My project examines the profound effect that technological forms (material, conceptual, linguistic, epistemic) have had, and continue to have, on the practice and study of prayer. My project addresses: 1) social and technological contexts in and through which prayer has been represented, 2) the relationship between these contexts, these representations, and the dynamics of the secular age, and 3) the use of machines to measure one’s prayers and the prayers of others. Chapter topics include the mechanization of prayer in recent American history; the institutional and technological contexts that have shaped the Catholic practice of the rosary in the second half of the twentieth century; the use of the E-meter among Scientologists as a self-conscious displacement of prayer; and brain-imaging machines currently utilized in cognitive inquiries into religion.
My project is a blend of two scholarly genres—1) genealogical excavation of the mechanization of prayer and 2) thick description of three sites of mechanical interface where the discourse of prayer becomes operational. Through historical documentation and case studies I will address how prayer is constructed, what social and political factors contribute to these constructions, how these constructions change over time, and how these constructions compare with one another.
In addition to the relationship between prayer and technology my project addresses larger questions concerning the secular age—its emergence, its maintenance, its tensions and contradictions. If, as Charles Taylor argues, the secular age is marked by a notion of choice—a necessary stance one must take vis-à-vis the religious, then a pressing line of inquiry revolves around the question of what conditions the possibilities of such choices being made in the first place. Consequently, the secular age must be understood in light of that conditioning and those possibilities and the effects that such necessary stances generate. Consequently, my project on prayer machines will engage ongoing debates about secularism. Secularism refers, here, to those processes by which the truth and falsity of religion become charged with meaning and affect and how those charges, in turn, precipitate epistemic and political practices. Such processes exceed the boundaries of any single tradition of prayer—be it confessional practice of or scientific discourse about. To this end, my project will identify discursive threads that connect living traditions of prayer—conservative and liberal Protestantisms, Catholic sacramentalisms, new religious movements, medical and scientific considerations of prayer, and the amorphous modes of spirituality that have emerged over the past century.
Activities during the grant period range from the collection and analysis of twentieth-century prayer ephemera and the systematic study of the arguments of cognitive science to hands-on experiments with the E-meter and field visits to working laboratories in Philadelphia, Boston, and Copenhagen. My emphasis on the mechanization of prayer across different confessional traditions as well as beyond them will: 1) initiate a new direction in the study of prayer by reconsidering questions of technic and agency, 2) reconsider the content of American religious history by foregrounding the role technological intimacy plays in constructions of religious experience, and 3) contribute to discussions about how technological forms structure the human sensorium and effect broader cultural fields.