Archive for August, 2009

An apparatus for apparatchiks

27 August 2009

Are apparatuses good or bad? But first, what is an apparatus? The shortest and very helpful definition comes from Giorgio Agamben’s essay, “What is an Apparatus?

I shall call an apparatus 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. (p. 14)

Agamben calls the process of producing human subjects by apparatuses subjectification.

So, once more, is subjectification by apparatuses good or bad? In Heidegger’s view, the apparatus (technology that has the character of enframing, Gestell) is dangerous because it threatens the essence of being human. Foucault seems to be cagier about this issue but Agamben appears to side with Heidegger when he classifies beings like this:

To recapitulate, we have then two great classes: living beings (substances) and apparatuses. And between these two, as a third class, subjects. I call a subject that which results from the relation and, so to speak, from the relentless fight between living beings and apparatuses. (…) The boundless growth of apparatuses in our time corresponds to the equally extreme proliferation in processes of subjectification. (p. 14-15)

Proponents of actor-network theory reject such a priori distinctions between human and nonhuman objects. The result of such a move changes the question itself. It is no longer interesting to ask, ‘Are apparatuses as such inherently good or bad?’ Instead, the question becomes, ‘ What is this or that particular apparatus made for? Is it well made or poorly designed?’ As for subjects, they are constructed, period. If everything is constructed, the prospect of subjectification is no longer horrifying. It is simply a matter of fact. In turn, the question of ‘How subjects are constructed by apparatuses?’ becomes extremely interesting.


Edgar Whitley’s recent video about the UK Identity Card Scheme provides an excellent example for this. As Whitley argues, the problem is not with the idea of using a card for identifying citizens but with the way the scheme, i.e. this apparatus, had been designed. While the ID card scheme does have a user-centric design, the problem is it centres on the wrong user:  the government, instead of the citizen.

The making of this scheme has to be put under the closest scrutiny precisely because the ID card is an apparatus of subjectification, a tool for producing a particular kind of citizen. Thankfully the LSE’s Identity Project has been fulfilling exactly that function. However, its message needs to be disseminated and heard more widely. As Whitley puts it, ID cards threaten to change the relationship between the individual and the state in the UK, by producing a new kind of citizen, and a new kind of state.

So, is an apparatus good or bad? It is bad only if you use Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology” as a blueprint, a user’s manual (as the current UK government appears to be doing), rather than a thought-provoking meditation that kicked off a fascinating debate about the relationship between human beings and their tools. As science and technology studies have shown in the past 30 years or so, that relationship is much more complicated than anyone expected.


Agamben, G. (2009). “What is an apparatus?” and other essays. Stanford, Calif., Stanford University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1977). The question concerning technology and other essays. New York; London, Harper and Row.

Aramis is back!

22 August 2009

Aramis is coming back from the dead, this time rearing its head in London. The personal rapid transport (PRT) vehicle can now be viewed at the Science Museum in London and it is being tested at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, to be launched next year.

Translation and synthetic life

21 August 2009

It’s interesting to observe just how explicit the ANT notion of translation (no transportation without transformation) becomes in synthetic biology. J Craig Venter and his colleagues seem to be doing nothing else but transformations in order to ensure the transportation of a synthetic genome into a living bacterium. According to The Scientist Blog, this translation involved the following steps:

Last year, Venter … reported that he and his collaborators had created a synthetic bacterial genome and cloned it into a yeast cell. However, they were unable to transfer the genome into a cell that would use the genetic code to produce a functioning version of the organism. In the current paper, the researchers present a technique for doing just that.

The Venter team first cloned the genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides into a yeast cell. They then altered the genome, using the myriad tools available for yeast gene manipulation. In the procedure’s trickiest step, they transplanted the yeast-bound bacterial genome into a closely related bacterium, Mycoplasma capricolum, coaxing it to “take this bacterial genome and boot it up” and generate their mutant strain (…).

