Got the time?

by Kim on October 25, 2006

This weekend the clocks go back in the UK: we “gain” time. Which is ironic, really, because it’s been some time since we “lost” time. As an African visitor to Britain recently observed, “Everybody here has a watch, but no one has the time.”

It hasn’t always been so. Before the mechanical clock was invented in the 12th century, time was organised by meaning rather than by machine. Time was organic and textured, relating to social interactions and varying according to the four seasons, the day’s activities, and the liturgical year.

In fact, as the late Neil Postman observed (citing the work of Lewis Mumford), the mechanical clock originated in the medieval Benedictine monasteries; it was designed to regulate periods of prayer and devotion. “But what the monks did not foresee was that the clock is a means not merely of keeping track of the hours but also of synchronizing and controlling the actions of men.” Indeed “without the clock, capitalism would have been quite impossible.”

The clock, in other words, whitewashed time of its rich and colourful character. Only with the clock, with its discrete units - tick-tock, tick-tock - could time be “gained” or “lost”, “saved” or “wasted”. And only with the clock did the tenses of time begin to contract, with ever increasing speed, until the present is all that matters. But unlike the mystics’ “Eternal Now”, it is a present that is a commodity to be exploited rather than a gift to be treasured (thus the phrase “time is money”). We may not like Mondays, and look forward to Fridays, but contemporary pressures of work and consumption have homogenised time and emptied it of all collective, let alone religious, significance. What is left of the past is now distorted by nostalgia (the heritage industry, the Churches Tourism Network) or rejected as bunk (the Vietnam War to Bush, the Suez crisis to Blair, the history of the Middle East to both), while the future is faced either with blank indifference or hysterical apprehension.

The church, however, continues to speak of an alternative chronology to the unforgiving minute. It speaks not of “one damned thing after another” but of promise and fulfilment and the sacrament of the present moment. Postman suggested that “with the invention of the clock, Eternity ceased to serve as the measure and focus of human events. . . introduc[ing] a new form of conversation between man and God, in which God appears to have been the loser.” Time to re-gain divine time. Think of making love: Who checks their watch?

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blonde 10.26.06 at 9:53 am

thanks kim, thought provoking post. did you hear Maggi Dawn’s talk on the liturgical year, particularly “ordinary time”?

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