The Apparatus


For Michel Foucault power is not a substance held by one person and not by another. Nor does it function in a 'top-down' manner as classically considered. With Foucault, power is decentralized, and operates through a distributed agency. Power functions through a range of relationships. For Foucault power is 'capillary',[1] 'cellular',[2] and 'exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations.'[3]

Foucault defines 'techniques of the self' or 'arts of existence' as 'those reflective and voluntary practices by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct, but seek to transform themselves, to change themselves in their singular being, and to make of their life into an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria'.[4]

Foucault described traditional notions of the author as being restrictive. The author is a category or way of organising texts [the 'author function'] which has a history and needs to be challenged. For example, the psychological entity of the author and the use of the author as a way of organising texts are two different things and need to be treated separately.[5]

Foucault generally uses the term apparatus to indicate the various institutional, physical and administrative mechanisms and knowledge structures, which enhance and maintain the exercise of power within the social body. The original French term dispositif is rendered variously as 'dispositif', 'apparatus' and 'deployment' in English translations of Foucault's work.[5]

In the slim volume What is an Apparatus? (and other essays) Giorgio Agamben traces out several journeys that the critical idea of an apparatus must have travelled:

  • Oikonomia: a theological term, used already by the time of Clement of Alexandria, which merges with the previous term 'Providence'
  • Dispositio: from the Latin Fathers, another theological term
  • Positivité: Early Foucault (1960s), taken from Jean Hyppolite's work on the young Hegel (e.g. Hegel's Die Positivität der christliche Religion)
  • Dispositif: Later Foucault (1970s), usually translated 'apparatus' in English
  • Gestell: Martin Heidegger: 'the gathering together of the (in)stallation (Stelm) that (in)stalls man, this is to say, challenges him to expose the real in the mode of ordering (Bestelm)'

According to Agamben, '[w]hat 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'.[6]

It is Agamben himself who claims continuity between his own use of the term 'apparatus' and Foucault's methodology:

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 subjectiflcation, that is to say, they must produce their subject.[7]

While Foucault's modelling of the prison, clinic and confessional are by now well-known in terms of their architectonic power as apparatuses, Agamben extends Foucault's basic insights into their subject-producing effects to incorporate everything from mobile telephones to language itself, pitting this wholesale and incessant production of subjectivity against another 'great class' of things: the living being.

Further expanding the already large class of Foucauldian apparatuses, 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. 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-one in which thousands and thousands of years ago a primate inadvertently let himself be captured, probably without realizing the consequences that he was about to face.

To recapitulate. we have then two great classes: living beings (or 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. Naturally, the substances and the subjects, as in ancient metaphysics, seem to overlap, but not completely. In this sense, for example, the same individual, the same substance, can be the place of multiple processes of subjectification: the user of cellular phones, the web surfer, the writer of stories, the tango aficionado, the anti-globalization activist, and so on and so forth. The boundless growth of apparatuses in our time corresponds to the equally extreme proliferation in processes of subjectification. This may produce the impression that in our time, the category of subjectivity is wavering and losing its consistency; but what is at stake, to be precise, is not an erasure or an overcoming, but rather a dissemination that pushes to the extreme the masquerade that has always accompanied every personal identity.[8]

Somewhere in this extension of meaning, it is possible to lose sight of the more specific political meaning Louis Althusser gave to the apparatus, for example in his distinction between the repressive and ideological state apparatus. While Agamben's apparatuses are for him political in the sense of furnishing various philosophical anthropologies (which might be designated politics with a capital 'P' to indicate their ontological/Heideggerian nature), Althusser's apparatuses, together with their mode of subjectification ('interpellation'), are closer to Foucault's in being more localised within a specific (capitalist) history.

