Critical Theory Uncategorized

What Is A Dispositif? – Part 1 (Gregg Lambert)

The following article by internationally known theory scholar Gregg Lambert is the first of a two-part series.

The concept of “dispositif” is best known as a key term in late Foucault that first appeared in his History of Sexuality, Volume 1 (1976) to replace the use of “discursive formation,” which for Foucault was restricted to the analysis of the statement in The Archeology of Knowledge (1969).

This later substitution of terms had to embrace non-linguistic, particularly visual and spatial arrangements, or in Foucault’s own terms, “the said as much as the unsaid.” However, Foucault never properly defined his understanding of dispositif, and the term’s breadth and ambiguity explains the persistence of the question “what is a dispositif?” in contemporary theory.

In 1988 and in 2006, respectively, Gilles Deleuze and Giorgio Agamben each addressed this term in essays both titled with that very question. Both philosophers agreed that the term refers to the heterogeneous mechanisms of “capturing” and “transforming” living beings into subjects in the process of which the “dimension of power” plays a crucial role. They also emphasized the plurality of these “mechanisms,” thus referring not to a singular dispositif, but to the “multilinear ensemble.”

Both Deleuze and Agamben preferred to remain in the haven of abstraction rather than going through the pains of a concrete analysis of the workings of such mechanisms. The only example given by Agamben (the alienating power of mobile phones) bears the pitfalls of technological determinism. In this case, dispositif becomes a kind of all-embracing network of oppressive “social machines” intermingled with technophobic fantasy – a kind of Matrix – which an individual is only able to evade. However, the term “ideology” is significantly absent from these exegeses.

At the same time, concepts are not defined by propositions and do not exist in dictionaries. They are defined by “statements,” and statements can appear suddenly to change the meaning of a concept, as in the case of the concept of the apparatus which is suddenly redefined by a new term Foucault introduces, which is dispositif, which submits the concept of apparatus to a sudden reversal between interior and exterior, since apparatuses will suddenly be found to be internal to dispositifs, but without becoming a form of interiority.

In this sense of reversal, I would argue that the exact status of Foucault’s term dispositif is a neologism. In other words, he invented the term precisely to: 1. avoid using another term that was already coupled to the term appareil (i.e., “machine”), and; 2. to invest the term with a new and more general sense that would be the basis for his analysis and further amplification of what the term would eventually come to designate—but only as a result of further demonstration that his subsequent works would perform.

Of course, someone might immediately object to my classification of neologism for a word that already existed in the French lexicon and thus already has a definite semantic content and etymological history; however, the fact that a word exists in a language does not convey its usage, the frequency of its uses, and in what contexts the word is employed. Given the 25669501743_f164cf1f45_ofact that the word was not employed previously in the same context as the term appareil, the introduction of the term into the conceptual discussion at this point would give Foucault the distinctive advantage to also redefine its conceptual cousin as well, which he does.

Therefore, since words are not defined in isolation, but in the context of other terms that they are related or opposed to (synonyms, antonyms), or serve as qualifiers, then dispositif cannot be defined apart or outside the history of statements that define the term appareil (and of course, now, as a result of Foucault’s neologism, visa versa). In any case, as Foucault already argues in the Archeology of Knowledge, words only occur in statements, and new statements that define a term’s meaning appear in the present and can suddenly transform the entire sense of what the statement designates. This is how I would also understand the statement, or rather the question, “what is an apparatus?” after Foucault’s usage of the term beginning in 1975.

Concerning the relationship to its conceptual cousin, appareil, or machine, why does Foucault insist on the heterogeneity of assemblage of elements except to define an order that non longer can be determined mechanistically as parts of a machine. This is why I have argued above that Foucault selects the term dispositif in part to avoid using other terms that are already coupled with the concept of the apparatus, which are machine, structure, system, or organism.

