The Inability of Escaping Fate. Postcolonialism in “Steins Gate”

For many years, time travel did not fit into the framework of serious science. Nevertheless, this topic has become a kind of side occupation for theoretical physicists. Reflections on such travels lead to rather amusing, but also very thoughtful conclusions. For example, if free movement in time, at least in principle, is possible, one will have to take a fresh look at the relationship between cause and effect. Since Einstein formulated the general theory of relativity in 1915, describing gravity as deviations and curves in space-time, scientists continue to find various equations of time.

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Great interest to travel in time was manifested not only in science but also in fiction and cinematography, in particular, animated films and anime. A unique outlook on time travel and the consequences that are brought upon because of it is presented in Steins Gate ‑ Japanese visual novel, the adaptation of which is an atypical representative in anime. This anime, in fact, represents post-colonial view on time travel as nomadism of the ‘citizens of Universe,’ the ‘end of space,’ and special post-colonial ethics, not fitting either Kantian ethics or utilitarianism.

According to skeptics, before building a time machine, it is necessary to clearly determine what time is. Often, there is rather an intuitive and practical approach to this concept than a rigorous physical and mathematical one. The development of any system, they continue, albeit a cyclic process, but unidirectional one. The return of its previous state is a violation of the second law of thermodynamics, because development proceeds by reducing the energy of the system, and its restoration occurs by reducing the energy of other systems (Schneider 60-62).

Thus, even in the scientific justification of the possibilities of time travel, it is obvious that the win-win situation is impossible in this case. In science fiction, if there is time travel in the plot, the issue of the ethical side of “playing with time” can also be called one of the central issues, that is, the issue where the loss will occur.

The main issue here is how changing the past will affect our present and future. This issue is the subject of the greatest volume of time travel literature. Here one can recall Bradbury, Wells, and Zelazny, as well as dozens of films in modern cinema. In this context, the movie Time Machine, an adaptation of Herbert Wells’ novel, should be recalled. The protagonist, a scientist, lost his lover: she fell under the cab when he went to the shop for flowers. After that, he spent many years creating a time machine that would give him a chance to change everything.

He succeeded in his plan, returned to the past and at a critical moment kept the girl from crossing the street. After that, they both went to the rink, where they were met by street gangsters and that evening they shot his beloved. She nevertheless died, despite all his efforts.

History would not have come out of the category of “what to be – that cannot be avoided,” if not for its ending. At the end of the novel, the scientist, having fallen into the distant future, got the opportunity to change the course of things so that his bride would have remained alive in the past, and he could, having returned to the present, happily live with her, but he voluntarily refused it, because on the other scale, there was the life of a whole nation.

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The anime under consideration ‑ Steins Gate ‑ can be called atypical by all criteria: plot, composition, characters, non-standard genre synergy. It combines drama, science fiction with elements of romance, and multi-layered philosophical overtones (Steins Gate). The word “Stein” in the name comes from the name of Albert Einstein ‑ the author of the theory of relativity, various aspects of which are associated with travel in time and space.

The plot revolves around young people who, by perfect chance, create a time machine from a microwave and mobile phone. Such an artistic convention, nevertheless, is harmoniously inscribed in the surroundings of science fiction and has a logical explanation in the course of the plot. The theme of time travel, the protagonist’s attempts to change the inevitable fate of the characters with the resulting dilemmas constitute the backbone of this complex and complicated story.

Hearing the phrase “time machine,” one can imagine complex and massive metal structures with a bunch of different sensors and switches. However, the brilliant brain of the self-proclaimed mad scientist Okabe Rintaro believes otherwise. He and his loyal assistants in the face of the frivolous girl Mayuri Shiina, fat hacker Itaru Hashida and the genius girl Kurisu Makise developed a device based on a regular microwave, thanks to which it is possible to send short text messages to the past. By sending such a message, one can completely change the past, present, and future (Steins Gate).

Time experiments change reality around the protagonist: there is a “butterfly effect” (described in details below in the paper). A string of events leads to disastrous consequences, which Okabe will correct, redeeming his own stupidity and curiosity. The idea of changing reality and the passage of time in the Steins Gate is transformed into eternal questions about the invariability of fate, on the framework of human will and freedom. The authors also raised narrower philosophical questions: the price of self-sacrifice, love, and perception of the world.

“There is no end though there is a start in space. — Infinity. It has (its) own power, it ruins, and it goes though there is a start also in the star. — Finite. Only the person who (has) wisdom can read the most foolish one from the history. The fish that lives in the sea doesn’t know the world in the land. It also ruins and goes if they have wisdom … It can be said that this is (a) final ultimatum from the god to the people who can fight.” (Steins Gate). The anime begins with this quote, and it applies to those who want to change things. One cannot change the past without affecting the future; everything seems to be simple, but many neglect this.