Althusser is generally regarded as avowedly attempting to expunge Hegelianism from theory. Yet even Althusser's residual historicisation, which remains after structuralism has reformatted his categories (indeed even Gramscian 'specific and concrete conjunctures within structural totalities'), leads after all to periodisation. So either the 'idealism' of Hegel — supposedly overcome by Marxist materialism — is something of a worm that snakes its way back in to theory whenever we consider the historical domains of apparatuses, or 'idealism' describes a different problem altogether. Is not the methodological and theoretical approach which considers artefacts as embedded in their social history both Hegelian-Idealist and Marxist-Materialist in this respect? Indeed, the very distinction seems a little pointless outside of pure ontology. History, whether conceived of as the self-development of geist or as the dialectically mutating ensemble of social relations and material practices, is regarded in both veins to be singularly determinate. Be it a top-down, bottom-up or even horizontal Spinozian-Deleuzian system of determination, it is the effervescence and mutability of history which determines the social 'place' in which the subject and its significance is produced. There is a certain positivity, historical normativity, social effectivity, symbolic efficacy, ethical substance, social objectivity, or let us just say 'institutional and/or cultural reality' to the place produced for a subject. All we really need bear in mind, in the interests of avoiding 'idealism' as an objection, is that history is a-teleological. This must be always borne in mind; for Althusser, and most contemporary Marxists, history is not a sequence of developments unfurling from some inner plan: history is, for materialists, aleatory. Thus, against the notion of some metaphysical gigantomachia waged between the forces of living substances and ruling languages, which is where Agamben feels to have left us, we are perhaps better to focus in on the specific and historical 'kludges' and always-being-hobbled-together apparatuses that our chance encounters with history throws up, rooted in the ongoing struggles between socially antagonistic parts of human society.


[1] Foucault 1980:96
[2] Foucault 1979:149
[3] Foucault 1990
[4] Foucault 1992:10-11
[5] O'Farrell 2007
[6] Agamben 2009:12
[7] Agamben 2009:11
[8] Agamben 2009:14-15


Agamben, G., 2009, What is an Apparatus? (and other essays), Stanford University Press
Foucault, M., 1979, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, Vintage Books, New York
Foucault, M., 1980, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon, Pantheon Books, New York
Foucault, M., 1990, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley, Vintage Books, New York
Foucault, M., 1992, The Use of Pleasure. The History of Sexuality: Volume Two, trans. R. Hurley, Penguin, Middlesex
O'Farrell, C., 2007, 'Key Concepts' [online] available at < > accessed 18th Nov 2015

Le bon Dieu est dans le détail


It's a commonplace that the art historian is related to the detective. I find the pervasiveness of this analogy interesting, and although I am by no means a believer in astrology, I was mildly amused to see that the trope of art-historian-as-sleuth had even penetrated into that murky field when I read that a Scorpio (which I am, coincidentally) is ideally suited to work such as crime scene forensics, depth psychology, investigative journalism, espionage, police or private detective work, and art historians. Presumably there is something forensic and interrogative about the methodology of that traditional connoisseurial-biographical school of thought which even today (i.e. even after formalism, iconography, social history, feminism, psychoanalysis, semiotics, cultural studies, structuralism, queer theory, post-structuralism, postcolonialism, visual culture and 'the iconic/pictorial turn' have all had their methodological impact) tends to typify the art historian in popular imagination. The persistence of the myth also probably owes something to the stock cinematic bow-tied curator, invariably male, fastidiously interrogating documents and images through half-moon glasses, which for many people outside of the discipline could well mediate their impressions. As is the case with many contemporary mythologies, a compound of historical realities with earlier mythologies is at play.

Museums, Morelli said, are full of wrongly attributed paintings – indeed assigning them correctly is often very difficult, since often they are unsigned, or painted over, or in poor repair. So distinguishing copies from originals (though essential) is very hard. To do it, said Morelli, one should abandon the convention of concentrating on the most obvious characteristics of the paintings, for these could most easily be imitated – Perugino's central figures with eyes characteristically raised to heaven, or the smile of Leonardo's women, to take a couple of examples. Instead one should concentrate on minor details, especially those least significant in the style typical of the painter's own school: earlobes, fingernails, shapes of fingers and toes.[1]

As Ginzberg states (p.8), it was Enrico Castelnuovo who compared Morelli's method of classification to that attributed by Arthur Conan-Doyle to his fictitious creation, Sherlock Holmes. Castelnuovo developed this comparison upon the basis of an observation made by Edgar Wind:

