What is an apparatus?

Georgio Agamben, ‘What is an apparatus?’, pp.1-24, in:
Agamben, G., 2009. “What is an apparatus?” and other essays. Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif.


I wish to propose to you nothing less than a general and massive partitioning of being into two large groups or classes: on the one hand, living beings (or substances), and on the other, apparatuses in which living beings are incessantly captured. On one side, then, to return to the terminology of the theologians, lighting ontology of creatures, and on the other side, the oikonomia of apparatuses that seek to govern and guide them towards the good.


Further expanding is a large class of the Foucauldian apparatuses, 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, behaviours, opinions, or discourses of living beings.

Not only, therefore, prisons, madhouses, the panopticon, schools, confession, factories, disciplines, judicial measures, and so forth (whose connection with power is in a certain sense evidence), but also the pen, writing, literature, philosophy, agriculture, cigarettes, navigation, computers, cellular telephones and – why not – language itself, which is perhaps the most ancient apparatuses – one in which thousands and thousands of years ago a primate inadvertently let himself be captured, probably without realising the consequences that he was about to face.

To recapitulate, we have then two great classes: living beings (by substances) and apparatuses. And between these two, as a third class, subjects.

I call a subject that which results from the relation and, so to speak, from the relentless fight between living beings and apparatuses. Naturally, the substances and the subjects, as in ancient metaphysics, seem to overlap, but not completely.


In this sense, for example, the same individual, the same substance, can be the place of multiple processes of subjectification: the use of cellular phones, the web surfer, the writer of stories, the tango aficionado, the anti-globalisation activist, and so on and so forth.


The boundless growth of our practices in our time corresponds to the equally extreme proliferation in processes of subjectification.

This may produce the impression that in our time, the category of subjectivity is wavering and losing its consistency; but what is at stake, to be precise, is not an erasure or an overcoming, but rather a dissemination that produces to the extreme the masquerade that has always accompanied every personal identity.

It would probably not be wrong to define the extreme phase of capitalist development in which we live as a massive accumulation and proliferation of apparatuses.


The fact is that according to all indications, apparatuses are not a mere accident in which humans are caught by chance, but rather are rooted in the very process of “humanisation” that made “humans” out of the animals we classify under the rubric Homo sapiens.


The break or interruption of this relationship [between action and being] produces in living beings both boredom– that is, the capacity to suspend its immediate relationship with their disinhibitors—and the Open, which is the possibility of knowing being as such, by constructing the world.


But, along with these possibilities, must also immediately considered the apparatuses that crowd the Open with instruments, objects, gadgets, odds and ends, and various technologies. Through these apparatuses, man attempts to nullify the animalistic behaviours that are now separated from him, and to enjoy the Open as such, to enjoy being in so far as it is being.

At the root of each apparatus lies an all-too-human desire for happiness. The capture and subjectification of this desire in a separate sphere constitutes laugh specific power of the apparatus.

All of this means that the strategy that we must adopt in hand-to-hand combat with apparatuses cannot be simple one. This is because what we are dealing with here is the liberation of that which remains captured and separated by means of apparatuses, in order to bring it back to look possible common use.


[Ref Roman laws of sacred objects]

From this perspective, one can define religion is that which removes things, places, animals, or people from common use and transports them to a separate sphere. Not only is there no religion without separation, but every separation contains our concerns in itself genuinely religious nucleus. The apparatus that activates and regulates separation is sacrifice.


But what has been ritually separated can also be restored to the profane sphere. Profanation is the counter-apparatus that restores to common use what sacrifice has separated and divided.

From this perspective, capitalism and other modern forms of power into generalise and pushed to the extreme the processes of separation that define religion.

[…] every apparatus implies a process of the objectification, without which it cannot function as an apparatus of governance, but is rather reduced to a mere exercise of violence.


On this basis, Foucault has demonstrated how, in a disciplinary society, apparatuses aimed to create – through a series of practices, discourses, and bodies of knowledge – docile, yet free, bodies that assume their identity and their “freedom” as subjects in the very process of their desubjectification.


Apparatus, then, is first of all a machine that produces subjectifications, and only as such is it also a machine of governance.

The split of the subject performed by the apparatus of penance resulted, therefore, in the production of a new subject, which found its real truth in the non truth of the already repudiated sinning I.

Analogous considerations can be made concerning the apparatus of the prison: here is an apparatus that produces, As a more or less unforeseen consequence the Constitution of the subject and a milieu of delinquents cut who then becomes subject of noon – and, this time, perfectly calculated – techniques of governance.

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 the subject, as through the processes of what can be called desubjectification. A desubjectifying moment is certainly implicit in every process of subjectification.


But what we are now witnessing is that processes of subjectification and processes of desubjectification seem to become reciprocally in different, And solely do not give rise to the recomposition of a new subject, except in larval or, as it were, spectral form.

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 to which you can, eventually, be controlled. The spectator who spends his evenings in front of the television set only gets, in exchange for his desubjectification, the frustrated mass of the coach potato, or his inclusion in the calculation of viewership ratings.

Here lies the vanity of the well-meaning discourse on technology, which asserts that the problem of apparatuses can be reduced to the question of their correct use.

Those who make such claims seem to ignore a simple fact: if the surgeon process of subjectification (or, in this case, desubjectification) corresponds to every apparatus, that is impossible for the subject of an apparatus to use it “in the right way.” Those who continue to promote similar arguments are, for their part, the product of the media apparatus in which they are captured.

Contemporary society is therefore present themselves as indirect body is going through massive processes of desubjectification without acknowledging any real subjectification. Hence the eclipse the politics, which used to presuppose the existence of subjects and real identities (the workers’ movement, the bourgeoisie, etc.), and the triumph of the oikonomia, that is to say, of a pure activity of government that aims that nothing other than its own replication.


The more apparatuses pervade and disseminate their power in every field of life, the more government will find itself faced with an elusive element, which seems to exceed his grasp the more it docilely submits to it. This is neither to say that this element constitutes a revolutionary subject in its own right, nor that it can halt or even threaten the governmental machine.


Rather than the proclaimed end of history, we are, in fact, witnessing the incessant though aimless motion of this machine, which, in a sort of colossal parody of the theological oikonomia, has assumed the legacy of the providential governance of the world; yet instead of redeeming our world, this machine (true to the original eschatological vocation of Providence) is leading us to catastrophe.


The problem of the profanation of apparatuses – that is to say, the restitution to common use of what has been captured and separated in them – is for this reason, all the more urgent.

But this problem cannot be properly raised as long as those who are concerned with it are unable to intervene in their own processes of subjectification, any more than in their own apparatuses, in order to then bring to light the Ungovernable, which is the beginning and, at the same time, the vanishing point of every politics.