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The Present’s Longer Shadow

Udaya Kumar

Agamben, Qu’est-ce qu’un dispositif?, tr. Martin Rueff (Paris: Éditions Payot & Rivages, 2007), 64 pp. ISBN: 978-2-7436-1672-4. 5 euros.

Giorgio Agamben’s recent work has tried to extend Foucault’s inquiry into modern power by travelling further back in time to zones beyond the historical origins of western modernity. This attempt at a medieval, and especially theological, genealogy of modernity, Agamben has reminded us, is very much in the spirit of Foucault’s own historical investigations which were seen by their author as shadows cast on the past by a theoretical questioning of the present. This short volume consists of a single essay, and it performs its inquiry in relation to a single term. “Terminology is the poetic moment of thought,” Agamben tells us at the outset in a suggestive invocation of Walter Benjamin. As in poetry, not everything is explained when it comes to philosophical terminology: did Plato not desist from defining the most privileged of his philosophical terms, the Idea? It is not surprising then that Foucault too does not ‘define’ the ‘dispositif’, a term of strategic importance in his own thought.

The dispositif is often translated into English as ‘apparatus.’ The price we pay for the clarity of this choice is the etymological aura of the term, which Agamben’s philological acumen makes rich use of. Although Foucault did not define the ‘dispositif’, he described it at some length in an interview in 1977, identifying three crucial aspects: ‘What I am trying to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions – in short, the said as much as the unsaid. … Secondly, what I am trying to identify in this apparatus is precisely the nature of the connection that can exist between these heterogeneous elements. … Thirdly, I understand by the term ‘apparatus’ a sort of – shall we say – formation which has as its major function at a given historical moment that of responding to an urgent need.’ The interviewers went on to question Foucault on the links between the dispositif and the ‘episteme’, a crucial phrase in some of his earlier work. His response characterized the episteme as a dispositif which made possible a separation of the scientific and the unscientific in discourses. However, the division of entities into discursive and non-discursive is ultimately of interest neither to Foucault nor to Agamben. When Agamben looks for a predecessor of the ‘dispositif’ in Foucault’s earlier works, he turns rather to a term that cuts across this distinction. The term in question is ‘positivity’ (which receives much attention in Archaeology of Knowledge), which shares a curious etymological history with the dispositif.

The turn towards theology in Agamben’s essay begins here in his inquiry into the sources of Foucault’s use of ‘positivity’. He finds an antecedent in Jean Hyppolite’s Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of History, which argues that Hegel, in his early essays on Christianity, made a distinction between


‘natural’ and ‘positive’ religion. While natural religion, for Hegel, referred to a direct and immediate relationship between human reason and the divine, positive religion indicated an ensemble of beliefs, rules and rites imposed from the outside on individuals at any given point in time. In this sense, the positivity of positive religion comes to coincide with its historicality. Hegel’s approach to positive religion implied an ambivalent estimation. On the one hand, positive religion, insofar as it suggests external constraints on the individual subject, is a taint on the liberty of human reason; on the other, since positive religion is historical, it can be reconciled with reason, which loses its abstract character in this concrete historical manifestation. The link that Agamben establishes between Foucault and Hyppolite concerns this historical dimension of a grid or set of constraints which also enable and shape distinctive forms of life. This can be seen in Foucault’s use of ‘positivity’ to refer to an ensemble of institutions, processes of subjectivation and rules within which power relations are concretized. Unlike Hyppolite who aimed at a reconciliation of reason and history, Foucault is interested in examining the specific modes by which positivities operate within mechanisms of power.

Interestingly, Foucault’s use of dispositif seems to mobilize all three senses invoked in the ordinary language use of the term discussed in dictionaries, which connected three separate meanings: juridical, technological and military. While the juridical sense referred to that part of a legal judgement which spelt out a decision arrived at after a consideration of arguments, the technological use pointed to the manner in which parts are arranged in a machine or mechanism, and the military use denoted an ensemble of means deployed towards an end. For Agamben, these three senses are parts of an original configuration of the dispositif; his attempt is to use this insight to provoke a fresh look at the historical forms in which dispositifs are available to us in contemporary times. This modern history of the dispositif – philosophical and philological in parts – concludes the first movement of Agamben’s text. The second begins by plunging into an earlier, theological context and explores a fresh trajectory. At later point, we shall see these twin trajectories of philological investigation converge.

