Rene — Agamben — Quel Est Dispositif? — What is an Apparatus — What is a Dispositor?

Topic(s): Agamben | Comments Off on Rene — Agamben — Quel Est Dispositif? — What is an Apparatus — What is a Dispositor?

This is a transcript of a talk by Jason Michael Adams. For those who would like the audio: http://www.zoepolitics.com/agamben.mp3
Giorgio Agamben
I have for my lecture a bilingual title. First the French title, ‘Quel Est Dispositif?’ Then, an attempt at an English translation, ‘What is a Dispositor?’ Let me start with some considerations on this title. Of course the term ‘dispositif’ comes from Michel Foucault, that is to say, when he begins to work on what he will call governmentality. For reasons that I hope will become clear in my lecture, I am not satisfied with the current English translation of the term dispositif as ‘procedure’ or ‘apparatus’ and I would prefer to keep nearer to the French original. This is why I have proposed what is probably a monstrous translation, as ‘dispositor’. The term is in the English Oxford Dictionary, it is an astrological term that means the law of a sign in its relation to other planets. Thus a dispositor as the law of the astrological sign embodies all of the forces and influences that the planet exerts on individuals, inclining them, binding them and restraining them in all possible ways. The questions of terminology are important in philosophy. Even if we do not reduce philosophy to terminology like Friedrich Schlegel proposes to do, terminology is extremely important. As a philosopher whom I respect very much used to say, terminology is the poetic moment in philosophy. Of course philosophers do not need to define their technical terms. Thus Plato does not define his most important technical term ‘idea’, that is why they have spent 2,000 years discussing it. On the contrary, Spinoza prefers to define ‘geometrical’, ‘substantive’, ‘casa sui’, etc, and Leibniz also. Every part of the discourse can become a technical term, so that the hyphen in Heidegger’s In-der-Welt-sein is the technical term. And an adverb, gleichwol in Kant is a technical term. And in the last text published by Deleuze, the dots are technical terms.
So what I am suggesting here is that dipositif is a central technical term in Foucault’s philosophy. He almost never really defines it, but in an interview from 1977 he comes near to a definition. The dispositif is a general and heterogeneous set. It includes virtually everything, linguistic and non-linguistic, discourses and institutions, architecture, laws, police measures, scientific statements, philosophical and moral propositions, and so on. But, as he points out, the dispositif is the network or the web established between those elements. Second it always has a strategic function, it’s always inscribed in a power game, so it has a strong relationship to power. Third it is very general because it includes the epistemic, which defines, for Foucault, what allows in a certain society at a certain time, to distinguish between scientific and non-scientific statements, of what you can say and what you cannot say – so the dispositif is in a margin.Let me make a quick genealogy of this term, first in Foucault and then in a more general way. At the end of the Sixties, Foucault does not apply the term dispositif, but applies the term positivity when he tries to name the object of his investigation. I always wondered where Foucault could have found this curious term until the moment I read Jean Hyppolite’s essay ‘Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy’. You know the strong relationship that linked Foucault and Hyppolite, whom he sometimes refers to as ‘mammoth’. In Chapter Three of this booklet, we have the title, ‘Reason, History and the Ideas of Positivity and Destiny’. Analyzing Hegel’s writings in the so-called Bern and Frankfurt period, that is to say 1795 and 1796, Hyppolite mentions and focuses on two books, the first of which is ‘Positivity’. So, Hyppolite makes a strong statement about these two terms. He writes, “we have here two key concepts we must always remember, because the whole of Hegel’s reflection focuses on them. I mean the concept of positivity and the concept of destiny”.
