An apparatus for apparatchiks

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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.

politicsofidentity

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.

References

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.

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