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

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