As for the first term, Hyppolite shows that this conflict in Hegel comes from the opposition between natural religion and positive or historical religion. While the natural religion is the general relationship of human reason to the Divine, a positive or historical religion includes all the stated beliefs, rites, rules, behaviors, which appear in a certain moment and in a certain place, and are imposed from outside as an historical title. Hyppolite quotes a passage from Hegel that must have awakened Foucault’s attention, and seems to contain some intimations of the notion of dispositor. I quote, “a positive religion includes feelings and beliefs which are imposed by means of constriction to the souls of individuals. It demands acts that are the effect of a command and the result of a base”. Hyppolite shows that this opposition in the young Hegel is a preformation of the big dialectic between pure reason and history. “Therefore”, he writes, “to investigate the positive elements of a religion, but also more generally from a social state, means to discover what is imposed to man by constriction”. Just to measure the importance of this concept, Hyppolite shows that all of Hegel’s subsequent thought is precisely an attempt to reconcile these two elements – nature, reason and history, individual and state, so that the first one gets rid of its obstruction. Hyppolite writes that positivity must be reconciled with reason and in that way lose its abstract character and become concrete. And of course, Hegel is precisely an attempt to think the consolation of man and dispositif, of course in Foucault it is not at all the same attempt, but if positivity is the name the young Hegel gives to whole of history, including the juridical institution, the power institution, etc., then borrowing from Hyppolite, the term positivity, which then becomes dispositif, Foucault takes a position with respect to a crucial problem; the relationship between man and history. Man as human being and the history of all institutions. Of course, Foucault does not attempt at all to reconcile the two like Hegel. He does not want either to stress the conflict. He prefers to analyze the way in which the positivity or dispositif or dispositors, work in the relationship between living beings and history and power. So, now I think you will have understood why I suggest that dispositif is an important technical term in Foucault’s strategy. And it does not refer only to this or that particular dispositor, but is more general – remember, the dispositor itself is the network that is established between all these.
Let me now take my genealogy in a more general frame. The dictionary distinguishes three meanings. The first is a strictly juridical one. The dispositif is that part of a juridical judgment that contains the ‘enacting’ part. Second the term has a technical meaning; the manner in which the pieces of a machine and by extension the mechanism itself are disposed. Third, the whole set of the means of disposal according to a military plan. The dictionary always functions by dividing the meaning of a term. Of course this is correct in a way, but it is wrong. There is always one general meaning that articulates itself in different conflicts. So we can say that in the dictionary, the essential meaning refers to the disposal of the set of actions, means and discourses in order to cope with an emergency or to obtain an effect or a result. So it is in a way, an act of management, of governing a concrete situation. Now to go back in our genealogy, as a matter of fact, in the last three years I engaged myself in a long investigation in what I tentatively defined as a theological genealogy of economy. You may know, perhaps, that in the first centuries of the history of the Church, lets say between the second and the sixth centuries, the Greek term oikonomia played a decisive role in theology. As you know, in Greek, the word oikonomia means very simply, the administration of the house. In a more general way, it means the management of the house or of an enterprise. It is, according to Aristotle, a non-epistemic paradigm, meaning it is not a science but an activity that has to cope each time with a peculiar situation, a particular problem, and it has to be adequate to this.
How did this term come to be introduced in theology? They used this term to answer a very fundamental question; the invention of trinity. When, in the second century, the fathers began to elaborate the paradigm of the trinity, to speak of three different figures in God, of course they met a strong resistance, from very reasonable persons who said, “are you crazy, you are going back to Paganism, you are saying that God is three”. At that moment, the problem was not yet decided, it was a very delicate problem. Oikonomia was the term of the dispositif by means of which trinity was introduced in God. As for his being or substance, God is one. But as for his oikonomia, his economy, meaning the way he manages his house and his divine life, he is three – like a master of the house, he has a son. So in this way he says, we keep to the monarchy, we keep to the unity; substantially God is one, but as for the activity of governing his house, he is three. So you see the strategy. Then oikonomia became a crucial term, and it was eventually used to mean Christology, to mean Christos. So in the Gnostic writings, Christos is called the man of the economy. And likewise, oikonomia means Christ. So, you see the problem, how to coincide within God, unity and trinity by way of distinguishing being and oikonomia. But then, the fracture, the rupture that the fathers tried to avoid, in God as substance reappears as a rupture of being, God’s being and God’s action. So the consequence of this introduction of the concept of oikonomia is that we will have in God himself a splitting between being and action. And the fathers are very aware of this, and they will speak of two discourses, theologia, referring to God’s being in nature and oikonomia, referring to his praxis. The point is that Christ, as represented in the oikonomia, is a God like the father, and not in a subordinate condition. Praxis is not grounded in being. This is a central point in theology, there is really a split. They will say, in their fight with the Aryans, that Christos, the Son, is anarchos, without origin. So divine action is as anarchical as the father, as the being of God.
