What is an Apparatus?

What is an Apparatus? is perhaps the most important essay on Foucault I have read. More than an essay on an esoteric concept from the philosopher of biopower, Agamben’s essay lays out the basis for subjectivity, and how one performs a desubjectifcation.

He begins by tracing the genealogy of Foucault’s use of the term apparatus, and locates it (at least philosophically) in Hegel’s use of “positive religion.” Hegel distinguished between positive religion, or the rituals and liturgy that is forced onto someone and natural religion, which is the relation between human reason and the divine. For example, the believing subject who believes in their religion because they were born into it as a system imposed on them is practicing what Hegel calls positive religion, compared to a ‘natural religion’, or the relation between human reason and the divine, where the rituals and the experience is expressive. For Hegel then, to analyze the “positive” relations of a society is to analyze the constraints put upon it. This is the basis of Foucault’s use of the term apparatus to describe subjectivity.

Foucault incorporates the term apparatus, or dispiotif and it becomes a sort of glue, which ties the entire Foucauldian project together. It takes the place of universals, such as law, power, sovereignty, the state, etc. Remember that Foucault never uses these terms.

An apparatus is the network that can be established between the police, a technology of power, etc. Its origin as a term first emerges genealogically in Christian Gnostic texts with the term “Oikonomia” – a term that refers to a type of sacralizing of the desacralized. Prior to Christianity, Roman law referred to the concept of “profanation,” or that which which was sacred or religious but was restored to the terrain of human beings. All religion is that which sacrifices the common object to the realm of the sacred. It is that which restores to common use that which has been separated or divided.

An apparatus refers to a mode of governance that someone experiences that is devoid of being. This is why it always implies a subjectification process. Before we understand the unique imposition that an apparatus makes on a subject, we must understand the entry point by which an apparatus occurs. There are:

1. Apparatuses that orient, discipline, and order beings.
2. Natural being itself that is made up pure substances.

Subjects that form from the intersection of these two processes, and it is this division that is built into humanity – what Heidegger refers to as the “open.” At the root of each “open” lies desire – a desire for happiness most often. The matrix of ones desire then becomes the nexus by which an apparatus captures and subjects: the more effective it is in capturing ones desire, the more powerful it is.

Foucault refers to how in disciplinary societies; human subjects will create free, yet docile bodies that assume their subjectification through the process of desubjectification. In the confessionary mode of subjectification, the penance of the confession, where the old I is shrugged off by a new I, and the new self is constituted only through its negation. The prison itself is another example.

Agamben argues that any and all apparatuses must be resisted, but he does not go so far as to chart out a road map to do so. The internet, cell phones, and the entire social media apparatus presents a number of paradoxes. It most certainly operates at the juncture between catching desire and the open natural expression of that desire into a system to order and discipline being. The question of how free is free when it comes to an apparatus must be taken head on. The machine started with the drive of providence and continues onward to this day.

In terms of the apparatus of technology – is it possible to escape it by employing correct use? To overcome it by gaining greater control? What is clear at least for Agamben is that we must overturn the subjectification that occurs in any network of apparatuses in order to desubjectify from it.


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