R. John Williams

R. John Williams is Associate Professor at Yale University where he teaches in the departments of English and Film and Media Studies. He is the author of The Buddha in the Machine: Art, Technology and the Meeting of East and West (Yale University Press, 2014), which examines the role of technological discourse in the development of Asian religious experience in the United States and Europe. The book won the 2015 Harry Levin Prize for Best Book from the American Comparative Literature Association. His recent work has focused on new theories of time that emerged in the second half of the twentieth centuries, particularly in the rise of futurology and theories of “presence.” An article from this new project has appeared in Critical Inquiry and another is forthcoming in a volume titled Futures (forthcoming from Oxford University Press, 2019). Before his turn to history, he was trained in critical theory, philosophy, and comparative literary theory at the University of California, Irvine, where he earned his Ph.D. in 2008. He currently teaches on subjects of philosophies of time, spirituality, literature and technology, and American literary diversity.

Funded Project: The Spiritual Technologies of Presence

In an era when the future has come to seem exceedingly complex and uncertain, much of the Western world has shifted its spiritual focus to the sensitivities of the now—that is, to both the radical contingencies of the present moment, and what it means to be present in the here and now. However, as this project will illustrate, the contemporary effort to be “present” is marked by an odd contradiction. On the one hand, it has become commonplace to refer to the speed and simultaneity of network technologies as having brought about a culture of absolute nowness, with a panoply of ill effects: “present shock,” “the tyranny of the moment,” “the regime of the present instant.” On the other hand, a massive culture of mindfulness training promises to help us harness the virtues of an “eternal” now: “being here now,” “dwelling in the present moment,” “journeying into nowness,” and so on. What to make of this odd convergence?

This project investigates how, rather than seeing these technological and spiritual “nownesses” as independent manifestations of irreconcilable endeavors, a new kind of theology in business culture (what I refer to as “progressive management theory”) emerged in the last decade with the aim of bringing these realms into alignment—bringing together, that is, the “eternal now” of contemplative practices and the “timeless time” of global networks. In tracking this development, this project hypothesizes that the popularization of contemplative practice in corporate culture might not be, as some have argued, the antithesis of the punishing expectation of continuous productivity, but rather its spiritualized double. As I hope to illustrate, when Jiddu Krishnamurti, the global face of the theosophical tradition, suggested in a conversation with theoretical physicist David Bohm that we must “cleanse the mind of the accumulation of time,” his message was received as eagerly by the corporate oracles of Silicon Valley as by devotees of Eastern theology—and they have quite often been the very same people.

With the generous funding of the Institute for Buddhist Studies research initiative on Public Theologies of Technology and Presence, I also hope to explore how the ambitions evident in these theological trends in management (and particularly in conversation with practitioners of technological and spiritualized efforts in Silicon Valley) correspond to longstanding debates in the realms of art and literary culture. Are there not parallels, in other words, between the desire to be “present” in an aesthetic or spiritual experience, and the managerial efforts to transform the world through the psychological benefits of contemplative states? If so, then it will be extremely useful to identify the points of convergence between our experiences of art and literature and the larger possibilities of a network saturated World Presence.

Project Outputs: 

Futurology, Oxford University Press (in progress)

World Presence, University of Chicago Press (in progress)

“Modernity, Presence, and Temporality,” in Religion, Technology, and Human Presence (host, Dr. Bradley Onishi)

“Technology, Media, and the Metaphysics of Presence,” at the Public Theologies of Technology and Presence Capstone Conference (May, 2021)

“The Yin and Yang of G. Spencer Brown’s Laws of Form” in ALPHABETUM III (2020)

“Technology, Memory, and Our Sense of Time,” at the Institute of Buddhist Studies (October, 2019)

“The Spiritual Technologies of the Here and Now,” at the Institute of Buddhist Studies (October, 2018)