By the way, this is why there is no hope for ethics in the Occident, in the Western culture, because we inherited this paradigm and we have no possibility of grounding action in being. What you are and what you do have nothing to do with one another. That is a big problem, but it is not our point. So you see the importance of this notion of oikonomia, that will define all the divine activity of government and management of human life. Now, what is the translation of the Greek oikonomia in the writings of the Latin fathers? Dispositsia, disposition. So the divine economy is a disposition, and this means that all our family of terms, disposition, dispositif, dispositor, disposal, to dispose, etc., have a theological lineage, because first we had the translation of oikonomia with dispositsia. Then this means that this dispositif, or dispositor, of which Foucault speaks, can be traced back to this theological oikonomia and also, in some way, to this divine splitting, which divides in God ontology and praxis, being and acting. You can see that this very quick genealogy assigns to the dispositif a fundamental situation, because in the same location where Foucault puts his dispositif, we find not only Hegel’s positivity, but also, perhaps, why not, Heidegger’s Gestell. Etymologically, Gestell corresponds perfectly to our concept. Stellen, in English, is the Latin, ponerate. So, we have in a way, a phenomenon that in some way can be traced back to the theological oikonomia.
Now, when you are interpreting a text of an author, you reach a point or a limit, where you know that you are going too far, that you are pushing your interpretation beyond the rules of hermeneutics and you have to stop. So I will stop my attempt of an interpretation of Foucault’s concept of dispositif. So let’s leave Foucault, at least apparently, and go on our own way. I would propose a massive and general partition. On one side, we have substances and on the other dispositors, the dispositif. On one side we have living beings, on the other, the dispositif in which they get ceaselessly captured. On one side ontology, on the other, the economy of the dispositif that will take care of beings, in order to manage and govern them. In this perspective I will generalize the already huge category of dispositif, and continuing his gesture, I will call dispositor or dispositif, literally everything that has in some way, the capacity of capturing, determining, orienting, intercepting, shaping, guiding, securing or controlling, the behaviors, the gestures, the opinions, the discourses of living beings or substances. Not only therefore, as Foucault presents, the hospitals, discipline, the confession, the panopticon, etc., but also, what seems less directly connected with power, such as writing and literature.
And perhaps, why not, perhaps the first dispositor is language itself, in which one day, in the beginning of humanity, a living being let itself be captured. So this was the beginning, perhaps. But that’s not far enough. So, lets go to another, more concrete level, where everything will be a dispositif. A pen or a pencil are dispositors. Of course the computer is a dispositor. And of course, the horrible mobile phone is the worst dispositor. Perhaps you don’t know, but the mobile phone has completely changed the life of the citizens in the country where I happen to live. So we have two huge categories, beings and dispositors and between the two, the subject. I call subject what results from the relationship, in the hand-to-hand struggle of the substance and the dispositif. In this sense, the individual can be the place of a multiplicity of processes of subjectivation. So he will be the mobile-phone subject, etc., so that, to the indefinite proliferation of dispositors, that defines the present phase of capitalism, will correspond an indefinite proliferation of subjectivities, which give the impression of the eradication of the category of subjectivity, but it is not an abolition of it, but more properly an infinite splitting and dissemination of subjectivities. So I would say that what characterizes the extreme stage of capitalism in which we are living is precisely the gigantic accumulation of dispositors that are now covering the whole life of man. By the way, of course, in order to work, the dispositor much have captured something, which must have to do with something very important for man. So perhaps, the horrible mobile captures probably capture the desire for the communication of man, which in itself is not bad at all. It becomes bad when it is captured by the dispositif. So we have to distinguish from what is captured in the dispositif, which can be something human and very good, and the fact that now it is taken into the power game of the dispositif.
