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.

This is why prophecy is so rarely tied to specified times and places, or if it is tied to a date, as in affirmations of the end of the world, that date can and must always be revisable. Predictions are exhaustible, but prophecy, though it must always concern the future, is anachronistic, floating between the present tense of its utterance and the open and prospective time of its putative fulfillment, which must never in fact definitively or once-and-for-all arrive. The prophecies of the sixteenth-century apothecary Nostradamus in fact seem to jumble up past, present, and future, since many of the events that he claimed to foresee had in fact already taken place. One example is the discovery of the tomb of Augustus, which had occurred in 1521, and which Nostradamus seems to predict on three separate occasions in his prophetic writings. Meanwhile, as history unfolds, readers of Nostradamus continue to find new assignments and applications for the events that he predicted, indifferent to how they may previously have been interpreted.

Prophecies are often inaugural, a word that advertises its links with augury, from divination through the flight of birds (Latin avis, a bird, and garrire, to talk). The visible speech of birds’ flight patterns attended to by augury has no interiority, no intent, other than to signify the making of signs itself. Cassandra is said to have gained the gift of prophecy after her ears were licked clean by snakes in the temple of Apollo, which suggests a similar link between prophecy and the activity of animals. Prophecy occurs in conditions of trance or fever, which ensures that the utterances of prophets are riddling, delirious, or garbled. But this is appropriate for a mode of discourse that relies upon meaning being read in from the outside rather than expressed from the inside.

This is why prophets are so rarely heeded. Indeed, we may say that the point of prophecy is that it should be ignored in its own time, the only time in which it might seem to be of any use. The purpose of prophecy is always to allow the revelation, too late, that the prophecy should at the time have been heeded, though there is usually no practical way in which the knowledge could have been put to use even if it could have been discerned. Like a sign that says, “Warning: Falling Rocks,” it is not entirely clear what one is supposed to do with a prophecy of the coming of the Lord in wrath. Perhaps, though prophecy often seems to concern itself with catastrophe and the End of Days, the function of its temporal uncertainty, far from collapsing past and future together, is ultimately to keep history open, unconcluded and revisable, while also ensuring that past, present, and future remain looped together by anticipation and retrospection.

Prophecy consists, therefore, of the reflexive performance or provocation: “Make prophecy out of this.” And this is the final form of ventriloquial imposture in it. Prophecy, in which a mortal seems to impersonate the powers of divinity so as to order the things of this world through the power of utterance alone, in fact turns out to be able to do just what it wagers. For prophecy is the performance of just this power of performance, which means that all prophecies are prophetic of the same thing—that, rather than commanding history, they will in fact be swallowed up by it. Prophecies prophesy no more, and no less, than that they will, in the end, be taken to have been prophetic.

Steven Connor is professor of English at the University of Cambridge, where he is the director of the Centre for Research in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). His books include Living By Numbers: In Defence of Quantity (Reaktion Books, 2016) and Dream Machines (Open Humanities Press, 2017). The Madness of Knowledge: On Wisdom, Ignorance and Fantasies of Knowing will appear from Reaktion Books in 2019.

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