"What Is an Apparatus?" and Other Essays


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ISBN-13: 9780804762298
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 05/01/2009
Series: Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics Series
Pages: 75
Product dimensions: 4.70(w) x 7.10(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Giorgio Agamben, a leading Italian philosopher and radical political theorist, is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Venice. Stanford University Press has published six of his previous books: Homo Sacer (1998), Potentialities (1999), The Man Without Content (1999), The End of the Poem (1999), The Open (2004), and The Time that Remains (2005).

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and Other Essays

By Giorgio Agamben, David Kishik, Stefan Pedatella

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2006 Nottetempo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-6230-4


§ What Is an Apparatus?


Terminological questions are important in philosophy. As a philosopher for whom I have the greatest respect once said, terminology is the poetic moment of thought. This is not to say that philosophers must always necessarily define their technical terms. Plato never defined idea, his most important term. Others, like Spinoza and Leibniz, preferred instead to define their terminology more geometrico.

The hypothesis that I wish to propose is that the word dispositif, or "apparatus" in English, is a decisive technical term in the strategy of Foucault's thought. He uses it quite often, especially from the mid 1970s, when he begins to concern himself with what he calls "governmentality" or the "government of men." Though he never offers a complete definition, he comes close to something like it in an interview from 1977:

What I'm trying to single out with this term is, first and foremost, a thoroughly 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. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the network that can be established between these elements ...

... by the term "apparatus" I mean a kind of a formation, so to speak, that at a given historical moment has as its major function the response to an urgency. The apparatus therefore has a dominant strategic function ...

... I said that the nature of an apparatus is essentially strategic, which means that we are speaking about a certain manipulation of relations of forces, of a rational and concrete intervention in the relations of forces, either so as to develop them in a particular direction, or to block them, to stabilize them, and to utilize them. The apparatus is thus always inscribed into a play of power, but it is also always linked to certain limits of knowledge that arise from it and, to an equal degree, condition it. The apparatus is precisely this: a set of strategies of the relations of forces supporting, and supported by, certain types of knowledge.

Let me briefly summarize three points:

a. It is a heterogeneous set that includes virtually anything, linguistic and nonlinguistic, under the same heading: discourses, institutions, buildings, laws, police measures, philosophical propositions, and so on. The apparatus itself is the network that is established between these elements.

b. The apparatus always has a concrete strategic function and is always located in a power relation.

c. As such, it appears at the intersection of power relations and relations of knowledge.


I would like now to try and trace a brief genealogy of this term, first in the work of Foucault, and then in a broader historical context.

At the end of the 1960s, more or less at the time when he was writing The Archeology of Knowledge, Foucault does not yet use the term "apparatus" in order to define the object of his research. Instead, he uses the term positivité, "positivity," an etymological neighbor of dispositif, again without offering us a definition.

I often asked myself where Foucault found this term, until the moment when, a few months ago, I reread a book by Jean Hyppolite entitled Introduction à la philosophie de l'histoire de Hegel. You probably know about the strong link that ties Foucault to Hyppolite, a person whom he referred to at times as "my master" (Hyppolite was in fact his teacher, first during the khâgne in the Lycée Henri-IV [the preparatory course for the Ecole normale supérieure] and then in the Ecole normale).

The third part of Hyppolite's book bears the title "Raison et histoire: Les idées de positivité et de destin" (Reason and History: The Ideas of Positivity and Destiny). The focus here is on the analysis of two works that date from Hegel's years in Bern and Frankfurt (1795-96): The first is "The Spirit of Christianity and Its Destiny," and the second—where we find the term that interests us—"The Positivity of the Christian Religion" (Die Positivitãt der christliche Religion). According to Hyppolite, "destiny" and "positivity" are two key concepts in Hegel's thought. In particular, the term "positivity" finds in Hegel its proper place in the opposition between "natural religion" and "positive religion." While natural religion is concerned with the immediate and general relation of human reason with the divine, positive or historical religion encompasses the set of beliefs, rules, and rites that in a certain society and at a certain historical moment are externally imposed on individuals. "A positive religion," Hegel writes in a passage cited by Hyppolite, "implies feelings that are more or less impressed through constraint on souls; these are actions that are the effect of command and the result of obedience and are accomplished without direct interest."

