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What Is an Apparatus? and Other Essays by…
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"What Is an Apparatus?" and Other Essays (1978)

by Giorgio Agamben

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This starts a bit banal and jerkofferian, but then rephrases some old ideas about just how grim things (human things, civilization things) are getting in a clear, cold, compelling way: Agamben describes the apparatus (dispositif) and notes how it is a general terme clé in Foucault, then gives a rundown of Hegel’s distinction between natural and positive religion (the former, multiple, agentive, relative, rooted in practice; the latter absolute, unified, ideological, rooted in the operations of impersonal spiritual forces); these are simple and familiar to many, I think. It seems rote.

But then Agamben departs and makes the discussion brilliantly his own, in a few stages. First, the obvious criticism of Foucault’s apparatus in light of his rejection of universals: it is all well to say that networks of individual practices control and are subverted by us in complex ways, and that it is nonsense to talk about the State, Ideology, Religion, etc., without acknowledging these multiple specific and contingent natures; but if “the apparatus” unexamined and unteasened becomes the new universal, then where’s the advance? This is a relief to have said clearly without fuckery. And then he goes on to give true facts about real things, which Agamben, as our generation’s Foucault, always does in a more trustworthy-seeming way than the original F. The early Christian dispute between the scholars developing an ever-more articulated theory of the Trinity and the regular Christians who hadn’t just discovered this One God only to let pagan multiplicity in again by the back door. “Monarchians,” they were called, meaning supporters of the Kingdom, as against the scholarly idea of God as a network, an economy, which is where that tortured and torturing term oikonomia enters history as meaning something more than the Greek “household management.” The idea of the earth as the realm of the Son and the positive yield of his activity within it elides easily into the revelation of the Church’s world-historical mission conceived in terms of a kind of divine management theory.

And then this idea, despite its pointy-headed origins, as against a theology. It’s the tension between faith and works in a way—praxis and ontology—either can be positivistic or—in Agamben-language, Open (here, “Open”-ended). And then either positivism or open-endedness can be constructive or lead to horrors.

Though that’s a bit boring, and Agamben goes better places with it than I just did: oikonomia is also Latin dispositio, French dispositif, English “apparatus.” Exigency and management. Here we leave Foucault behind—Agamben invokes Feuerbach’s Entwicklungsfähigkeit the “beginning of something’s capacity to be developed,” from a hermeneutic standpoint—“I have reached the point where I must leave my master behind and strike out on my own”—which I find charming. His own contribution, here, is the idea of the subject as between the ontology of creatures and the apparatuses that manage them—the “I” emerging from the application of perceptual apparatuses (“apps,” ha) to mere beings. Of course, not just Foucauldian discipline-and-punish type apparatuses like prison and CCTV and body-loathing but also updating your blog, liking a drink at the end of the day, folktales, language, florid psychosis, the tango, the dream of a real counterculture again. Late capitalism as the massive overaccumulation of these apps (sorry, but not really sorry): “For example, I live in Italy. a country where the gestures and behaviors of individuals have been reshaped from top to toe by the cellular telephone (which the Italians dub the telefonino). I have developed an implacable hatred for this apparatus, which has made the relationship between people all the more abstract. Although I found myself more than once wondering how to destroy or deactivate those telefonini, as well as how to eliminate or at least to punish and imprison those who do not stop using them, I do not believe that this is the right solution to the problem.” The app embodies the human desire for happiness—our scaffolding toward the angels, we feel—but only breaking through it leads us to the Open, and also boredom and despair. Apparatuses are the stories we tell ourselves to manage ourselves on behalf of apparatuses.

So how to combat them? Agamben falters here a bit, though I guess it’s not fair to expect a handbook or martial arts manual. He talks about profanation, the restoration of the sacred to the free use (AND BUT MANAGEMENT) of humans, and religion as its opposite (and sacrifice as the everpresent marker of sacralization—suddenly I think of George Bush, profaning people’s ideological or theological rage after the September 11th attacks by subverting their desire to sacrifice, telling them to go shopping. It was a management move for the ages, and the USA PATRIOT act is still with us). He notes that modern apparatuses no longer produce subjectification but rather desubjectification; the Christian apparatus, say, makes a kind of citizen, but the cell phone–social network apparatus reduces us to numbers and nodes, at best, avatars of a deferred being. The more I exist on and via Facebook or what have you the more the real me is a mere truth-claim that what we have agreed to call a person is under there. There is no longer a right way to be ideologically, merely a participatory praxis where we hand our days, our health “choices,” the utter worthlessness of what we paste up on the internet to take the sting out of our humanities degree debt, our household oiconomies, over to be managed. The bloody viciousness of ideology is banished. Agamben tries to imagine something ungovernable and cannot. There is no hell like a managed hell. ( )
1 vote MeditationesMartini | Oct 17, 2013 |
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