Apparatus (a double feature)


I. In the “Best of 2009”-issue of Artforum, Jonathan Crary recommends Giorgio Agamben’s What is an Apparatus? as one of the best books of 2009. Crary’s brief recommendation focuses on the 24-page title essay in the collection, arguing that it provides insight in developments that it does not even address, namely the “remaking of the book into an electronic shopping appliance”, “the fate of paper and printing” and “the optical properties of illuminated screens”. Agamben’s essay, Crary argues, takes the reader “across two millennia of related theological and philosophical problems of governance to a concise account of the current phase of capitalism, with its massive proliferation of apparatuses and its production of “the most docile and cowardly social body” in all of history”. “Apparatuses are inseparable from what makes us human”, Crary continues; but Agamben’s essay demonstrates that they are also “what uses us”. Contrary to what one might think at first sight, they thus actually destroy “our capacity to communicate with one another about what we share in common”—in short: “politics”.

Crary appears to suggest that such a destruction of politics was not yet ongoing before the book was remade into an electronic shopping appliance. The book—printed on paper, and not projected on an illuminated screen—appears to emerge in Crary’s short text as something that is outside the history of the apparatus that Agamben outlines. Anyone who has read Agamben’s essay, however, will know that for Agamben, this is emphatically not the case. “I shall call an apparatus”, Agamben writes, “literally anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behavior, opinions, or discourses of living beings. Not only, therefore, prisons, madhouses, the panopticon, schools, confessions, factories, disciplines, juridical measures, and so forth (whose connection with power is in a certain sense evident), but also the pen, writing, literature, philosophy, agriculture, cigarettes, navigation, computers, cellular telephones, and—why not—language itself, which is perhaps the most ancient of apparatuses—one in which thousands and thousands of years ago a primate inadvertently let himself be captured, probably without realizing the consequences that he was about to face”. In Agamben’s essay, there clearly is no such a thing as a happy age of the book, of paper and printing, before the illuminated screens that Crary mentions. Instead, language itself is presented as an apparatus—a thing through which power operates—in which primates when they first learned to speak became captured.

successive inconceivable events

II. As might already be clear from the list that was just quoted, Agamben’s vision of technology (“technology” understood here in the broadest sense of the word) risks to take on, at times, panicky proportions. A few pages later, Agamben, who was a student of Heidegger’s, writes: “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 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 this is the right solution to the problem”. Crary refers to this passage as Agamben’s “fiercely unsparing account of the cell phone”, a “memorable case in point” of what the book’s argument amounts to. Note the violence of the language: Agamben is contemplating not only the “destruction” or “deactivation” of cell phones, but also how to “eliminate” or at least “punish” and “imprison” those who use them. This statement is surprising, given that it is coming from someone whose work has done so much to expose the ways in which the concentration camp continues to function as the matrix of modern power. But perhaps I am reading Agamben too seriously here: many of us have no doubt at one point or another gotten exasperated with cell phones. The solution to the problem that Agamben ultimately proposes is indeed not the destruction of cell phones or the people who use them, but what he calls the “profanation” of these apparatuses.

What does Agamben mean by this? He does not mean, as Crary correctly observes, “alternative ways to use” apparatuses. Agamben calls this a “naïve” solution. Rather, to profane the cell phone would mean to restore it “to the free use of men”. “To profane” is thus contrasted in Agamben’s analysis to the verb “to consecrate”, which “designated the exit of things from the sphere of human law”, their entry into the separate sphere of religion. “Profanation is the counter-apparatus that restores to common use what sacrifice had separated and divided”. It is still unclear at this point (at least in this writer’s opinion) what exactly such a profanation of the cell phone might look like. What is interesting, however, is that as such, profanation does not appear to be outside of Agamben’s list of apparatuses. He calls it, rather, a “counter-apparatus”: an apparatus against apparatuses, a book against books, a technology against technologies. In the same way that elsewhere in Agamben’s work the messianic—which is inseparable from the theological–leads outside of the vicissitudes of political theology, a technology is supposed to lead outside of the vicissitudes of technologies here. As to how exactly this might be achieved, Agamben leaves this for the reader to discover. On Primitive Accumulation, or elsewhere.

Screenshot from Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People (2002):


References: Crary, Jonathan. [untitled]. Artforum (December 2009), 77-78; Agamben, Giorgio. What is an Apparatus? And Other Essays. Trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2009. Images: Dan Davis, VEND, digital drawing, 860 x 1440ppi, 2010; Richard T. Walker, successive inconceivable events, video (still), 2005 (courtesy of Christopher Grimes Gallery).


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