Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Apparatus: The Technological Capture of Living Being

      At the close of my Leave No Trace post I introduced the technical term “apparatus” as LNT’s corporate face, defining the term according to Agamben’s lead: an apparatus is a anything “that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings” (“What is an Apparatus?” 14). Now, this definition is exceedingly convenient in hinting at the objects hypercapitalism produces (from cell phones to automobiles to televisions to blogs to LNT). And certainly, Agamben is on to something very significant with his definition, especially when considering the scope of his inquiry. In attempting to define our contemporary condition, Agamben asserts, “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” (15). Further, the inquiry into such a proliferating plane of apparatuses (the implication being the absolute capture of all aspects of being) is of crucial importance because “today there is not even a single instant in which the life of individuals is not modeled, contaminated, or controlled by some apparatus.” Such is the “experience” of our contemporary condition: the infinite proliferation of these “things” which capture all aspects of our existence and in so doing separate ourselves from our very being (the apparatus’s division “separates the living being from itself and from its immediate relationship with its environment” [16]). And what makes our current apparatuses peculiar, Agamben claims, is their ability merely to desubjectify their captives, in contrast to other, non-hypercapitalist apparatuses, which function according to a desubjectification-subjectification articulation (the classic example being confession, an apparatus which demands the abnegation of the “self” [desubjectification] in order to offer that individual a rebirth without sin [subjectification]).
     However convenient Agamben’s definition of apparatus may be I feel that it makes only a good starting point for our understanding of the crucial role these formations play today. I would, therefore, like to modify Agamben’s definition, in part reverting to one source of his term (Foucault) as well as amending it with Walter Benjamin’s concept of technology.
     Foucault understands apparatus (for him, dispositif) primarily according to three aspects. First, the apparatus arises as a response to an urgency. Second, because its raison d’etre is derived from a historical (actual) urgency, the apparatus always consists of a concrete strategic function located in a power relation (think: Bush’s “Patriot Act”). Third, because of its concrete, functional relationship with power structures, the apparatus emerges at the intersection between power and knowledge relationships and accordingly forms “the network established between” a “heterogeneous set consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral, and philanthropic propositions – in sort the said as much as the unsaid” (Power/Knowledge 194). Thus, Foucault defines the apparatus as “a set of strategies of the relations of forces supporting, and supported by, certain types of knowledge.”
     Now, for Foucault, the apparatus does not come down to a singular technology of power (a single law of the Patriot Act . . . which are truly terrifying in their “being in force without signification,” the very status of the law within a state of exception), but rather that larger set existing between discourses, technologies, laws, etc – a tack differing from Agamben’s singularization of the term. What I above all want to stress with Foucault’s definition is the apparatus’s status between elements of power – a special status that, I argue, gives the apparatus, no matter the scale, its force of capture.
     Thinking of the apparatus as between structures of powers allows for the examination of living being’s capture at all levels and all scales. To think apparatus thusly is to think of them according to Benjamin’s concept the technological relation (which Benjamin cites as the particular relation modern man has with nature): “technology is the mastery not of nature but mastery of the relation between nature and humanity” ("One-Way Street" 487). Technology is the mastered relation with the thing, not the mastery of the thing itself. And that is precisely how the apparatus captures. An apparatus never captures the living being as such; instead it captures living beings, technologically, through a form of bare life the apparatus constructs with its concomitant mechanism of desubjectification. This is precisely why each apparatus involves desubjectification: by separating living being from its nature, the apparatus constructs a “medium” (a figure of bare life) through which it can master living being.
     The apparatus is, accordingly, this articulation through a medium, the very passage of living being through a one-sided play of power in which living being is striped and separated from its nature. Because the apparatus is something “between” objects locked in a power relation, the term cannot be reduced simply to one of the objects within that relation. Instead, the apparatus will never be this or that particular object (this or that cell phone, television, police act, homeland security law), but a specific manner external to that specific object. This manner generates the apparatic force of any object we deem an “apparatus.” This manner is force of capture, the potentiality of an object’s controlling another object. Crucially, this manner is potential; it is able to not be. An object taken as such is never an apparatus inherently; the apparatic manner particular to an object can, in cases, not be. Yet, with the right conditions (when objects are imbricate within larger networks of power relations), the manner forcibly constructs an articulating power relation between objects, wherein one object can capture the other object. Only after the actualization of such a relation can (and do) we call an object an apparatus.
   However, the apparatus as such is the potentiality of the apparatic articulation – the manner that articulates a power relation between objects.

No comments: