Fall 2017–Winter 2018

Telling the Future

Prophecy as performance

Steven Connor

Prophecy compounds two distinct ideas. First there is the idea of speaking for, or in the place of. God’s prophets speak the words of God unto men. In Ezekiel, the word is employed to mean a kind of magic speech—the use of utterance to bring about miraculous effects. In the valley of dry bones, God commands Ezekiel to “prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus saith the Lord GOD unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live.” Ezekiel duly utters the commanding words on God’s behalf that God has commanded him to utter, and as he says them, “there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone.” The point is that here “I will” is not used to express some future intention but rather to make something occur in the present. A chain of discursive command is instituted, in which God commands Ezekiel to command the bones, which duly reassemble themselves. But then, and more familiarly, there is the idea of prophecy as foretelling, the adumbration in advance of events that are yet to come. How are these two functions, of here-and-now command and long-distance foreseeing, associated?


Prophecy is not prediction. I may predict a 5 percent increase in the rate of inflation, but I prophesy famine, fire, and flood. Similarly, I can predict a win for Hurricane Fly in the 2:30 race at Haydock Park, but I prophesy the end of days and universal lamentation. Prediction, that is, concerns precise and particular events that may be verified or falsified. This means that prediction consists of predication, the making of statements, in the future tense. Prophecy, by contrast, is the kind of utterance that is known as a performative, like the statement “I name this ship the Enterprise” or “I now declare you man and wife,” in that it aims as much to induce a particular effect or condition as to issue a statement about a state of affairs in the world.


This means that prophecy, which is often accompanied by ventriloquism, also resembles it. First, as in Ezekiel, prophecy borrows or mimics the function of a god, whether Apollo, the god of prophecy who overtook the sibyls and seers of the ancient world such as Cassandra, or the priestesses of the Delphic oracle. But, as a performative, prophecy is also like ventriloquism in that it is a sort of conjuring, which arouses in the one who hears or receives the prophecy the desire or the temptation to see it made good. It is not the ventriloquist who throws his voice into the dummy; it is his audience. Similarly, it is not the act of prophecy that draws the present tense of utterance into conformity with future events, but the desire of the reader or receiver of the prophecy for it to be proved as a prediction. Prophecy aims to magnetize the future, to tempt or seduce it into conformity with a past in which it might have been foreknown.


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