Each of these forms require a homogeneous space and determines the elements of parts of the ensemble. There is no structure, for example, in which all the elements that supposedly belong to the structure would be absolutely heterogeneous to one another; likewise, there is no machine that is composed of absolutely heterogeneous parts. In each case, the elements would be external to the form of a structure or the function of a machine, and there would be no homogeneous and interior relation (i.e., the elements would not belong to the structure, the parts would not belong to the machine). And yet, is this exteriority itself a new form of relation itself, without becoming yet again another structure? And yet, this seems to be what Foucault is suggesting by the term dispositif.

If we simply define a dispositif as a general strategy according to Foucault’s own definition—“I said that the dispositive is by nature essentially strategic”—then what is a strategy? A strategy can be defined as a line of force that is exterior to the elements but assembles them in a certain order and according to a certain end.  In economy as in war, for example, “the multiple relations of force which are formed and operate in the apparatuses (appareils) of production, there is a general line of force which traverses local battles and links them together.”

In order to illustrate this, let us think of the difference between war and battle. A battle is a finite instance that reproduces the general conflict, as well as the terms and subjects of this conflict. But the outcome of the battle does not necessarily determine the end of the war; the battle moves the war further along, extends the process, until the next instance. The winner and the loser will assess the outcome of the battle as part of a general strategy to win the war, but the war is not over until the conditions of reproduction on one side are reduced to a point where one can no longer go on fighting.

In choosing the term dispositif, Foucault disregards the mechanistic definition of an apparatus and chooses instead its secondary meaning: the ensemble of military pieces disposed according to a strategic plan. What is the general plan except the subjection of one force by another force. Except, for Foucault, what is new is the strategy of subjection, which occurs not through repression or cancellation of the force, but rather by incitement, provocation, intensification, and seduction.

It is here that Foucault articulates the new strategies of power that are essentially vitalist and creative; moreover, in perpetuating this strategy across and through institutions and concrete individuals, this new order brings together formerly heterogeneous terms and causes them to be linked together, and even is responsible for creating or inventing new terms, as in new subjections.

In a certain sense, the question “what is a dispositif?” and all the discussion this question has created in the history of Foucault scholarship—but also, I will recall, in the history of Marxism and Althusserian scholarship as well—is perhaps a modern exemplary of the scholastic petitio principi, since an apparatus can be easily defined in whatever contemporary lexicon one chooses as “a device” that literally causes (or “makes ready”) something to begin to appear—sexuality, power, the state, God, etc. In the last definition, before departing from this discourse on the little iota, I have placed a greater emphasis on the nature of the appearance, emphasizing the point of emergence, the becoming visible, or the beginning to appear instead of an a Apparatusindefinite and infinite appearance.

This declension of appearance, in fact, corresponds to the temporality of the French verb that is derived from the Latin appārēscō. Therefore, a dispositif now must be understood as a device that specifically causes something “to begin to appear,” and perhaps this gives the term a more historical and less ontologically determined, as if the nature of power itself undergoes a change. It is crucial to note that later in the lecture on security Foucault rejects any serialization of these dispositifs in the sense of a paradigmatic change in the nature of power itself.

As Foucault himself comments in Sécurité, territoire, population, “you do not at all have a series in which the elements are going to succeed one another, those which appear making the preceding ones disappear. There is not the age of the legal, the age of the disciplinary, the age of security.” Therefore, according to the same logic, there is not an age of biopower either.

Returning to our discussion, a second problem with Althusser’s concept of apparatus is that he has to resort to a reproduction of the term itself to define its order or principle, which is that of a machine. The apparatus is already determined as part of a more general order to which its function is subordinated, the mode of production. However, this leads to a tautology in the concept itself, which he can resolve only by describing certain state-apparatuses as repressive, directly subjecting the body to power or force (the police, the prison, the military), and others as defined as ideological, whose form of subjection is imaginary, producing in the consciousness of the subject a correlate of the subjected body in the form of an identity, which Foucault refers to later as a kind of “autonomous docility”(Discipline and Punish, 169).

It is this concept of the apparatus that is employed in Discipline and Punish, which is early on taken from Marx and defined as a homogeneous assemblage or “machine.” But it is also important to point out that this is where the notion of a general strategy of warfare that is also applied to populations and to the individual body through the technique of politics and the economic division of labour first appears as well.

