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What is an apparatus?

Citing Michel Foucault, to whom is attributed one of the most important non-definitions of the apparatus1 (because he doesn’t actually define it), philosopher Giorgio Agamben formulates the political implications of the concept:

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.

Giorgio Agamben, What is an apparatus?, p. 14
The “apparatus” after Michel Foucault

What I’m trying to single out with this term is, first and foremost, a thoroughly heterogeneous set 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. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus it­self is the network that can be established between these elements …

… by the term “apparatus” I mean a kind of a forma­tion, so to speak, that at a given historical moment has as its major function the response to an urgency. The appa­ratus therefore has a dominant strategic function …

… I said that the nature of an apparatus is essentially strategic, which means that we are speaking about a certain manipulation of relations of forces, of a rational and concrete intervention in the relations of forces, either so as to develop them in a particular direction, or to block them, to stabilize them, and to utilize them. The apparatus is thus always inscribed into a play of power, but it is also always linked to certain limits of knowledge that arise from it and, to an equal degree, condition it. The apparatus is precisely this: a set of strategies of the relations of forces supporting, and supported by, certain types of knowledge.

Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (New York: Pantheon Books. 1980), pp. 194-96.

Agamben synthesizes Foucault’s words in three points:

  1. It is a heterogeneous set that includes virtually anything, linguistic and nonlinguistic, under the same heading: discourses, institutions, buildings, laws, police measures, philosophical propositions, and so on. The apparatus itself is the network that is established between these elements.
  2. The apparatus always has a concrete strategic function and is always located in a power relation.
  3. As such, it appears at the intersection of power relations and relations of knowledge.
Giorgio Agamben, What is an Apparatus?, pp. 2-3

An apparatus implies implicit or explicit forms of power. A complex, reticular, and multiform dynamic emerges from it, rather than a precise and well-defined object. However, the formulation is so broad, so general, that it becomes inoperative, because endlessly irreducible. Such a generalization erases the specificity of the concept: if anything can be an apparatus, then what makes something not be an apparatus? A more concrete paradigm becomes necessary. (For instance the critical analysis of programs, of computer code, which embody values and world views and carry a functional, executable aspect.)


Beyond the mere concept of apparatus is the threat (or the fear?) of “desubjectification” that comes with the proliferation of technical objects. For instance, Agamben appears to be particularly ablaze by the commonality of cellular telephones:

What defines the apparatuses that we have to deal with in the current phase of capitalism is that they no longer act as much through the production of a subject, as through the processes of what can be called ‌desubjectification. … He who lets himself be captured by the “cellular telephone” apparatus—whatever the intensity of the desire that has driven him—cannot acquire a new subjectivity, but only a number through which he can, eventually, be controlled. The spectator who spends his evenings in front of the television set only gets, in exchange for his desubjecivation, the frustrated mask of the couch potato, or his inclusion in the calculation of viewership ratings.

Giorgio Agamben, What is an Apparatus?, pp. 20-21

(One may ask: is Agamben being overly dramatic?)

Without going as far as the death of the liberal subject (which was the ultimate nightmare of cybernetics figure Norbert Wiener) fallen to a deus ex (computo) machina, Agamben highlights the fact that some aspects of life become, to some extents, parametrized, reduced to a calculated set of predefined constraints and agential pathways—allowing a political or economic system to simply function, even meaninglessly, at best, and perpetuating Deleuzian systems of control, at worst.

Subjectivity, as a condition of critical thinking and the locus of agency, therefore appears to be one of Agamben’s dearest humanist pillars.

  1. Apparatus: As the translators note, “We follow here the common English translation of Foucault’s term dispositif as “apparatus.” In everyday use, the French word can designate any sort of device. Agamben points out that the torture machine from Kafka’s In the Penal Colon is called an Apparat↩︎