Morelli's books… look different from those of any other writer on art; they are sprinkled with illustrations of fingers and ears, careful records of the characteristic trifles by which an artist gives himself away, as a criminal might be spotted by a fingerprint . . . any art gallery studied by Morelli begins to resemble a rogue's gallery'. [2]

Wind also explained Morelli's fascination with the seemingly minor anatomical details of painted human figures as having a Freudian basis:

To some of Morelli's critics it has seemed odd that personality should be found where personal effort is weakest. But on this point modern psychology would certainly support Morelli: our inadvertent little gestures reveal our character far more authentically than any formal posture that we may carefully prepare.[2]

Sigmund Freud himself acknowledges the early influence of Morelli upon him (under the pseudonymous guise of a supposed Russian art connoisseur Ivan Lermolieff) long before developing psycho-analysis.[3] However, Michael Hatt and Charlotte Klonk seem to feel that Freud over-psychologised in his understanding of Morelli's method.[4] That is to say, Freud (and by implication those scholars who have made something of Freud's acknowledgement) misunderstood Morelli's drive to anatomise, catalogue and taxonomise painted details. Rather than assuming a 'parapraxic' unconscious expressiveness secretly at work in those moments when a painter is least focused on representing a body part, Morelli's method was in fact indebted to the palaeological practices and methodologies of Cuvier and Agassiz (the latter of which Morelli knew personally). This was owing to Morelli's desire to develop, by analogy with the typological methods of palaeology, a typology of his own: one which collated painters' personal mannerisms without having to rely on biographical or documentary detail external to the works of art they had produced.[4]

Ginzberg reads Morelli's method through a Freudian optic, in which cultural stylistic constraints are at a minimum, and individual mannerism at a maximum, when the artist is most relaxed. While the two termed relation between individual manner and stylistic constraint implied here is typical for the intellectual milieu in which Morelli theorised, it was far from accepted that the two terms were necessarily antagonistic, such that only the recession of a consciousness of cultural constraints could allow for the personal manner to 'escape' and have its expression. On the contrary, Carl Friedrich von Rumohr's art-historical theory claimed that the great painters were those who had harmonized these two terms in a single, unified and universal expression.

Nonetheless, Freud's purported misreading must have been highly productive, for he mentions two distinct encounters with Morelli's 'method' which informed his thinking, as if it foreshadowed, if not constituted, something of a partial theoretical prototype.[5]. As a theory that the overlooked, marginal, residual, and habitually disregarded elements, rather than the culturally-determined focii of a production, can yield valuable information about the inner life and thus the singularity or identity of its producer, however, it does not translate at all well into modern (post-Lacanian) psychoanalytic theory, for whom the figure of the subject with a rich and highly individualised 'inner life' is just another way in which the objet a directs desire and avoids confrontation with the 'subjective destitution' to be found in confrontation with the subject proper: le sujet barré. Thus there is a sense in which Freud's rendering of Morelli's method not only does not presage or inform actually-existing contemporary psychoanalysis, but indeed presents it only with misconception and misinformation. Furthermore, Morelli's method appears far from practicable, and indeed was not used by Morelli himself. Rather, it appears in the form of a fantasy which Morelli had about himself, with enough self-consciousness to have at first concealed the name of its author, only later acknowledged. We might even speak of Freud's fantasy of discovery, of uncovering the origins of his own disavowed thinking. It's a rewarding exercise to 'discover' apparent precedents for present thinking in the detritus of memories of encounters and readings, but self-excavation is at least as much construction as it is uncovering. The past is always reconstituted in the present that it is the past of, as the neuroscience of plasticity and memory consolidation tells us: the only anchors to be found in a life-history are those summoned by the requirements of a present crisis in meaning. On the other hand, social history has a verifiable solidity that can be gauged through collective signatures and cultural deposits.

