What is the dispositif?

(Updated below)

Foucault defined his use of the term dispositif (apparatus) in 1977:

What I’m trying to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogenous 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. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements.

Secondly, what I am trying to identify in this apparatus is precisely the nature of the connection that can exist between these heterogenous elements. Thus, a particular discourse can figure at one time as the programme of an institution, and at another it can function as a means of justifying or masking a practice which itself remains silent, or as a secondary re-interpretation of this practice, opening out for it a new field of rationality.

In short, between these elements, whether discursive or non-discursive, there is a sort of interplay of shifts of position and modifications of function which can also vary very widely.

Thirdly, I understand by the term “apparatus” 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. The apparatus thus has a dominant strategic function. This may have been, for example, the assimilation of a floating population found to be burdensome for an essentially mercantilist economy: there was a strategic imperative acting here as the matrix for an apparatus which gradually undertook the control or subjection of madness, sexual illness and neurosis.

“The Confession of the Flesh” (1977) interview. In Power/Knowledge Selected Interviews and Other Writings (ed Colin Gordon), 1980: pp. 194-228. This interview was conducted by a round-table of historians.

Update (2/13/14): This term is experiencing some interesting deployments in the resilience literature. See Bruce Braun here, who draws from the 1977 interview quoted above. Clare O’Farrell adds earlier examples, including Psychiatric Power 7 and 28th Nov. 1973, “From torture to cellblock” in 1975 (in Foucault Live). We might also note its multiple use in Discipline and Punish.


11 Responses

  1. […] philanthropic dogmas – in short, the said as much as the unsaid’ (Foucault 1980: 194; check the Foucault Blog for a longer […]

  2. Very much like the idea of the dispositif and am trying in my writing to apply it to development/post-development by taking the critical view of ‘Development’ beyond the discourse narrative, which seems to me to be far too narrow and confining…

  3. I’ve always found that Foucalt’s writing resembled that of Arendt much more than most people realised.

  4. […] What is the dispositif? « Foucault blog. Category: […]

    • Yes – Giorgio Agamben has some interesting points about that, he actually tries to converge their point of views in Homo Sacer (§1, 1.1). Check it out!

  5. I write my doctoral dissertation of Foucault discourse analysis and I would have to need much more secunder literature of topic of dispositif. Could someone help me where can I find material about it? (Not only 2-3 sources…) Thank you. (My e-mail address is: fellner_akos@yahoo.com (one underline in the address, not SPACE)

  6. […] One of the main difficulties is that the problems do not present themselves as a single identifiable antagonist that has to be defeated in order to get there, but as a system of false assertions, of diverse interests, of moral restrains, of budgetary impositions, of institutional assumptions, various conscious and unconscious fears and, overall, an irrational rejection of what has been proposed. All these forces together have the constitution of an apparatus. […]

  7. […] dispositif (“apparatus”) […]

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