The thirst for easy money, the desire to save someone from death, to return to the past, to become successful, to change own mistakes ‑ the motives of time travel can be both ‘low’ and quite noble. However, the consequences can be very serious, and there is a difficult dilemma ‑ does the end justify the means. The participants in the unique laboratory managed to create a real time machine from the microwave. Their knowledge helps to create amazing things, because it is not for nothing that they say that great discoveries belong to amateurs. However, the situation turned so that Rintaro regretted that he had opened the Stein Gate.

The theme of time travel in this anime is disclosed scientifically and accurately, based on all the basic existing physical theories. So, one of the characters, being a skeptic and a scientist, distrusts the possibility of time travel and himself voices scientific hypotheses, putting forward convincing counterarguments (Steins Gate). From a philosophical point of view, time is an amazing phenomenon. While watching the anime, one can involuntarily wonder what value it has.

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The philosophy of time, its perception and its treatment in the literary and cinematic interpretation can be analyzed using multidisciplinary postcolonial theory. Postcolonialism is equally used to denote one of the directions of cultural theory and practice and, at the same time, the special state of modern culture. Postcolonial studies have a complex intellectual and psychological nature and focus on the search for cultural identity as a universal moral and ethical value, which determines the high significance of “postcolonial studies” as a historical and cultural phenomenon (Gonrisch and Grunkemeier 39).

The central themes of “postcolonial research” were issues of nationalism, orientalism, self-representation, cultural identity and a multicultural personality, which largely reflected the processes of formation of statehood and national identity in the liberated colonies, on the one hand, and the formation of a multicultural society in Western Europe in second half of the 20th century, on the other. However, it is important to note that postcolonialism is a special discourse that manifests itself in completely different forms and texts, but at the same time being an integral part of a certain historical period of time and space.

Born as a historiographic phenomenon, postcolonialism continued its development in the frame of philosophy based largely on postmodern discourse. As Reid rightly states, “there is no single period or moment marking the emergence of postcolonial approaches …. but rather a gradual convergence … of active translation and transition in the margins between the cultures” (Reid 256). Postcolonial research has a complex intellectual and psychological nature and focus on the search for cultural identity as a universal moral and ethical value, which determines the high importance of postcolonial research as a historical and cultural phenomenon.

Using primarily postmodern ideas, postcolonial authors sought to integrate into a single whole some provisions of European philosophical thought and the national liberation ideology of once colonized countries.

Neither Kantian ethics nor utilitarianism are suitable for resolving ethical implications of postcolonialism, as the characteristics of postcolonial space are too heterogeneous. It was emphasized that the national idea is only a transitional step towards a more global liberation of human, his exit to the “supranational” level (Huggan 40-42). A nation is perceived as an artificially created concept, and emphasis is placed on its constant variability, ability to transform.

Postcolonial discourse is a contrast to the logic of binary oppositions and large dichotomies, such as “colonizer – colonized,” “East – West,” “capitalism – socialism,” because in this case there is a search for some alternative spaces, some “third,” some other ways thinking and logical paths that can explain the complexity of the phenomena of the human world. Moreover, it refers also to new ways of understanding the postcolonial state (Nayar 126-132). Postcolonial experience overcomes national boundaries and, in addition, they are intertwined in the modern period with the discourses of globalization.

As a result of a theoretical analysis of postcolonial nomadism studies, a number of basic types can be distinguished. The first type of people is the “man of the universe” or an integrated type whose identity is positive, holistic, and has retained a connection with the native culture. The second type of people practices digital nomadism as a way to get away from solving personal and social problems. The third type of people is the “patchwork type,” whose identity of “a man without roots” is fragmented and negative; a person is incapable of building strong and deep relations with the people around him (Nayar 53-56).

The leading modes that structure the consciousness of the “digital nomad” are freedom and dependence, closeness and alienation, work and leisure, novelty and habit, development and stagnation. The heroes of postcolonial works are in constant travel, movement between worlds and traditions. The digital nomad at the highest stage turns into a nomad, wandering between times and worlds.

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The postmodern rhetoric, aimed at multiplicity, heterogeneity in cultural reproduction, contributes to the development of postcolonial practices. The complex system of relations that has developed between postmodernism and postcolonialism forms a discursive dialogue, which is reflected in postcolonial texts. Thus, the metaphor of out-of-placeness, out-of-position is present as a key metaphor in postmodernism, postcolonialism, and globalism, but its definite side is emphasized everywhere, although the authors insist on the irreducibility of their concepts to one another.

Representatives of the European left postmodern Deleuze and Guattari reflect on “deterritorialization,” “nomadism,” and tribal psychology in a rather abstract sense of a regular socio-political utopia, which is not connected with a specific locale or history and, therefore, is implicitly neo-universalist (Zabus 58-64).

