What is a Dispositif?

Kai Eriksson

Posted on March 12 2018

In the page of our short sleeve t-shirt Dispositif, we said that the inspiration for this design came from Michel Foucault. What does the term dispositif mean and why we think this is important? Let me give a shortish account.

Foucault—following Friedrich Nietzsche—is the thinker who has perhaps most consistently claimed that the history of truth cannot be disentangled from the history of power.

According to him, the question of power was traditionally formulated either in juridical terms or in terms of the state apparatus.

By contrast, Foucault sought to investigate the fine structuration of power around and through scientific knowledge and institutional practices.

 

Foucault and DISPOSITIF

By means of what he termed a dispositif, Foucault could articulate power that does not manifest itself as an institution. Rather, it is a continuously functioning net of different social forces and discourses: “Power is employed and exercised through a net-like organization,” Foucault claims.

Dispositif named this network of power. Foucault defined the term as follows:

What I’m trying to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions—in short, the said as much as the unsaid.
Secondly, what I am trying to identify in this apparatus is precisely the nature of the connection that can exist between these heterogeneous elements.
Thirdly, I understand by the term apparatus [dispositif] a sort of—shall we say—formation which has as its major function at a given historical moment that of responding to an urgent need.

 

Dispositif is a network of relationships that, in a given historical period, organizes the field of power and knowledge.

This concept enables one to analyze institutions, practices, and discourses in terms of their historical interrelationships. It shows the way in which they shape each other.

For this reason, the network enables articulation of relationships, not in terms of essences or structures, but rather in terms of flows, alliances, and detachments.

A power network, strictly speaking, is not an area, principle, or a level of analysis. It is rather a texture of mutual relationships among institutions, practices, and sentiments, which are interwoven in a particular historical system and its discourses.

While they endlessly escape the functionality imposed on them from outside, power networks constantly introduce meaning structures through which they are perceived.

Similarly, whereas various social processes produce and institutionalize power as a system, the formation of this system and the practices it gives rise to constantly reorganize the contexts of power and knowledge.

It is this mutual relationship that is posed as a problem by Foucault.

Although the dispositif is nothing other than the sum of the relations involved, in practice Foucault approaches these relations through a rather consistent body of ideas and practices.

 

Philosophy of assemblages

Foucault’s aim was to take up a chosen alignment of institutional practices and to analyze the conditions through which a given power configuration is formed.

Gilles Deleuze, however, working with Félix Guattari, regarded becomings as more important than history. He took up the task of mapping the philosophical conditions that cannot be described in terms of power.

According to him, we tend to think too much in terms of history. For Deleuze it was desire—an event at the microlevel—that conditioned power, not the other way around.

Both Foucault and Deleuze shared, however, a similar kind of perspective concerning the nature and aim of philosophical work.

Central to that approach was the need to investigate the conditions of the relationships of structures and flows, either in terms of history or of desire.

This was accomplished mainly by using the idea of an assemblage

Foucault called it dispositif, whereas Deleuze preferred the term agencement. Through this concept, it became possible to transgress the rigid subject–object axis still dominant in theoretical discourse.

As with Foucault, it constituted a mixture of bodies, institutions and discourses in which all the components were on the same level. “An assemblage of enunciation,” stated Deleuze, “does not speak of things; it speaks on the same level as [à même les choses] states of things and states of content.”

The concepts used by Foucault and Deleuze are not, however, identical in their meaning, as Deleuze considered the dispositifs of power to be a component of agencements.

Deleuze’s conception of philosophy is characterized by an aspiration to think through flows, movements, alliances, and disentanglements rather than essences, structures, or institutions.

Whereas Deleuze severed himself from thinking philosophy in terms of institutional wholes, he did not, however, conceive of philosophy from the perspective of historical relations like Foucault did.

Although he releases philosophy from the confines of power institutions, he nevertheless pursues his own philosophical work through the differentiation and creation of concepts (and philosophical figures), which he considers to be the essential task of philosophy.

Deleuze has a simple reason for this: he makes a distinction between becoming and history and connects philosophy to the realm of the former.

What is interesting in an event, such as a revolution, for instance, is not its existence within a specific social field but rather its ability to produce a concept that can be extracted from the historical state of affairs.

Deleuze regarded the arrangements he studied to “enter into history only indirectly.”

It is on this point that Deleuze differs most from Foucault. For, according to Foucault, philosophy cannot be disentangled from relationships and processes that only come into view historically. On the contrary, they are inherently related.

For Deleuze, actual spatiotemporal things are merely actualizations of variations that persist outside of historical time.

In contrast, Foucault thinks that the technology of Panopticon, for instance, was not merely the actualization of ahistorical variations, but rather that it created a whole new power network with its idea of control.

Deleuze seems to think that, if history is nothing but the capturing of the principal process of life in subordinate structures, these structures cannot appear as philosophically significant.

Yet, in this way, the ephemeral events that are meaningful for us become displaced. In this regard, Foucault appears as more sensitive to the fact that history is not only an effect but also a process that constantly generates its own conditions.

 

So, why is this important

One may mistakenly think that the constitutive perspective is lost because the philosophical dimension is brought with the changeable confrontations and practices of life.

Rather, now we may notice that not only the central institutions, the work of great thinkers, or established academic or social conceptions can be interpreted from the philosophical perspective.

In fact, philosophy is connected to all that which has a manifestation. It is no longer about revealing a deep, concealed sphere of the truth, but about affirming existence as it is.

This, we think, is a magnificent achievement! 

Read more: http://foucault-infographics.diiple.com

 

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