Agamben’s apparatus

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Giorgio Agamben’s “What is an Apparatus?” is an extraordinary essay. It is in a league with those essays which one ends up remembering for ever because the act of reading them results in a permanent rearrangement of one’s world (Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology” comes to mind). Other characteristics of such memorable essays are the immense compression and tight weaving together of lines of argument that span the entire written history of a culture and connect the concerns of the Ancients with what is happening today. Agamben’s essay does this beautifully.

What Is an Apparatus?” and Other Essays, by Giorgio Agamben. Translated by David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella. Published by Stanford University Press in 2009.

At a fundamental level the essay is ‘simply’ an exposition of Michel Foucault’s concept of the apparatus (dispositif), by way of a genealogy  of the term. This turns out to be a most fascinating exercise that not only illuminates this crucially important Foucauldian insight but also redefines the relationship between contemporary forms of (social, technical and economic) ordering and the workings of the early Christian Church. Agamben accomplishes this by tracing the history of the term dispositif in Foucault’s work back to his teacher Jean Hyppolite’s interpretation of Hegel’s notion of positivity (Positivität). Hegel’s discussion of the “positivity of religion” then leads Agamben to the use of the Latin term dispositio by the early Church Fathers, which turns out to be a translation of the Greek oikonomia.

Agamben argues that Foucault’s apparatus has its origins in Christian theology, more specifically in the debate surrounding the problem of the Trinity. Essentially the arrangement of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit required the notion of the apparatus to help explain (and institute) the translation and administration of God’s will by way of a divine economy of agents (including Christ, “the man of economy”). Through this remarkable train of thought Agamben manages to execute not only an explication of Foucault’s thought but also a genealogy of contemporary capitalism. Perhaps most of all this essay is an exercise in economic sociology (without wanting to take away from its philosophical merits).

From an ANTHEM (i.e. actor-network theory vis-a-vis Heidegger) perspective, this essay also establishes Foucault as the definitive link between ANT and Heidegger, through the common concern with apparatuses and their enframing (or Ge-stell, to use Heidegger’s term). (A similar point has also been made by Alain Pottage at last year’s “A Turn to Ontology?” event at Oxford.)

Agamben’s own deployment of the concept of the apparatus for describing the process of subjectification (i.e. the configuring of human subjects), however fascinating, ends up building on Heidegger’s darker vision of technology, making a definite distinction between humans and artefacts, in contrast to ANT’s principle of generalised symmetry. For this reason, readers of Callon, Latour, Law et al. will probably find Agamben’s own conclusions about the nature of contemporary capitalism less compelling, as the separation of devices from the humans inevitably leads to a particular type of critique.

Still, Agamben’s analysis is hugely enlightening and inspiring, and it will undoubtedly generate some interesting and timely debates. One would of course need to be an expert at least in Foucault, Hegel and early Church history (not to mention the languages involved) to be able to verify or challenge Agamben’s account. However, even in the absence of such an apparatus, one cannot fail to be impressed and stimulated by the unique series of translations that Agamben performs in this essay, in 24 pages of accessible prose.

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5 Responses to “Agamben’s apparatus”

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