The following was originally published way, way back, on March 13, 2013.
Jimmy Fallon, American late night TV host, had this to say on the ritual signification of choosing the new Pope: “With the Pope retiring, more than 100 cardinals will sequester themselves in the Sistine Chapel to choose the next Pope. They’ll send out white smoke if they’ve chosen somebody, black smoke if they haven’t chosen somebody, and a text message when they find out that it’s 2013.” Underlying this very simple, ableit mildly funny statement, which claims on some level that the papal conclave is an anachronism, is a very common assumption that I think is worth interrogating. It is the assumption that time itself should be a measure of appropriateness or success; that “it’s 2013″, which means that the Catholic Church should “get with the programme”.
This assumption is played out in a number of ways. At its most basic, it assumes that Friday is better simply because it isn’t Thursday, and also that Friday is better than Thursday simply because it is closer to Saturday (Saturday, of course, is better than Friday just because it’s Saturday). Being at university is thus assumed to be better than being at high school simply because it assumes that we are “further along” than we once were (Time, of course, is dealt with in terms of the metaphor of a journey or is often personified as a moving object — “time flies” or “the right time arrives”). But how do you get to University without some kind of preparation? If we keep this way of thinking in tact, we will end up with assuming that Saw 6 must be better than any play by Shakespeare simply because it is newer, or that getting a divorce is better than being married simply because it happened more recently than the wedding, or that being dead is way more progressive than being alive. Degeneration can also happen in the future.
Time itself cannot be a measure of goodness or wisdom or truth or beauty or anything else that is of genuine value. It is simply the framework or container within which we must figure these other more transcendent qualities out. So, yes, we have electronic texts now instead of smoke signals, and the assumption of Fallon’s joke is that this somehow makes the smoke signal ridiculous. But what makes the smoke signal seem ridiculous is not its inherent ridiculousness. It is our way of seeing that is truly ridiculous. We have become slaves to fashion — so obsessed with the new to the point that the question of whether something is really, genuinely better is hardly even asked. We use the word “outdated” as a derogatory term without understanding that mere speed or difference cannot be proof of something being better. So what if “it’s 2013″ — humanity doesn’t seem to be much better now than at any time before.
Of course, the misuse of the theory of evolution argues that time is the measure of improvement. We are somehow deemed better than monkeys simply because we happened to show up on the timeline a little later on. But I think we are better than monkeys for a host of other reasons that exclude time as a measurement, and worse than monkeys for even more reasons that also exclude the same. And my point is just this: time itself is not enough to improve things. If you leave your lawn unchecked, it will grow wild. If you leave milk out in the sun, it will become sour. The measure of the success of a lawn is its neatness and the measure of milk is its drinkability, not its place in a calendar.
Think of “planned obsolescence”. I have a cellphone contract that I sign that allows (or forces) me to change my phone for a newer one every 2 years. But the only reason I actually need to get the new phone, as far as I can tell, is that if I don’t I will soon be phone-less, because my old phone will soon explode or melt into oblivion. Why will it explode or melt? Because the manufacturers design it to do just that. Why? Because how else will they sell more phones and make more money? My good or wellbeing, or indeed the wellbeing of the culture, is never even considered as part of this imbalanced equation. I serve the machine, and the machine is made of time and money. I can now send a text about the election of the new Pope, but I may still be filled with all kinds of character flaws and corruptions. Just because I’m older doesn’t make me better than my past self.
But, anyway, the point here is that the Catholic Church has decided to set up some rituals that don’t change with the times. Some see this as anachronistic, but it seems to me that this is just good sense. Instead of spending the next five minutes worrying about how to keep up with the times in the following five minutes, the Catholic Church has tried (albeit with some hiccups) to not let something as arbitrary as time be the measure of its success. Some may not necessarily think that this is a good thing, but in order to convince me they will have to do better than quote Bob Dylan’s “The times, they are a-changin’”. My question will still be, what are they changing for? The mere unrolling of time is simply a means towards decay if there is no good reason for it.