Hyppolite shows how the opposition between nature and positivity corresponds, in this sense, to the dialectics of freedom and obligation, as well as of reason and history. In a passage that could not have failed to provoke Foucault's curiosity, because it in a way presages the notion of apparatus, Hyppolite writes:

We see here the knot of questions implicit in the concept of positivity, as well as Hegel's successive attempts to bring together dialectically—a dialectics that is not yet conscious of itself—pure reason (theoretical and above all practical) and positivity, that is, the historical element. In a certain sense, Hegel considers positivity as an obstacle to the freedom of man, and as such it is condemned. To investigate the positive elements of a religion, and we might add, of a social state, means to discover in them that which is imposed through a constraint on man, that which obfuscates the purity of reason. But, in another sense—and this is the aspect that ends up having the upper hand in the course of Hegel's development—positivity must be reconciled with reason, which then loses its abstract character and adapts to the concrete richness of life. We see then why the concept of positivity is at the center of Hegelian perspectives.

If "positivity" is the name that, according to Hyppolite, the young Hegel gives to the historical element—loaded as it is with rules, rites, and institutions that are imposed on the individual by an external power, but that become, so to speak, internalized in the systems of beliefs and feelings—then Foucault, by borrowing this term (later to become "apparatus"), takes a position with respect to a decisive problem, which is actually also his own problem: the relation between individuals as living beings and the historical element. By "the historical element," I mean the set of institutions, of processes of subjectification, and of rules in which power relations become concrete. Foucault's ultimate aim is not, then, as in Hegel, the reconciliation of the two elements; it is not even to emphasize their conflict. For Foucault, what is at stake is rather the investigation of concrete modes in which the positivities (or the apparatuses) act within the relations, mechanisms, and "plays" of power.


It should now be clear in what sense I have advanced the hypothesis that "apparatus" is an essential technical term in Foucault's thought. What is at stake here is not a particular term that refers only to this or that technology of power. It is a general term that has the same breadth as the term "positivity" had, according to Hyppolite, for the young Hegel. Within Foucault's strategy, it comes to occupy the place of one of those terms that he defines, critically, as "the universals" (les universaux). Foucault, as you know, always refused to deal with the general categories or mental constructs that he calls "the universals," such as the State, Sovereignty, Law, and Power. But this is not to say that there are no operative concepts with a general character in his thought. Apparatuses are, in point of fact, what take the place of the universals in the Foucauldian strategy: not simply this or that police measure, this or that technology of power, and not even the generality obtained by their abstraction. Instead, as he claims in the interview from i977, an apparatus is "the network [le réseau] that can be established between these elements."

If we now try to examine the definition of "apparatus" that can be found in common French dictionaries, we see that they distinguish between three meanings of the term:

a. A strictly juridical sense: "Apparatus is the part of a judgment that contains the decision separate from the opinion." That is, the section of a sentence that decides, or the enacting clause of a law.

b. A technological meaning: "The way in which the parts of a machine or of a mechanism and, by extension, the mechanism itself are arranged."

c. A military use: "The set of means arranged in conformity with a plan."

To some extent, the three definitions are all present in Foucault. But dictionaries, in particular those that lack a historical-etymological character, divide and separate this term into a variety of meanings. This fragmentation, nevertheless, generally corresponds to the historical development and articulation of a unique original meaning that we should not lose sight of. What is this original meaning for the term "apparatus"? The term certainly refers, in its common Foucauldian use, to a set of practices and mechanisms (both linguistic and nonlinguistic, juridical, technical, and military) that aim to face an urgent need and to obtain an effect that is more or less immediate. But what is the strategy of practices or of thought, what is the historical context, from which the modern term originates?


Over the past three years, I have found myself increasingly involved in an investigation that is only now beginning to come to its end, one that I can roughly define as a theological genealogy of economy. In the first centuries of Church history—let's say, between the second and sixth centuries C.E.—the Greek term oikonomia develops a decisive theological function. In Greek, oikonomia signifies the administration of the oikos (the home) and, more generally, management. We are dealing here, as Aristotle says (Politics 1255b21), not with an epistemic paradigm, but with a praxis, with a practical activity that must face a problem and a particular situation each and every time. Why, then, did the Fathers of the Church feel the need to introduce this term into theological discourse? How did they come to speak about a "divine economy"?

