OMG! הו-אלי-הוא: Best Wishes to Elihu Katz on his 90th birthday
One of the most intriguing questions in the field of communication concerns the person whose birthday we are celebrating today (among other things we are celebrating). When I am abroad, at a seminar or a conference, international scholars of communication occasionally ask me: “Is Elihu Katz a human being, a demigod or, god forbid, almighty God itself?” There is a mystery behind this question and I only wish you could see their amazed faces when I tell them that the literal meaning of Elihu’s name is “he is God” or “my god.” Each time I have been confronted with this question my answer has always been the same: “I don’t know.” But today, especially for this festive event, I will suggest an answer that may solve the mystery (and is loosely based on the Latke-Hamantasch Debates genre developed at the University of Chicago during the 1940s; see Katz and Feldman, 1999).
I will answer this question by applying the rigorous scientific method of mediated performative I have developed in the last decade, based, of course, on John Austin’s speech act theory. And since we are marking the 50th anniversary of communication research at the Hebrew University and Elihu Katz’s 90th birthday, there is no better entry point to our discussion than looking at speech acts that are performed in order to shape a bright future: blessings and their secular version – best wishes. According to speech act theory, blessing and wishing are future-oriented actions in which the speaker is forecasting (thus hoping) that good fortune and success will befall his addressee (Kampf, 2016).
Blessing (Le-varech; לברך (is first and foremost a declarative speech act performed in religious contexts (Bruder, 1998), one in which the speaker places a person under God’s grace by “declaring him to be in such state” (Searle and Vanderveken, 1985: 209). The secular version, to wish (Le-achel; לאחל ,(counts as an expressive speech act and shares with blessing the prediction of a future event that is beneficial to the hearer. In contrast to blessing, in wishing, the speaker does not assume her words are self-fulfilling, but merely signals a desire that a favorable script will take effect in the future (Wierzbicka, 1987: 226-227). This difference between blessing and wishing allows us to suggest an initial observation about human and divine communication (and later help us understanding the exact nature of Elihu Katz): The force of secular wishes is based on social conventions, on people’s agreement on what specific words can do. But what is the power of religious blessing? Is it a kind of magic? In order to answer this question we have to travel back to the Bible and, more specifically, to the argument in the book of Numbers between the King Balak of Moab and his prophet-for-hire Balaam. Balak commands Balaam to curse the Israelites, but Balaam refuses because he knows something about how curses and blessings work. The King looks on Balaam as a pagan magician able to bless and curse at will. But Balaam is an ordained prophet of the one God, “and his function is to reveal divine decisions; he blesses here below those who have already been blessed above; he curses those who have already been cursed”. In Balak’s mind, however, to reveal and to bring about are the same thing (Samuel, 1977: 31). Now we are equipped with a theoretical framework for understanding the secrets of the relationship between earthly and divine communication: In monotheism, people reveal what has already been decided above; in paganism, people bring about a reality at will; and in the secular world, people agree in advance about how reality will change following the uttering of specific words.
So what is Elihu? A human being, a demigod, or almighty God?
I would argue that we are dealing here with a kind of trinity (see Figure 1), a unification of all three figures in one person who is present here and in all places at the same time (you all know Elihu's old joke about the professor and the two planes; he told it about Isaiah Berlin, if I am not mistaken).
Elihu is a human being, a mentch: His unconditional support of members of our department throughout the years has brought us to impressive achievements. His supportive attitude can be seen in the claim he insists on making at each and every occasion: The Department of Communication at the Hebrew University is the best in the world. Even if it is not true (and Elihu convinced it is), these praises indicate his deep understanding of how words mobilize people in secular human communication: Like compliments to children – we praise them for their actions (let’s say, drawing) not necessarily because they have painted the most beautiful picture, but because we want to challenge them to do so – Elihu’s praises were meant to keep us doing what we hopefully already do pretty well.
Elihu is also a demigod: or at least he transformed into one in the field of communication. In my own eyes I saw how students and scholars ask him if they can take a shared photograph at his side (not a humanly, mundane selfie, but real photographs with a third person who shoots the picture!). I have also heard (true!) stories of worship surrounding the demigod-style treatment he has received at international airport terminals. Former students of communication who now work at airports see the name Elihu Katz on the passport and bring about a more comfortable reality at Elihu’s will.
And last, Elihu is God (or at least Ruth’s messenger). He revealed what was decided above and he has done that by performative speech: He commanded “Let there be communication research in Israel” in 1966, and “Let there be Israeli television” in 1968. And not just in Israel: He is the person who shaped the media and communication intellectual landscapes and affected so many fields of research, ranging from public opinion and media effects to culture and communication. Communication studies, definitely in Israel and to a large extent around the world, were created in his image: נבראו בצלמו ובדמותו I wish you, Elihu, and all of us all the very best for your next 90 years.