How Performative Utterances Make Us Like G-D

As a Jewish college student studying psychology and English literature, I find myself constantly looking for G-d in everything I learn. Studying psychology forces you to pay close attention to your mind and your feelings, and ideally, those of others as well.  In a way, studying people is a lot like studying G-d. After all, we were made in His image – we’re His masterpiece, the only organism created with language and expressive intelligence. As human beings, we’ve been granted the ability to be creators. We create many things – we build buildings, birth children, and write books; look at us! We’re just like G-d… aren’t we? We are very much aware that G-d created the world with speech, something man is utterly incapable of; isn’t he?

When G-d brought the world into existence, He simply said, “Let there be light.” And that’s it. To bring it back to English lit, I’d like to suggest that this was the first  performative utterance to ever take place. When I stumbled upon the concept of speech acts and performative utterances, I instantly made this connection. In general, human beings do not have the ability to will something into existence using language alone. We use our minds, our hands, and our bodies. We create nothing instantaneously, we take time. But in the philosophy of language and speech-acts theory, we discover a great paradox. A performative utterance – a phrase that comments on itself, an action that is birthed through its presence. By use of this verbal manipulation, we are able to actualize two dimensional verbs – we humanize them, we make them active.

For example, thanking someone, allows them to become thanked. Firing someone, puts another human out of a job. Pronouncing a couple “man and wife,” forever (hopefully) binds them together. The most extreme example may be sentencing someone to serve time in prison, or perhaps the opposite; freeing someone from their sentence. Do speech acts allow human beings to be like G-d?

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The fundamental difference is in the timing, which as we all know, is everything. When the G-d brings something into creation, it happens instantaneously. As a response to any human decree, there is much to follow. Blue prints to be actualized, buildings to be built, children to be raised. However, G-d is not only the creator, but the maintainer as well. So too, man creates and maintains his work. Is this where we find the ultimate similarity?

Perhaps, but how can it possibly compare to it’s glaring counterpart? When G-d creates, it is the truest form of creation. When humans create, it’s a social contract, in that the people elect other people to positions of power. Laws are enforced, people enforce sentences. We enforce the meaning behind human sentences culturally. Performative actions are artificially creative in that humans allow them to be so. G-d is the ultimate creator – what He wills into existence, will be. There are no conditions, exceptions, or restrictions. So what’s the purpose of performative utterances? To give humans the ability to mimic G-d. We are attached to the holiness of G-d, which overflows from us into the world. By accepting that performative utterances are man’s so called “excuse” to behave like G-d, we accept that this is our method to channel the creator within.