The hurdle Vashee and his team had to overcome to achieve this feat involved bypassing the bacterial equivalent of an immune system — essentially a collection of restriction enzymes. These enzymes, thought to have evolved to chew up the genomes of viruses infecting bacterial cells, were preventing the successful transplantation of the modified M. mycoides genome into wild-type M. capricolum. So the group developed two fixes, which together solved the problem: First, they inactivated M. capricolum’s restriction enzymes. Then, they chemically modified their mutant M. mycoides genome where these enzymes typically cleave the genomes of intruders.

God’s Zeal and Derrida, An Egyptian

20 August 2009

Two new books by Peter Sloterdijk in English:

God’s Zeal: The Battle of the Three Monotheisms

Derrida, An Egyptian: On the Problem of the Jewish Pyramid

Economization and marketization

20 August 2009

In their article “Economization, part 1: shifting attention from the economy towards processes of economization” [ (2009), Economy and Society 38(3): 369 – 398], Koray Çalışkan and Michel Callon propose a research programme for the study of the processes of economization, very much along the lines of Callon’s (1998) The Laws of the Markets project. They define economization as follows:

This term is used to denote the processes that constitute the behaviours, organizations, institutions and, more generally, the objects in a particular society which are tentatively and often controversially qualified, by scholars and/or lay people, as ‘economic’. The construction of action (-ization) into the word implies that the economy is an achievement rather than a starting point or a pre-existing reality that can simply be revealed and acted upon.

The article reconstitutes the debate on how to conceptualise economic phenomena, by reviewing relevant works from economics, economic sociology (including  “new economic sociology”),  and anthropology. Drawing on science studies (among others invoking the ANT principle of generalised symmetry between humans and nonhumans), they shift the attention onto the apparatuses at work in economization:

Envisaging institutions as socio-cognitive prostheses that enable the (economic) formatting of individual behaviours is an important contribution to the understanding of the processes of economization as well as the role of economics and, more generally, the social sciences in these processes.

The article builds on and advances Callon’s (1998) original critique of Granovetter’s notion of embeddedness. The authors promise to expand on the process of how value is co-created by humans and things in the forthcoming second part of the article, which will zoom in on the process of marketization as a particular example of economization. Their goal is

to understand how complex and hybrid social configurations are perpetually being constructed through the conjoined contributions of circulating material entities, as well as competent agents engaged in valuation practices,

(at which point intriguingly they reference Bruno Latour’s unpublished “modes of existence” manuscript).

Hat tip to socializing finance.

Envisaging institutions as socio-cognitive prostheses that enable the (economic) formatting of individual behaviours is an important contribution to the understanding of the processes of economization as well as the role of economics and, more generally, the social sciences in these processes.

New Metaphysics live

19 August 2009

OHP’s New Metaphysics series, announced back in December, has now its own page on OHP’s website. Graham Harman and Bruno Latour are the series editors. Their bold call for a new kind of metaphysics is worth reprinting:

© Tammy Lu 2009

Open Humanities Press is pleased to launch a new series in continental philosophy published in conjunction with the University of Michigan Library’s Scholarly Publishing Office. Each New Metaphysics book will be freely available as an electronic book (open access) and as reasonably priced paperbacks. The world is due for a resurgence of original speculative metaphysics. The New Metaphysics series aims to provide a safe house for such thinking amidst the demoralizing caution and prudence of professional academic philosophy. We do not aim to bridge the analytic-continental divide, since we are equally impatient with nail-filing analytic critique and the continental reverence for dusty textual monuments. We favor instead the spirit of the intellectual gambler, and wish to discover and promote authors who meet this description. Like an emergent recording company, what we seek are traces of a new metaphysical ‘sound’ from any nation of the world. The editors are open to translations of neglected metaphysical classics, and will consider secondary works of especial force and daring. But our main interest is to stimulate the birth of disturbing masterpieces of twenty-first century philosophy. To contribute to the series, please contact Graham Harman.