The Butterfly Effect

The Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations

The Butterfly Effect is a film from 2004 directed by Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, in which Chaos Theory is applied to history and psychoanalysis. According to Chaos Theory an event which seems to be very insignificant in a sequence of events is in fact as important as any other event and the effects of a minor cause require some time to manifest themselves in relation to the macro situation. The main character in The Butterfly Effect “seizes hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.”[1] 

With The Butterfly Effect the audience sees everything from the perspective of a young man who not only has flashbacks in the form of dreams, but who is also able to travel in time through reading his journals. As he reads the journal, first the words, then himself, and finally the whole room starts shaking and immediately after this falling into pieces of the scene the subject travels in time, or perhaps only in his personal history, and wakes up at another period of his own life. His aim is to change something so crucial to the present but which has taken place in the past, and so that way make some things a little bit better for the people surrounding him. But to be able to be present in the past he has to occupy the place of his presence in that particular slice of the past. That is why, as a child he has occasional blackouts during which disastrous things happen, such as a mother with her baby in her arms being blown up. His gift of travelling in time turns out to be his curse locking him up in a mental hospital as a hopeless case who believes he has journals through the reading of which he can go back and forth in time and put things right or wrong when in fact there are no journals and he has simply made all these things up in his mind. Each time he goes back in time to fix something bad, he causes something worse to happen. But that worse thing which happens takes place because of his intervention in the first place. Caught in this vicious cycle of a self-fulfilling prophecy he finally strikes the right chord, he goes back to the right time and fixes the right thing. Where he goes is not in the journals this time, for he is in the mental hospital, in a time where his journals do not exist or are not recognized as such. This time he goes back in time through an amateur home movie recorded when he and his girlfriend were kids, that is, before the girl makes the decision to stay with her father rather than her mother who moves to another city after their divorce. Her decision to stay with her father leads to her friendship with the boy and to the eventual disasters. In this time they are at a garden party. When the girl approaches him he says, “If you come near me again I’ll destroy you and your family.” And the little girl runs and hides behind her mother. What he is actually doing there is giving a voice to the evil at the right time, hence causing less worse things to happen in the future. Bringing out that repressed and anti-social behaviour at the right time, or situating this free floating sign beneath the social reality, turns out to be less evil than the most good of society. It is all a matter of situating the act in the right time and the right place.

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was” (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.[2]

Intervention in history, seeing in the past something which has never taken place, is itself an act opening up spaces for new possibilities to emerge. The fear of serving that which one thinks one is struggling against prepares the grounds for the realization of what the subject was afraid of.

A potential for change that has never initiated actual change cannot be a lost chance for a change. For since it has never taken place it cannot be a lost possibility.  Benjamin’s point when he says, “only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins,” is that “even the dead will not be safe” unless the enemy loses. How can even the dead not be safe? For when the enemy loses the lives of the dead will have been wasted for nothing, for these now dead people will have struggled and suffered for nothing. For then, not the enemy but “we, the friends of those who died for a good cause” will have written the history. For Benjamin it’s all a matter of who represents what happened.

“The spark of hope” that is to be fanned is not the hope of redemption, but the hope that redemption has already taken place. That we are already redeemed and yet it is precisely this state of being redeemed that makes it a forced-choice and yet a responsibility to tell the story of the past in such a way as to introduce a split between the past and the future which generates a new mode of being and initiates change. It is out of the space between the past and the future, or the subject of statement and the subject of enunciation, that something new emerges ex nihilo. The subject writes its difference from itself, all writing is writing the difference of the subject from the void. And yet since the void against which the subject writes is the subject itself, with each word the subject moves further away from itself. This performative contradiction inherent in language is the way things are in the world. The outside, the unconscious, is the shadow of language and the social reality.

Reference Matter

[1] Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (Glasgow: Fontana Press, 1973), 257

[2] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (Glasgow: Fontana Press, 1973), 257


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