Agamben’s new starting point, this time from the medieval and classical past, is also a term – ‘economy.’ We are familiar with the Greek use of the term, which referred to the management of the household, oikos. The story that Agamben tells us is less familiar, and concerns the Christian theological uses of the term to refer to a divine economy. Agamben notes that this use became prominent in discussions of the ‘trinity’: in responding to charges of introducing polytheism into Christianity, theologians elaborated a discourse on the relations between the three elements of the trinity. The father and the son were ‘consubstantial’ or of the same substance. However, they were different in the tasks that they perform. The father assigns certain tasks to the son. This arrangement of tasks and functions may be called a divine economy. In other words, economy was the device or dispositif by which Trinitarian dogma and the doctrine of a providential government were introduced into Christianity. This also produced a distinction between the domains of being and action. The latter, which included politics and economy, came to have no foundation in the order of being. Agamben would go so far as to say that one of the major legacies that the doctrine of the economy has bequeathed to


western culture is this schizophrenic theoretical articulation. In later thinkers such as Clement of Alexandria, economy comes to be identified with providence, and the salvational government of the world. And, interestingly, the term that the Latin fathers adopted for translating the Greek word ‘economy’ was none other than ‘dispositio.’

With this moment of translation, Agamben’s second trajectory meets the first. He goes on to say: “Foucault’s dispositif articulates … this theological heritage. It means a pure activity of governance without any foundation in being.” Given its lack of foundation (or an-archy) in the order of being, all dispositifs need to produce their own subjects; thus dispositif becomes the site of subjectivation. This once again links Foucault’s dispositifs with Hegel’s positivities.

However, this moment of arrival in Agamben’s argument also marks a fresh point of departure. The third movement in the essay, which opens on to the last series of reflections, is initiated by a methodological choice. Agamben invokes Feurbach’s notion of ‘the philosophical element’ in a text to identify the point at which a text becomes vulnerable and signals to the reader that he or she cannot proceed any further without violating fundamental hermeneutic protocols. “This means that the deployment of the text studied has reached a point of undecidability where it becomes impossible to distinguish between the author and the interpreter” – it is then time to abandon the text that one had submitted to analysis and pursue reflection on one’s own. Thus Agamben sets aside his philological discussion of Foucault’s dispositifs and begins anew, delineating a new context for the term and its work.

This does not mean that the earlier trajectories are abandoned; the distinction between ontology and economy is invoked as the ground for differentiating all beings into living beings and dispositifs. This produces, to speak in a theological vein, an ontology of creatures on the one hand, and an economy of dispositifs on the other. It is here that Agamben defines the dispositif for contemporary theoretical usage: “I call a dispositif everything that has the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control and ensure the gestures, the conduct, the opinions, and the discourses of living beings. Thus it is not only prisons, asylums, the panopticon, schools, factories and disciplines … but also the pen, writing, literature, philosophy, agriculture, cigarette, navigation, computers, cell phones, and why not – language itself, perhaps the oldest of dispositifs in which thousands of years ago a primate, probably unaware of consequences, had unconsciously let himself be caught.” This characterization, copiously inclusive, places all technology within the ambit of the dispositif. Thus we have two classes: living beings and dispositifs. However, that is not all. Between the two, we have a new class – that of subjects, produced by the relationship between living beings and dispositifs.

For Agamben, thus, dispositifs are not a matter of modernity. They are as old as man; in fact, they go back to the very process that separated the human from the animal world. The process of humanization produces a schism in living beings, similar to the division between the realms of ontology and economy within the divine. Agamben sees this as cutting into the living


being’s immediate connection with itself and its surroundings. However, it also makes available an experience of the Open, that is, the capacity for encountering being as such and constructing a world. Along with this is given the possibility of dispositifs. Thus, for Agamben, all dispositifs are motivated by the desire for an ‘all too human’ happiness.