Now, what must we do to cope with this situation? What is the strategy we must follow in our fight with the dispositif? What can I do with people with mobile phones? Probably killing them is not the right solution. So I would like now to introduce a concept on which I have worked recently, and which seems to suggest a possible strategy in determined struggle between man and dispositors. This concept is profanation. It’s a technical juridical concept. In Roman law, things or persons or places that in some way belonged to the gods were said to be sacred or religious. As such, they were removed from the free use of man. Any act that transgressed this spatial unavailability of the sacred object was sacrilegious. The verb to consecrate, meant the exit of things from the sphere of human use and its separation in another sphere. And conversely, to profane, and profanation, meant to return these things to the free use of man. So the great Roman Julius Strabatus can write, “we name profane something that was once sacred and religious and it is now returned to the use and property of man”. A good definition for religion is, a dispositif that will remove things, places, animals or people from common use and transfer them to a separate sphere called the sacred. So the apparatus that affects this is sacrifice, which is the set of acts and rules that regulate the transition of something from the profane sphere to the sacred and conversely, the transition from the sacred to the profane. And sometimes profanation in Roman sacrifice can be very simple; for example, during the sacrifice, the animal was offered, but the god only ate the interiors, only the heart, liver, etc. The whole was consecrated, but once the interior was separated, the rest was profanated simply by being touched. After the sacrifice, everyone could eat, because it had been profaned.
So the transition from the sacred to the profane can occur in a very incongruous use of the sacred – I mean, play. You know perhaps, that most of the games with which we are familiar derive from ancient religious ceremonies, from divinatory practices and rituals that once belonged to the sacred sphere. So for instance all of the games that the children play – for instance ring-around-the-rosey the round-dance, was originally a marriage rite. All the games with the ball reproduce, according to the folklorists, the struggle of the gods for the possession of the sun. All the games of chance and gambling derive from divinatory and oracular practices, so the spinning top was an instrument for divination, as you know. So, play is a very interesting example of profanation; something that was religious is now returned to a new and different use, the free use of man, and the children are mostly the people in charge of this massive profanation of all the lost religious ceremonies. But children can play as you know, not only with religious things, but also with things that come from the sphere of economy, of law, of war. Children play with whatever comes from another separated sphere, but they take it back to another use. That’s a very beautiful and important example of profanation, because we are there in a new dimension of use in which children, and perhaps, philosophers, give to humanity. Because I think it is a sort of use like that Benjamin must have had in mind when in his essay on Kafka, he writes that the law that is no long applied but only studied is the gate to justice. He is evoking a figure in which humanity plays with the law and does not apply it anymore, and this new usage is called study.
So, just as the religion that is no longer observed but played with opens the gate to use for children, so the powers of economics, law and politics, deactivated in that way, become the gate to a new happiness. Benjamin wrote an incredible little text that was published posthumously, called Capitalism as a Religion. I will not enter into this interesting text that Werner Hamacher has analyzed, I will just follow his suggestion; we could say that capitalism, in its present stage, pushes to the extreme and generalizes the tendency to separation that was already present in religion. Where sacrifice once marked the passage from the profane to the sacred and vice versa, there now stands a single, multiple, ceaseless process of separation that assails everything, every place, every human activity in order to divide it from itself. In its extreme form, the capitalist religion realizes the pure form of separation, without anything left to separate. An absolute profanation without remainder now coincides with total consecration. Everything is done, produced or leaked, even the human body, even of course, sexuality, even language, is now divided from itself and dislocated into a separate sphere that no longer defines any substantial division between sacred and profane, but in which all use becomes impossible. This sphere is consumption. Consumption is what results from the generalized impossibility of using in which we live. That which cannot be used is as such, given over to consumption, or to spectacular exhibition, lets say to the Supermarket, with a capital ‘S’, and to the Museum, with a capital ‘M’. But this means also that, perhaps, it has become now impossible to profane, or better, that we must find now, better ways to profane. If to profane means to return to the common use of man that which has been separated into the sphere of the sacred or the consumption of the spectacle, we could say that capitalism in its extreme phase, is creating something absolutely improfanable, which can never be given back to use. Let me just say, in a kind of semi-ironic, or better, semi-parodic but finally serious statement, that the profanation of the improfanable is the political task of the coming generation.
Transcribed by Jason Michael Adams