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date: 26 July 2021



  • Ricky CranoRicky CranoTufts University, Department of English


A term with both vernacular and technical uses in French, dispositif can designate any purposeful arrangement, ordering, or plan in contexts ranging from military arts to machinery. Prevailing anglophone translations include “device,” “plan,” “deployment,” “setup,” and “apparatus,” but it has become standard to see the word untranslated or rendered as its closest English cognate, “dispositive.” The term comes into theoretical discourse predominantly through the work of Michel Foucault, who deploys the concept in concert with his evolving genealogical method and mid-1970s analyses of biopower and governmentality. Designating a heterogeneous network of discourses, practices, sites, and screens, Foucault’s concept of dispositif describes power not as something housed within state institutions and legal codes nor as something one can possess and wield over another, but as an everyday effect of strategic relations and resistances. Foucault’s sourcing of the term is a subject of scholarly debate, but it is likely that he took inspiration from his mentors, the philosopher of biology Georges Canguilhem and the Hegelian Jean Hyppolite. Canguilhem uses dispositif to describe the organization and operation of organisms in his neo-achinic view of life, while Hyppolite explores Hegel’s notion of the positive, or historically contingent, facets of religion. From these two influences emerges a sense in which power operates materially on and through the living in aleatory, ever-shifting, and historically specific ways that are nonetheless technical, structured, and patterned. Dispositif analysis reveals the full scope and precision of investments in social control in the modernizing (urbanizing, industrializing, colonizing) West.

Another, seemingly disparate strand of dispositif analysis is found in the respective writings of philosopher Jean-François Lyotard and film theorist Jean-Louis Baudry. For Lyotard, dispositifs function like psychic traps; that is, the means of channeling, blocking, or otherwise conducting libidinal energies and drives (what one could also call affects or even dispositions). Among these dispositifs are narrative structure, painting technique, psychiatric knowledge, capitalist markets, and even language itself, each of which can work to dampen the revolutionary potential of raw impulses. Baudry, like Lyotard motivated by trending intellectual currents of psychoanalysis and Marxist cultural critique, used the dispositif concept to describe the conventional environment of film screening (collective viewing, dark room, back projection, etc.), part and parcel of the larger cinematic apparatus (appareil) and a decisive factor in shaping spectatorial subjectivity.

Since the 1970s, the concept has received a number of further treatments, mainly emerging from the Foucauldian tradition. Gilles Deleuze interprets it capaciously as the improbable unifying thread stretching across Foucault’s entire oeuvre. Giorgio Agamben recalls that it also translates the Greek oikonomia, a term that binds political economy to theological views of divine management; as such, dispositif is, to Agamben, vital to our understanding of the production of subjectivity in late-capitalist societies. Over the first decades of the 21st century, the term has been valuably developed in a variety of scholarly contexts, spanning film and media studies, security studies, art history, education, urban studies, and the sociology of markets. As a heuristic for analyzing networked relations, dispositif seems especially ripe for interrogating power in the digital age, laying bare the workings of all those platforms and programs that seek to capture our time, attention, money, and thought.


  • Literary Theory

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