What attitude do we adopt to dispositifs? Agamben is understandably wary of the optimistic advocacy of ‘good use’ – his argument on the subjectivizing powers of the dispositif rule out this option. He proceeds by thematizing the transactions between the domains of the sacred and the profane. Acts of consecration – or sacrifice – traditionally mark this division, regulating the transfer of objects from the profane to the sacred sphere. In contrast, a procedure of ‘profanation’ can be seen as a counter-dispositif which makes sacred objects available for free circulation and use. The distinction between sacralization and profanation is for Agamben also pertinent for modern dispositifs and their work of subjectivation.

Agamben’s most original, and perhaps most problematic, argument is developed here. He makes a distinction between traditional and modern dispositifs and suggests that the profanation of the latter is particularly difficult. Traditional dispositifs linked the production of new forms of subjectivity to the disavowal of earlier figures of the subject. For instance, in the catholic rituals of penitence, the new subject finds its truth in the non- truth of the older and repudiated form of the sinful subject. Similarly, the disciplinary dispsotif of the prison – as Foucault so eloquently showed – produces delinquency which, in turn, leads to the production of subjects for new forms of governance. Agamben argues that this movement of desubjectivation, integrally linked to the production of subjects, is no longer available in the case of modern dispositifs. The user of the cell phone, according to him, does not get a new form of subjectivity, but merely a number with which he can be effectively controlled. Subjectivation and desubjectivation, in the modern dispositif, have become indifferent to one another.

What we then have in the contemporary world are gigantic processes of desubjectivation without a corresponding movement towards the production of subjects. This occasions the eclipse of all politics avowedly based on ‘real’ subjects, and marks the triumph of the ‘economy’, by which Agamben means an act of ‘pure’ government that has as its aim nothing other than self- reproduction. We find the reappearance of several themes and motifs familiar from Agamben’s earlier work here – biopolitical governmentality, the erasure of the distinction between the political right and the left, and the strange convergence effected by modern governance between the figures of the citizen and the terrorist (‘in the eyes of authority, nobody resembles a terrorist as much as the ordinary man’).

However, the ubiquity of dispositifs in the contemporary world also results in the production of an element that seems to exceed or escape the grasp of mechanisms of governance. Agamben warns against equating this ‘ungovernable’ element too quickly with revolutionary or even anti- governmental possibilities. In fact it seems to bring together the old theological themes of the providential and the eschatological. All this seems


to highlight the importance of profanation. However, the contemporary configuration of the dispositif makes it difficult to pose this problem and to thematize the ungovernable which, for Agamben, is both the point of origin and the breaking point for all politics.

The challenge that Agamben’s recent work poses concerns our understanding of the history and the structure of the modern subject. The theological roots of modern power sketched by him propose a rethinking of the relations between sovereignty, disciplinarity and governance. Agamben’s ‘method’, which combines philological, philosophical and historical moves, also pose methodological problems for determining the level at which a history of forms of power can be conceived. It becomes difficult to decide, for example, how to figure and understand an instance of discontinuity, as the philological narrative seems to carry with it resonances of an original articulation.

In the essay on the dispositif we are directly confronted with this problem. The specificity of the dispositif in Foucault’s work was linked to its strategic character and its relation to situations of ‘urgent need.’ Agamben retains this sense, but also expands the scope of the concept to include all technology. Thus the dispositif seems to invoke a situation of irreducible specificity and a configuration that defines the human at the same time. Agamben’s account of modern technological devices – such as the cell phone or the television – also shows a curious denial of new forms of subjectivity to their users, highlighting passivity and a sense of being controlled. In Remnants of Auschwitz, Agamben gave a rich account of the relationship between desubjectivation and the production of subjects in the context of language. Do our times refuse such complexity, or does Agamben’s inclusive definition of the dispositif and his identifying it with the technological device foreclose a closer encounter with the positivities that make our present?