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Philosophy department hosts discussion on Virginia Woolf and physics

On Dec. 3, Dr. Michael Swacha participated in the Philosophy Colloquium in his talk titled, “Reconciling the One and the Many: On the Possibility of Fragmentation and Perception in Virginia Woolf and the New Physics.” Swacha is a lecturer in English and philosophy and his talk was hosted by the philosophy department to discuss Virginia Woolfe’s “The Waves” and its connection to modern physics. 

Swacha’s work discusses the relation of Virginia Woolf’s 1931 novel “The Waves” with the new discoveries in physics made during the early 20th century and the rise of Modernism. Dominated by events such as World War I, World War II, the Spanish flu pandemic, nuclear weapons and power, space exploration, nationalism and decolonization and the Cold War, many members of society began to ask questions reflecting the welfare of culture and society at the time. 20th century Modernism is often referred to as the global movement in society and culture which looked for a realignment with different values of industrial life. Swacha was able to explain the Modernist notions of perception and fragmentation, and how they allow readers to imagine new ways of knowing, existing and relating to one another. 

“Time would appear to slow for the observer at the pole, however interceptively this would be such a relatively close cognitive distance. While this notion maintains the concept of individuation where two moving objects are discrete and distinct from one another, it also shows that their respective qualities are a function of perspective, and with various possible perspectives the perceived nature of any given object exists within a multiplicity. And what Einstein’s special theory of relativity therefore shows most strikingly, at least for this paper, is that perception involves an entanglement or intertwining of this seemingly mutually exclusive concepts of singularity in a mulitplicity or individuation in a collective unity,” Swacha said.

Swacha continued by explaining theories of electromagnetism and how electrodynamics could be applied to moving bodies and moving in time. Specifically, he referred to how Einstein needed to develop a strict definition of simultaneity to import the concept of time without the complications that two different accelerations would pose, and how our judgments in which time plays a part are always simultaneous events. 

“That a given time, a simultaneous time is simply when two things happen concurrently,” Swacha said. “The concept of time is relational, just by definition. The time that something occurs is by definition, temporally connected to what is occurring on the clock you observed at the same moment. Time in of itself is meaningless, it only matters, or only has significance when you observe it with something like a clock with the moving hands and so on. But perception becomes a much more interesting concept when Einstein proceeds to discuss the nature of space and its intertwining with time.”

Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” is a novel which elaborates on the connected lives between the characters. It has been argued that the book was used to reflect the beliefs of Modernist artists at the time, who believed that art must reflect the distorted nature of reality and its complications. 

“It’s hard to tell whether this is one person with different characteristics or a full group of friends. Through this nature of perception we have found, the fluidity of the characters and the fluidity of our own perceptions as readers prevents us from locking down a stable notion of an object,” Swacha said. “Through Woolf’s narrative, we apprehend the quality of each character but we can not know for certain they are not the complex unified qualities of one voice.”

Swacha concluded the lecture by discussing the importance of particular characters to the overall structure of Woolf’s work. There was a Q&A segment which followed this discussion, that addressed the concepts of reality as perception and thematic commonalities between “The Waves” and another of Woolf’s works, “To the Lighthouse”.

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