while it serves just as much as a defined starting point for the reader, distinctly separate from their adult lives.
           Virginia Woolf depicts the historicity of human life in a novel that hints at an ecosystemiologic model of human existence as social practice, or a contextualised, embedded environmental materiality. Woolf was able to express something she maybe could not express otherwise but by showing directly to the reader not only the way she saw life to be like, but also what she thought to know about human relations. In a subtle manner Woolf knew how to communicate her opinion on how life had made her the way she was; and how every person grows into their own life with their own recurring reference points and cyclical constructions, yet always entangled in a web of existences.
           The genius here does not lie in the abolition of the individual subject, the ‘death of representation’, or language’s illusion of material stability conceptualised in the novel. Its genius is its form, a cyclical poem-play which does not tell us ‘There exists no objective reality!’ or ‘Your subjectivity is actually entangled in a web of symbolic signifiers and relations!’. Woolf does not explain to us how humans live, she stages it, by which she is able to avoid falling into the same trap of stable referentiality and identity Bernard and the others come to criticise. In this sense, the interludes and The Waves, generally, are not posthuman, non-anthropocentric or non-human: They are the most human expression of materiality, as in that the human-ness of us is not to be found in our identity, but in our socio-constructive practice – with an emphasis on the social part!
           Once we, as humans, understand how we intervene in our reality by (ab)using representational and constructivist practices, creating hollow symbols void of referentiality, or, in extreme cases, the aforementioned ontological apartheid, we might understand why and how we have gotten to the point we find ourselves at today: The same companies that pollute the planet sell their products causing pollution back to us with green-washed labels, the politicians we vote, promising to crack down on these practices, campaign for climate action while flying around in private jets, and the list could go on. The cognitive dissonances observable in any news outlet today are baffling and can only be understood from a fundamentally materialist, ontological and symbolic perspective. Thus, Virginia Woolf can be said to achieve a stereotypically modernist undermining of epistemological ideology and, in doing so, reveals her profound preoccupation for the environment and how we, as humans, relate to it. It would be interesting to conduct an in-depth biographical research of her childhood at Elvedon, but also of her readings of classical Greek authors, as they did not only originate the pastoral mode so ever-present in British literature, but also the philosophical debate between immanence and transcendence, objective and constructed reality, or between object-oriented ontology and deep ecology.
           All in all, the capitalist alienation from our immediate environment and social practices is not merely a product of human commodification and labour exploitation; the epistemological evolution of human perception and representation (and thus, knowledge) towards an ideal of ontologic stability based on Western dualism and Platonic rationality constitute one of the main features of today’s socio-political shortcomings. Having lost any direct relation to and experience of our surroundings through symbolic representation and working with hollow shells of signifiers (such as ‘climate change’, ‘climate catastrophe’ or ‘global warming’) can only accelerate the alienation and dissonance we experience. The practice of Woolfian materiality and environmentality is, in the end, a Socratic one: only in the reciprocal process of experiencing our cosmos and being perceived by it do we as humans construct and get to know our ever-changing selves.

17 Harman later worked on a fully conceptualised object-oriented ontology (see Harman, Ontology). 
           18 For Haraway’s materialist concept of string figures, see Haraway (97–104).
         19 The last phrase of this quote was actually recorded in Woolf’s diary word for word, pointing at a process of reflection of resemblance and representation in her own writing. (Woolf, Diary Vol. 3 113).
           20 An essay by Gillian Beer evidences how Woolf was actually very invested in social and political issues even while her health was uncertain, such as her association with the Working Women’s Guild (56).
           21 Percival is generally equated with the stereotypical hero, just a Bernard is seen as the poet. A very clear example can be found on pages 100, where Louis lists him together with actual ancient military figures and war heroes like “Alcibiades, Ajax, Hector” (Woolf, Waves 100). Bernard also clearly expressed this notion: “He is conventional; He is a hero. [...] He is a hero” (ibid. 68).
       22 Expanding on the philosophical debate underlying these differing notions of materiality would obfuscate the scope of this paper. For a short explanation, see Itzkowitz (340).
       23 The sign, in our semiotically structured reality, has lost much of its direct referentiality, which is also lamented by famed pragmatist Peirce, who, going against philosophical Cartesianism, believed that the sign did not allow humans to conceive the inconceivable. See Peirce (1998).
           24 Elvedon does reveal similarities to St. Ives, a rocky coastal town in Cornwall, where Woolf spent great parts of her childhood. Fernald’s The Oxford Handbook of Virginia Woolf (2021) provides an excellent overview on Woolf’s childhood, especially on her time at St. Ives (e.g. 8ff.)
           25 Some of these behaviours have been detailed throughout the paper, but for an in-depth review of the six individual characters and how they relate to their environment, see Lucenti 77-82.

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