In the works of the postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha, which were largely based on the views of J. Lacan, these ideas take on a completely different and more concrete connotation. It is no coincidence that the central concept in Bhabha epistemology is “out-houseness.” He emphasizes the feeling of “trapping” between cultures, not belonging to either of them, not to both at once, self-awareness in a peculiar stupor, which arises not because of a personal psychological disorder, but because of a trauma of a cultural dislocation in which there is a post-modern personality. He writes that, in the modern world, there is an introduction of the sphere of “otherworldliness,” which sets the border or threshold.

Behind it, a “presence” begins because, according to Bhabha, the border grasps “the alienating sensation of home and world exchanging places” (Bhabha as cited in Chakrabarti 16-17). Homelessness in this way is a state of supraterritorial and intercultural principles. The idea of the “end of space,” the end of locality, connected not least with new forms of production and distribution of decentralized power, with the dispersed subject of the globalization era, with the change of the distance metaphor to the speed metaphor, is obvious here.

All this can be seen in the concept of the Steins Gate storyline ‑ a postmodern nomad, “a citizen of the world” here becomes a nomad in time, a “citizen of the universe.” Moreover, this anime offers a unique outlook on time travel: for the first time in cinema, the ability to exert a real influence on the events of the past is shown, without physically moving there. However, the essence of “games with time” does not change from this.

There is a point of view that postcolonial literature and cinema are so closely related to postmodern discourse that they represent only an invariant of postmodern texts, with their main features (Bocking-Welch, Hesse, and Pett 1-8):

  • Fragmentation and change of the narrator ‑ the narration is carried out alternately from all the main characters;
  • Exclusion, otherness of the main characters from the general plan, as one of the central lines of the novel;
  • Reflective deviations from the plot, the desire for isolation, leading to violence and ultimately the ending of the novel, which is also the beginning of a new round.

In this context, we should recall 11.22.63 (November 22, 63rd) ‑ an American mini-series based on the science fiction novel by American writer Stephen King 11/22/63. Jake Epping, a simple English teacher, is given the opportunity to travel back in time ‑ in the year 1960 ‑ and try to prevent the assassination of Kennedy, but he does not suspect that time itself opposes change. The protagonist is sure: the salvation of the American president will help change the course of history for the better, but the past in every way resists any interference in its course (11.22.63). This is no coincidence, since any changes in the past can deprive us of the future, which is shown in the film.

“You should not be here” ‑ this phrase is the leitmotif of the entire series. It still seems to many that if it weren’t for Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet, there would have been no Vietnam War or many other cataclysms. However, returning in 2011, Jake finds himself in a terrible apocalyptic world, poisoned by radiation. Harry Dunning, who in this version of the present became disabled, says that Kennedy was not able to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and did not dare to withdraw troops from Vietnam.

Replacing him at president post in 1968, racist George Wallace gave the order for the nuclear bombing of Hanoi. It was followed by many nuclear wars in different places of the globe, which led to global radioactive contamination. Also, the change in time that Jake made provoked powerful earthquakes, which in 2080 should destroy the Earth.

Another story, but no less ethically challenging, is presented in the movie Back to the Future. Dr. Brown invents a plutonium-powered machine based on an old DeLorean car; it is actually a time machine for traveling to the past. Marty McFly gets in the car, goes to the past and meets there with his young mother, who then falls in love with him.

There is a difficult problem ‑ if the future mother of Marty rejects his future father and they do not get married, then the hero simply will not be born into the world (Back to the Future). Although ethical issues are not global here, unlike in 11.22.63, the film nevertheless makes one think about the possible consequences of mass travel in time ‑ like space tourism, but tourism in time.

In this context, the so-called “butterfly effect” should be remembered. This effect is well described in the famous story of Ray Bradbury, written in the early 1950s – A Sound of Thunder. His heroes set off in prehistoric times on our planet, moving there along an anti-gravity path to minimize the likelihood of contact with the past. One of the characters descended from the trail and accidentally crushed a butterfly. Returning to their usual time, the heroes discover that much has changed ‑ from spelling words to the outcome of the election. It turns out that they created an alternative reality.

Bradbury’s story is often cited in works on chaos theory, since it first refers to the so-called “butterfly effect”: a minor change now may have big and often unpredictable consequences in the future. This is a serious obstacle to travel into the past (Schneider 35). Even if someone would overcome all the difficulties and figure out how to do it technically, it would be no less difficult to make such a trip without risking changing the course of history.

The pride of British television, one of the longest-running science fiction TV series in Doctor Who TV history, represents a very original interpretation of “games over time.” The plot is based on the Doctor ‑ a native of Gallifrey, the planet of the Time Lords who know how to travel in time. The Doctor has his own (once stolen from the museum) car for traveling in time and space – TARDIS (Decker 2-3).