The problem of attributing 'the method', and the idea of a method, destined to be itself regarded as 'a cure' for the problem of misattribution, appears in this regard circular and threatens to spill over into a general epistemological problem of authorship and origins in general. However the mention of 'cure' is not merely rhetorical here: as Ginzberg notes, both Freud and Morelli were indeed physicians. The trio is completed by Conan-Doyle, a physician by training and the third figure included in Ginzberg's model of historical detectives, owing to the literary figure Sherlock Holmes' abiding fascination in the truth-bearing capacity of 'trifles'. Medical epistemology is based upon the identification of a malady through the observation and collation of 'symptoms' — the same term which Freud used in his developing metapsychology. Ginzberg goes further, then, than simply reading Morelli's method in a Freudian optic. Rather, he gestures towards a medical 'paradigm', in which symptoms form a system of signification, underlying both Freud and Morelli. We could broaden this intuition, and thus partially rehabilitate Ginzberg's exposition, against Hatt and Klonk, by further indicating that medical science and palaeology are both premised upon a broader context of empirical semiotics, which is precisely the direction in which Morelli was trying to move art history: towards a science of observation in which a series of empirically observed signifiers would indeed prove in themselves significant, productive of meaning-laden information, verification of identity and thus ultimately productive of knowledge and value to a community of peers. Morelli's desire to provide a self-contained empiricism, or at least a scientific method, for the practice of identifying art-work can be read both as an attempt to institute the same attentive observation of significant identifying details as that found in the taxonomy of fossils, and as a desire related to that of Freud in his early search for a method, close to that of medicine and the practice of physicians observing symptoms of illness, for an as-yet undeveloped science of 'reading the signs' of an unconscious psychology. The issue is one of stoically asserting a significance to the unassuming and insignificant: of carefully regarding the disregarded. For the doctor of medicine, the symptom is significant: given its constellation with certain other symptoms it may point to a cause. In a painting, sculpture, monument or work of art the overlooked detail can be significant: in concert with others it may even help to verify its origins. Freud's parapraxes, by analogy, reveal the operation of an unconscious desire and perhaps a repressed history (or what we could justifiably call a 'prehistory'). The palaeologist's found fossil bears markings or a form which is used as a signifier, read as a sign pointing to the catalogue and its taxonomy of prehistopric species. These semiotic systems indeed share a much broader and common epistemological paradigm, which is that of producing knowledge through the legibility of signs inscribed as painted canvas, sculpted stone, body, bone, speech or utterance.

Hatt and Klonk's historical precision in tracing Morelli's method to a certain palaeological influence may indeed identify a stronger element in Morelli's no-doubt mixed and syncretic thought processes, however the method itself is somewhat overdetermined by an entire historical paradigm of looking for clues and symptoms to be read as signs pointing to, indicating, or bearing revelatory content, about the provenance of a body they belong to. An iconological fever, in which all of nature and culture must be made to speak of itself, to produce from its own body a readable or intelligible account of its genesis, typifies the European historical period spanning from the early modern to the contemporary. The endless importance of trifles, the intense questioning of a parapraxic slip or lazily-drawn earlobe is a sub-current of that great tide. The search for a methodology is something that has always typified art history in this period; practitioners might well be compared with Duke Senior in the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare's As You Like It, who claims to finds 'tongues in trees, books in running brooks' and 'sermons in stones'. The hermeneutic problem, in Shakespeare's Arden as in reality, is that the Book of Nature is susceptible to heterogeneous readings. Is this also the case with an analogical Book of Culture(s)? Or does the historicity of human culture make a difference, make it approach something more stable and significant in itself? You can never really shake free of Hegel in this business.

[1] Ginzberg 1980:7
[2] Wind 1985:38 in Ginzberg 1989:97-98
[3] Freud 1959:270–71 in Ginzberg 1989:99
[4] Hatt & Klonk 2006:51
[5] Ginzberg 1989:99-100


Freud, Sigmund, 1959, 'The Moses of Michelangelo', Collected Papers, vol.4, Basic Books, London, pp. 270–71
Ginzburg, Carlo, 1980, 'Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method', History Workshop, No. 9 (Spring, 1980), pp. 5-36, Oxford University Press, available at accessed 21/11/2010
Ginzberg, Carlo, 1989, Clues, Myths and the Historical Method, Johns Hopkins University Press
Hatt, M. & Klonk, C., 2006, Art History: A Critical Introduction to its Methods, Manchester University Press
Wind, Edgar, 1985, Art and Anarchy, Northwestern University Press

Explanandum and Explanans

An explanandum (L.) is a sentence describing a phenomenon that is to be explained, and the explanans is the sentences adduced as explanations of that phenomenon. For example, one person may pose an explanandum by asking 'why is there smoke?', and another may provide an explanans by responding 'because there is a fire'. In this example, 'smoke' is the explanandum, and 'fire' is the explanans.

