Giorgio Agamben: What is an Apparatus?

Before most of these writing notes make it to cutting floor (a process that always makes me shriek a little), I thought I’d post them here. On Agamben’s 2009 “What is an Apparatus” essay (which can be found online).

It’s really an excellent, thought-provoking essay.

For Giorgio Agamben the situation today is clear. Society is overrun with apparatuses that control and dominate the individual subject. Here, apparatus is understood historically: its emergence from the Greek term oikonomia (the management of the home, and later the religious management of the mortal realm) into its Latin translation as Disposito, from which the French term dispotif derives. The significance of this history is that each describes a set of measures designed to control the behaviors and thoughts of human beings—oikonomia became a term common to both Michel Foucault and Martin Heidegger.[i] Foucault uses the term dispotif, from which the English translation apparatus emerges, to describe a “heterogeneous set consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral, and philanthropic propositions—in short, the said as much as the unsaid. The apparatus itself is the network that can be established between these elements.”[ii]

In engaging with Foucault’s use of dispotif, Agamben pushes it further. He contends that there exists a massive “portioning” of beings into two classes—living beings and the apparatuses in which they become captured. He defines apparatus broadly, as “literally anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings. Not only, therefore, prisons, madhouses, the panopticon, schools, confession, factories, disciplines, juridical measures and so forth (whose connection with power is in a certain sense evident), but also the pen, writing, literature, philosophy, agriculture, cigarettes, navigation, computers, cellular telephones and—why not—language itself, which is perhaps the most ancient of apparatuses.”[iii]

Unpacking this, we can imagine the apparatus in the same why we can understand a technical system—as a structural force that transduces individuals and collectives. Agamben adds a third class of beings that exists in the space between the living and the apparatus: the subject. The subject is that which emerges from “the relentless fight between living beings and apparatuses.”[iv] The same individual can therefore be the same site of multiple processes of subjectification. To be a subject, is to be subjected to apparatuses. And there are many: “today there is not even a single instant in which the life of individuals is not modeled, contaminated, or controlled by some apparatus.”[v]

Agamben introduces the idea that living being is split between itself and its environment: a gap that he terms the “Open.” In lies the Open the very possibility of constructing a world and enjoying the very spacing of being. And yet, a range of apparatuses infects the Open with “instruments, objects, gadgets, odds and ends, and various technologies.”[vi]

The Open is captured, and this is the specific power of the apparatus—to produce “a separate sphere.” By capturing, controlling, and conditioning the space of subjectivity, modern forms of apparatus “desubjectify” the individual and remove all traces of positivity. In order to be, one must use a prosthetic, which empties the subject, and alienates the individual from herself. As Agamben argues, contemporary societies are nothing other than such “inert bodies” that are “going through massive processes of desubjectification”—hence the eclipse of politics which “used to presuppose the existence of subjects and real identities.”

Agamben thus chastises the apparatus for eroding political activity, and replacing it with docile and cowardly collectives. “Apparatus, then, is first of all a machine that produces subjectifications, and only as such is it also a machine of governance.”[vii] Furthermore, the public sphere has become an immense prison—far removed from the Open, such that “nothing looks more like a terrorist that the ordinary man.”[viii] Such an endless, and aimless government machine, is leading us all to catastrophe. Indeed, making the Open a common space for humanity is an all-but-impossible: after all, “the problem cannot be properly raised as long as those who are concerned with it are unable to intervene in their own processes of subjectification, any more than in their own apparatuses.”[ix]

The problem here is that the subject is not only the subject of an apparatus, but is simultaneously subjected to the apparatus. She is trapped, so to speak, in herself, in the very passage between interior and exterior: a passage that is the subject as such.


[i] Foucault uses “dispotif” and Heidegger “Gestell”

[ii] Foucault, in an interview, 1977

[iii] Agamben, What is an Apparatus, p.14

[iv] Agamben, What is an apparatus, p.14

[v] Agamben, WIAA, p.15

[vi] Agamben, WIAA, p.17

[vii] Agamben, WIAA, p.20

[viii] Agamben, WIAA, p.23

[ix] Agamben, WIAA, p.24

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