Here, Foucault’s theory of machine is drawn more from Canguilhem, who in turn finds it first in Descartes; as Canguilhem argues, the emergence of Capitalism is not the result of the fixed ratio of labor time as it is the gradual mechanization of the different parts of labor into a machine. It is only on the basis of this prior mechanization that the total process can be standardized, numerically determined — i.e., the parts or elements must already be made disposable to being standardized, they must be homogenized. The soul cannot move the body unless the body is already predisposed to movement. An army, which is assembled from heterogeneous elements, cannot move as one body unless they are already disposed to be made from the same mettle. As Foucault writes:

Hence the need to find a whole calculated practice of individual and collective dispositions, movements of groups or isolated elements, changes of position, of movement from one disposition to another; in short, the need to invent a machinery whose principle would no longer be the mobile or immobile mass, but a geometry of divisible segments whose basic unity was the mobile soldier with his rifle; and, no doubt, below the soldier himself, the minimal gestures, the elementary stages of actions, the fragments of spaces occupied or traversed. The same problems arose when it was a question of constituting a productive force whose effect had to be superior to the sum of elementary forces that composed it: ‘The combined working-day produces, relatively to an equal sum of working-days, a greater quantity of use-values, and, consequently, diminishes the labour-time necessary for the production of a given useful effect. Whether the combined working-day, in a given case, acquires this increased productive power, because it heightens the mechanical force of labour, or extends its sphere of action over a greater space, or contracts the field of production relatively to the scale of production, or at the critical moment sets large masses of labour to work … the special productive power of the combined working-day is, under all circumstances, the social productive power of labour, or the productive power of social labour. This power is due to cooperation itself (Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 311– 12). On several occasions, Marx stresses the analogy between the problems of the division of labour and those of military tactics. For example: ‘Just as the offensive power of a squadron of cavalry, or the defensive power of a regiment of infantry, is essentially different from the sum of the offensive or defensive powers of the individual cavalry or infantry soldiers taken separately, so the sum total of the mechanical forces exerted by isolated workmen differs from the social force that is developed, when many hands take part simultaneously in one and the same undivided operation’ (Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 308). Thus a new demand appears to which discipline must respond: to construct a machine whose effect will be maximized by the concerted articulation of the elementary parts of which it is composed. Discipline is no longer simply an art of distributing bodies, of extracting time from them and accumulating it, but of composing forces in order to obtain an efficient machine.1

1 Michel Foucault, Sécurité, territoire, population: Cours au Collège de France, 1977-1978 (Paris: Gallimard/Seuil, 2004), 10.


Gregg Lambert is Dean’s Professor, Humanities and Founding Director of the Syracuse University Humanities Center in Central New York.  After completing his Ph.D, under the direction of late French philosopher Jacques Derrida, Professor Lambert joined the Department of English at Syracuse University in 1996, and was later appointed to Full Professor and Chair of English in 2005. In 2008, he was appointed as the Founding Director of the Humanities Center, where he currently holds a distinguished research appointment as Dean’s Professor of Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences.

In addition to the Humanities Corridor, he has also directed several other major multi-institutional research and interdisciplinary initiatives, including the Society for the Study of Biopolitical Futures (with Cary Wolfe, Rice University), the Trans-Disciplinary Media Studio (with SU School of Architecture) and The Perpetual Peace Project, a multi-lateral curatorial initiative partnered with Slought Foundation (Philadelphia), the European Union National Institutes of Culture, the International Peace Institute, and the United Nations University, Utrecht University Centre for Humanities, and the Treaty of Utrecht Foundation (the Netherlands). In 2013, he was elected as a member of the International Advisory Board of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes.

Author of eleven books, critical editions, and more than a hundred articles in journals and critical editions, Professor Lambert is internationally renowned for his scholarly writings on critical  theory, philosophy, the role of the Humanities in the contemporary university, and; especially for his work on the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida. His latest book is Return Statements: The Return of Religion in Contemporary Philosophy (Edinburgh University Press, 2016).


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