Travels rarely do without companions, which the Doctor saves from trouble (or gets into trouble) in various parts of the Universe (regularly, this is London of the 20-21 centuries, since the timeline of the series is tied to the time of filming). In this series, time travel is presented in a positive way.

The anime of Steins Gate, refusing to be attached to the “time machine,” reveals answers to many philosophical questions, including whether our mistakes are evil. It is important, as, for example, Kennedy’s political mistakes that created the Caribbean crisis put the world on the brink of nuclear war. However, as shown in 11.22.63, an attempt to change history can potentially lead to even more deplorable results, up to the destruction of human civilization.

Steins Gate is an interesting animated series with a deep elaboration of the plot and characters, touching on acute philosophical issues. The authors of the anime skillfully use visual symbolism without verbal exposure, enhancing the emotional response of viewers from certain tragic scenes. Although the creators do not give a clear answer to the latent questions, they allow a fresh look at the topics touched upon in the work.

Science fiction takes the test of reality from the point of view of its conformity with the philosophical ideas of truth, goodness, beauty, unity, freedom, expediency, indicating to science that the world is still far from harmony. Science fiction performs the most important social functions: ontological ‑ “mirrors of social reality,” epistemological ‑ for constructing models of possible social reality, prognostic ‑ for anticipation, foresight of the future, as well as cognitive, information-communicative, cultural, and educational (Zabus 42-43). In particular, humanity is trying to simulate the situations it will face if ever a time machine is built, and to resolve the potential paradoxes of time travel.

Many people would certainly wish to travel in time. In practice, this will mean reaching the boundaries of the universe and removing all restrictions on the speed of movement in space. Kurt Gödel, who clearly served as the prototype of the “professor” in the famous science fiction film The Philadelphia Experiment, showed that such dreams were no longer just the task of science fiction writers (Schneider 89-94). However, even the simplest analysis of the possibility of time travel shows that humanity will face the need to change its logic and way of perceiving the world, which will require the development of a new ethics.

Steins Gate, showing postmodern nomadism and the “end of space,” despite belonging to the entertainment genre, pose serious ethical questions addressed to potential time travelers. Anime makes one think about the harmful consequences of attempts to “control” objective time, attempts to “rewrite history.” Even if “rewriting history” ‘on paper’ can lead to social disasters, it remains to guess what such a change in history can lead to in reality. Humanity is a system, so even the actions of one “time traveler” can have a significant impact on its future.

Works Cited

11.22.63. Directed by Stephen King, Bad Robot Production, 2016.

Back to the Future. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, Universal Pictures, 1985.

Bocking-Welch, Anna, Isabelle Hesse, and Sarah Pett. “The Parapostcolonial: Interdisciplinary Perspectives and New Approaches.” Postcolonial Text, Vol 9, No 4, 2014, pp. 1-8.

Chakrabarti, Sumit. “Moving Beyond Edward Said: Homi Bhabha and the Problem of Postcolonial Representation.” International Studies, Vol. 14, Iss. 1, 2012, pp. 5-21.

Decker, Kevin. “Gallifrey Falls No More: Doctor Who’s Ontology of time.” Journal of Science Fiction and Philosophy, Vol. 2, 2019, pp. 1-10.

Gonrisch, Jana and Ellen Grunkemeier (Eds.). Postcolonial Studies Across the Disciplines. Rodopi, 2013.

Huggan, Graham G. The Oxford Handbook of Postcolonial Studies. Oxford University Press, 2016.

MacEgan, Mattew. “Steins;Gate 0: A sequel to the popular time-travel anime series.WSWS. Web.

Nayar, Pramod K. Postcolonial Studies: An Anthology. Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.

Reid, Michelle. “Postcolonialism.” The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould et al., Routledge, 2009, pp. 257-267.

Robert, Adam. Science Fiction. Routledge, 2006.

Schneider, Susan. Science Fiction and Philosophy: From Time Travel to Superintelligence. Wiley-Blackwell, 2016.

Steins Gate. Directed by Hiroshi Hamasaki, White Fox, 2011-2014.

Zabus, Chantal. The Future of Postcolonial Studies. Routledge, 2014.

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StudyCorgi. "The Inability of Escaping Fate. Postcolonialism in "Steins Gate"." June 29, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/the-inability-of-escaping-fate-postcolonialism-in-steins-gate/.

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StudyCorgi. 2021. "The Inability of Escaping Fate. Postcolonialism in "Steins Gate"." June 29, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/the-inability-of-escaping-fate-postcolonialism-in-steins-gate/.

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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'The Inability of Escaping Fate. Postcolonialism in "Steins Gate"'. 29 June.

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