Saturday, 25 July 2009

Introducing Giorgio Agamben: what is an apparatus?

I recently mentioned Leland de la Durantaye’s new critical introduction to Giorgio Agamben – a book which I’ve found extremely valuable and insightful. But if you’re not already familiar with Agamben’s works, you might find Durantaye’s 463-page volume a little intimidating. If you’re looking for the quickest, easiest, most accessible introduction to Agamben’s thought – an introduction that you can get through in a single hour – then there’s no better guide than Agamben’s own latest book (a tiny but potent 56 pages), What Is an Apparatus? (Stanford UP 2009).

This first essay, “What Is an Apparatus?”, provides a wonderfully concise snapshot of Agamben’s entire recent project, his “theological genealogy of economy” (8). In this little essay, Agamben uses Foucault’s concept of the apparatus to classify all beings in two groups: “living beings”, and “apparatuses in which living beings are incessantly captured”. In theological terminology, these two classes denote an ontology of creatures on the one hand, and on the other hand the oikonomia of apparatuses that seek to govern these creatures (13). Between these two classes lies a third class: subjects. Agamben understands a subject as that which results from the relation between living beings and apparatuses.

This concept of the apparatus reflects Foucault’s understanding of the formation of subjectivity. Apparatuses are not a mere accident; they are “rooted in the very process of ‘humanization’ that made ‘humans’ out of … Homo sapiens” (16). They are not instruments of violence, but of governance and subjectification. The apparatus is thus always something that produces its own subject. But the current phase of capitalism has witnessed a proliferation of new apparatuses to capture every moment and facet of life; and these capitalist apparatuses subjectify only by desubjectifying (just as, for Foucault, the penitential subject is constituted through its own negation). In any case, our formation as subjects is always a process of interruption by which the apparatus separates us from our immediate relation to our environment.

Fundamentally, such separation is religion. Religion takes things from the domain of common use and places them in a separate sphere; religion consecrates. The situation of our time demands a new politics of profanation, where that which has been separated/consecrated is restored to common use. In this way, “profanation is the counter-apparatus” (19). Our capitalist world has become “a sort of colossal parody of theological oikonomia”, in which apparatuses “assume the legacy of the providential governance of the world” (23). These apparatuses can be resisted – we can intervene in their process of subjectification – only through profanation. It is profanation which brings to light “the Ungovernable, which is the beginning and, at the same time, the vanishing point of every politics” (24).

It’s a splendid little essay (the volume also includes essays on “the friend” and “the contemporary”). I’ve never come across such a concise, lucid, programmatic statement of Agamben’s project.

This essay also makes it very clear that all Agamben’s recent work on theological economy is structured at its deepest level by Foucault’s understanding of power and subjectivity (not to mention Foucauldian concepts like archaeology, genealogy, biopolitics, etc) – even though figures like Benjamin and Schmitt sometimes linger nearer the surface of Agamben’s texts. As Agamben himself remarked in a recent interview: “I see my work as closer to no one than to Foucault” (cited in Durantaye, 209).


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