What is at issue here, to be precise, is an extremely delicate and vital problem, perhaps the decisive question in the history of Christian theology: the Trinity. When the Fathers of the Church began to argue during the second century about the threefold nature of the divine figure (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit), there was, as one can imagine, a powerful resistance from reasonable-minded people in the Church who were horrified at the prospect of reintroducing polytheism and paganism to the Christian faith. In order to convince those stubborn adversaries (who were later called "monarchians," that is, promoters of the government of a single God), theologians such as Tertullian, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and many others could not find a better term to serve their need than the Greek oikonomia. Their argument went something like this: "God, insofar as his being and substance is concerned, is certainly one; but as to his oikonomia—that is to say the way in which he administers his home, his life, and the world that he created—he is, rather, triple. Just as a good father can entrust to his son the execution of certain functions and duties without in so doing losing his power and his unity, so God entrusts to Christ the 'economy,' the administration and government of human history." Oikonomia therefore became a specialized term signifying in particular the incarnation of the Son, together with the economy of redemption and salvation (this is the reason why in Gnostic sects, Christ is called "the man of economy," ho anthropos tes oikonomias). The theologians slowly got accustomed to distinguishing between a "discourse—or logos—of theology" and a "logos of economy." Oikonomia became thereafter an apparatus through which the Trinitarian dogma and the idea of a divine providential governance of the world were introduced into the Christian faith.

But, as often happens, the fracture that the theologians had sought to avoid by removing it from the plane of God's being, reappeared in the form of a caesura that separated in Him being and action, ontology and praxis. Action (economy, but also politics) has no foundation in being: this is the schizophrenia that the theological doctrine of oikonomia left as its legacy to Western culture.


I think that even on the basis of this brief exposition, we can now account for the centrality and importance of the function that the notion of oikonomia performed in Christian theology. Already in Clement of Alexandria, oikonomia merges with the notion of Providence and begins to indicate the redemptive governance of the world and human history. Now, what is the translation of this fundamental Greek term in the writings of the Latin Fathers? Dispositio.

The Latin term dispositio, from which the French term dispositif, or apparatus, derives, comes therefore to take on the complex semantic sphere of the theological oikonomia. The "dispositifs" about which Foucault speaks are somehow linked to this theological legacy. They can be in some way traced back to the fracture that divides and, at the same time, articulates in God being and praxis, the nature or essence, on the one hand, and the operation through which He administers and governs the created world, on the other. The term "apparatus" designates that in which, and through which, one realizes a pure activity of governance devoid of any foundation in being. This is the reason why apparatuses must always imply a process of subjectification, that is to say, they must produce their subject.

In light of this theological genealogy the Foucauldian apparatuses acquire an even more pregnant and decisive significance, since they intersect not only with the context of what the young Hegel called "positivity," but also with what the later Heidegger called Gestell (which is similar from an etymological point of view to dis-positio, dis-ponere, just as the German stellen corresponds to the Latin ponere). When Heidegger, in Die Technik und die Kehre (The Question Concerning Technology), writes that Ge-stell means in ordinary usage an apparatus (Gerät), but that he intends by this term "the gathering together of the (installation [Stellen] that (in)stalls man, this is to say, challenges him to expose the real in the mode of ordering [Bestellen]," the proximity of this term to the theological dispositio, as well as to Foucault's apparatuses, is evident. What is common to all these terms is that they refer back to this oikonomia, that is, to a set of practices, bodies of knowledge, measures, and institutions that aim to manage, govern, control, and orient—in a way that purports to be useful—the behaviors, gestures, and thoughts of human beings.


One of the methodological principles that I constantly follow in my investigations is to identify in the texts and contexts on which I work what Feuerbach used to call the philosophical element, that is to say, the point of their Entwicklungsfahigkeit (literally, capacity to be developed), the locus and the moment wherein they are susceptible to a development. Nevertheless, whenever we interpret and develop the text of an author in this way, there comes a moment when we are aware of our inability to proceed any further without contravening the most elementary rules of hermeneutics. This means that the development of the text in question has reached a point of undecidability where it becomes impossible to distinguish between the author and the interpreter. Although this is a particularly happy moment for the interpreter, he knows that it is now time to abandon the text that he is analyzing and to proceed on his own.

I invite you therefore to abandon the context of Foucauldian philology in which we have moved up to now in order to situate apparatuses in a new context.

I wish to propose to you nothing less than a general and massive partitioning of beings into two large groups or classes: on the one hand, living beings (or substances), and on the other, apparatuses in which living beings are incessantly captured. On one side, then, to return to the terminology of the theologians, lies the ontology of creatures, and on the other side, the oikonomia of apparatuses that seek to govern and guide them toward the good.

Excerpted from WHAT IS AN APPARATUS? by Giorgio Agamben, David Kishik, Stefan Pedatella. Copyright © 2006 Nottetempo. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press.
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Table of Contents


Translators' Note....................     ix     

§ What Is an Apparatus?....................     1     

§ The Friend....................     25     

§ What Is the Contemporary?....................     39     

Notes....................     55     

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