Goodbye to the Apparatus

Deterministic frames are the bane of much of social science. Marshall Sahlins has done a worthy and readable job of lampooning and trying to understand the lure of such social science. I do want to try to make time for Sahlins and Hart because they manage to formulate what I call durable and even truthful thoughts on the social. In short, they preserve the classical, basic tensions. I need those tensions to be able to think and breathe.

Exaggerated “plaints without tears” by such figures as Foucault and Agamben, to name two of the more clever writers, have been terrorizing students since the 90’s in many a would be social science. I just read Agamben’s Apparatus recently and I was struck by the determinism that he assumes without scrutiny.

“Monolithic determinism” is the phrase that one critic used to describe Foucault’s metaphysics of power in the early 90’s, so the pushback against the middle Foucault of Discipline and Punish is already very old hat. So, exactly what is Agamben up to in 2005 when writing Apparatus?

I’m not sure. In some sense, he is a kind of literary critic, a philologist, and an elucidator of some very interesting twists and turns in a very complicated story or history. However, to my cursory reading, he mystifies and assumes a kind of “monolithic determinism” at work in social relations that should give any thinking reader pause.

He collapses the tension between the individual and society down to a narrative in which society is a monolith that is as he says “imposed on the individual.” When he, for example, discusses Hegel’s notion of “positivity,” Agamben seems to come unequivocally down on the side of imposition and what he calls, after Foucault, “subjectification.” By the word, subjectification, he presumes to describe how subjects are “created” by society.

He does not seem to maintain a sufficient tension between the imposition of power and control by institutions and the assent to and investment in the “reigning symbols of authority” by individuals.

As he progresses in the essay he seems to reach to the level of a farce. Or am I missing the irony? At one moment, he points to the little telefonino (cell phone) as a sinister apparatus that divides ourselves from ourselves. He makes noises about the “apparatus”, about the social infrastructure that Keith Hart is talking about. The apparatus is supposedly what is dividing us from ourselves.

Agamben is a brilliant writer and a deft philologist, so terrorized readers are presumably kept in enough awe to not notice the mystifications. Does anyone wonder why Agamben hardly lets himself speak plainly?

Truth is, I’m terribly divided and I was so long before the telefonino and I must accommodate myself to a fact: I’m divided. I’m also enabled by society. Society is the first amputation and also what enables. There is the tension again. When Agamben preserves that tension, I can follow him. But I cannot follow him blindly.

I’ll leave off this short foray into Agamben with one very silly sentence of his. Perhaps he is, at one level, yet one more intellectual who is so far removed from daily life that he can see no life or agency in the common man? Agamben actually writes,

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, but only a number through which he can, eventually, be controlled.

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About Ed Phillips

Rigor in whimsy
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