As a siderbar, consider similar latinate terminology:

  • Explicandum — that which gets explicated vs. Explicans — that which gives the explication
  • Constitutum — that which gets made up, constituted vs. Constituens — that which makes it up, e.g. the constituents
  • Definiendum — that which is being defined vs. Definiens — that which constitutes a definition

In accounting for the differences between artworks it is not enough to produce an explanation which merely restates difference, as this would simply echo the explanandum. e.g. It is no use saying that the difference between Gentile de Fabriano's Madonna and Child with Angels (1425) and Masaccio's Virgin and Child (1426) 'lies in' the stylistic differences between late Gothic and early Renaissance modes of figuration. That would merely present us with a restated difference to be explained (an explanandum), and not an explanation (explanans).


Nor, according to the Marxist art historian Frederick Antal[1] does a difference in influence (regional, generational) upon the respective artists account for the essential differences: 'influences do not explain essentials'.[2]

For Antal there must be a fundamental cause of the differences, and as an 'orthodox' Marxist art historian, this fundamental explanation can only be given through an understanding of the economic basis of class society: a fundamental social antagonism expresses itself in the differences between Gentile and Masaccio's stylistic approaches; the rational, natural, frugal, sober and realistic style of the latter expresses the values of a newly prosperous and briefly powerful bourgeoisie asserting itself, while Gentile's more courtly, geometricised and ritualistic style expresses a conservative outlook more befitting the aristocracy.[2]

[1] Hatt, M. & Klonk, C., 2006, Art History: A Critical Introduction to its Methods, p. 132
[2] Antal, F., 1948, Florentine Painting and its Social Background, 9.3.

Real Abstraction

The Marxian conception of Real Abstraction can be found all over the place; for example, in Simmel[1], Sohn-Rethel[2], Adorno[3], Toscano[4] and more generally, scattered throughout critical theory.

Marx wrote:

Within the value-relation and the value expression included in it, the abstractly general accounts not as a property of the concrete, sensibly real; but on the contrary the sensibly-concrete counts as the mere form of appearance or definite form of realisation of the abstractly general … This inversion, by which the sensibly-concrete counts only as the form of appearance of the abstractly general and not, on the contrary, the abstractly general as property of the concrete, characterises the expression of value. At the same time, it makes understanding it difficult.[5]


It is as if together with and besides lions, tigers, hares and all the other real animals, which as a group form the various genuses, species, subspecies, families etc of the animal kingdom, there also existed the Animal, the individual incarnation of the whole animal kingdom.[6]

In the second edition of Capital, we find the famous phrase: '[t]he equalisation of the most different kinds of labour can be the result only of an abstraction from their inequalities, or of reducing them to their common denominator viz. expenditure of human labour power or human labour in the abstract', while in the French edition Marx added a comma, continuing '… and only exchange produces this reduction, by bringing the products of the most diverse kinds of labour into relation with each other on an equal footing'. [7]

For Marx the mystery of real abstraction lies in how the production process (labour) is concealed in the exchange between commodities through the medium of their universal equivalency in exchange value, this latter (materially performed, practiced) abstraction being at the centre of capitalist life. Far from being an idea that floats free of daily practice, abstraction here is concrete and real, having determinate effects in social relations. Abstraction here is not something thought; it is something done.

[1] The Philosophy of Money, p. 78
[2] Intellectual and Manual Labor, p. 69
[3] Introduction to Sociology, pp. 31-32
[4] Fanaticism, pp. 186-190
[5] 'The Value Form', Das Kapital, pp.39-140
[6] Das Kapital 1st ed. p.234
[7] Le Capital I p.70