Giorgio Agamben

What is an Apparatus? and Other Essays



From this perspective, capitalism and other modern forms of power seem to generalize and push to the ex­treme the processes of separation that define religion. If we consider once again the theological genealogy of apparatuses that I have traced above (a genealogy that connects them to the Christian paradigm of oikono­mia, that is to say, the divine governance of the world), we can then see that modern apparatuses differ from their traditional predecessors in a way that renders any attempt to profane them particularly problematic. In­deed, every apparatus implies a process of subjectifica­tion, 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 aim 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 example of confession may elucidate the matter at hand: the formation of Western subjectivity that both splits and, nonetheless. masters and secures the self, is inseparable from this centuries-old activity of the apparatus of penance – an apparatus in which a new I is constituted through the negation and, at the same time, the assumption of the old I. 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 nontruth 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 a subject and of a milieu of delinquents, who then become the subject of new – 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 a sub­ject, as through the processes of what can be called desubjectification. A desubjectifying moment is cer­tainly implicit in every process of subjectification. As we have seen, the penitential self is constituted only through its own negation. But what we are now wit­nessing is that processes of subjectification and pro­cesses of desubjectification seem to become recipro­cally indifferent, and so they do not give rise to the recomposition of a new subject, except in larval or, as it were, spectral form. In the nontruth of the sub­ject, its own truth is no longer at stake. 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, bur only a number through which he can, eventually, be controlled. The spectator who spends his evenings in front of the television set only gets, in exchange for his desubjectificarion, the frustrated mask of the couch potato, or his inclusion in the calculation of viewer­ ship ratings.

Here lies the vanity of the well-meaning discourse on technology, which asserts that the problem with ap­paratuses can be reduced to the question of their cor­rect use. Those who make such claims seem to ignore a simple fact: If a certain process of subjectification (or, in this case, desubjectification) corresponds to every apparatus, then it 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 societies therefore present them­ selves as inert bodies going through massive processes of desubjectification without acknowledging any real subjectification. Hence the eclipse of 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 at noth­ing other than its own replication. The Right and the Left, which today alternate in the management of power, have for this reason very little to do with the political sphere in which they originated. They arc simply the names of two poles – the first pointing without scruple to desubjectification, the second want­ing instead to hide behind the hypocritical mask of the good democratic citizen – of the same governmen­tal machine.

This, above all, is the source of the peculiar uneasi­ness of power precisely during an era in which it con­fronts the most docile and cowardly social body that has ever existed in human history. It is only an appar­ent paradox that the harmless citizen of postindustrial democracies (the Bloom, as it has been effectively sug­gested he be called), who readily does everything that he is asked to do, inasmuch as he leaves his everyday gestures and his health, his amusements and his occu­pations, his diet and his desires, to be commanded and controlled in (he smallest detail by apparatuses, is also considered by power – perhaps precisely because of this – as a potential terrorist. While a new European norm imposes biometric apparatuses on all its citizens by developing and perfecting anthropometric technol­ogies invented in the nineteenth century in order to identify recidivist criminals (from mug shots to fin­gerprinting), surveillance by means of video cameras transforms the public space of the city into the interior of an immense prison. In the eyes of authority – and maybe rightly so – nothing looks more like a terrorist than the ordinary man.

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 escape its 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 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.

Posted: October 2018
Category: Essays