i. Once again, with feeling: “What is an apparatus?”
Since I continue being interested in the notion of power as ‘productive’, I also find useful the concept of apparatus or, in its more suggestive French appellation, dispositif. In French, dispositif includes military meanings: it can refer to the tactical deployment of troops, weaponry and so on with the purpose of defeating the enemy. This ties in nicely with Foucault’s ditty that liberal “peace is war by other means” since, indeed, there is no strict delimitation between the "civil" dispositifs of the bourgeois order and its military machines. In the same way, there isn’t any significant divide between the “public” and the “private” apparatuses of liberalism – the illusion that such divide exists is itself an effect of liberal ideology. There are simply liberal-capitalist apparatuses and between them some chains of supply and command and some smoke screens.
I could concisely describe the dispositif as “a governing device aiming to shape and control subjectivities and reality". This definition is quite vague, but it can gain precision once one starts looking at the technical-strategic construction of any particular such "device". Thus, a vague definition would actually be enough for our present purposes, since what is crucial about a dispositif is to understand how it functions. However, for those that feel like getting theoretical with it (which might be useful only to the extent that many people, especially in Italian contemporary writing, are using this term), Foucault defines the dispositif as a sort of strategic complex: a system of “heterogeneous relations between a plethora of elements - institutions, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions and so on – that, in response to a governing necessity, make possible the strategic affecting of reality”. In this definition, the dispositif deploys the typical instruments of liberal governing – laws, policies, rules, algorithms, codes of good practice, statutes, institutions, knowledges, research centres, experts, charitable ventures, advertising, media, celebrities, financial resources, armed troops, weaponry, etc. - in tactical configurations so as to respond to a particular governmental goal. The typical liberal dispositif mobilises and deploys these various resources just like a military leader would dispose the various elements of an army during a campaign, with the aims of conquering more territory and wealth, of subduing the enemy through direct confrontation (whenever there is serious resistance), of gaining the support of the population and of shaping the 'free' conducts of the bourgeois subjects (whenever they are not resisting, which is almost always). Mind you, in the case of the apparatus, such goals are always chosen within the overall framework of liberal governing, for example profit-making, resource accumulation and control, identity – or generally sovereignty – boosting, phallic prestige/enjoyment, etc.; therefore, each liberal apparatus, whatever its particular goals, also has the implicit mission of maintaining the foundations of the liberal-capitalist reality unchanged.
Still on the academic side of things, Deleuze expands the definition of the dispositif beyond macro-tactics (policies, policing, institutions, knowledges, etc.), redefining it as a “machine that makes one see and speak”. The dispositif - the bourgeois family or education, for example – aims to regulate what one is able to perceive, think, feel or utter whenever she’s making her “individual”, “private" and “rational” choices. If successful, then, the dispositif makes you see, experience, speak, think or do this rather than that; which is also to say that it regulates the forms of being (identity, self, ‘I’, etc.) available to us.
To sum up, then: the dispositif is a tactical-technical “disposition” of various elements - of discourses, institutions, laws, trade agreements, people, money, images, symbols, armed forces, walls, fences, roads and so on - that tries to make sure that the outcome of a power relation is the one desired by the creators of the disposition: a certain performance of reality, the reproduction or creation of certain forms of life, conducts and social relations, a particular circuit of resources and commodities, etc.
And since I’m so keen on looking at liberal-capitalism as an affective regime I’ll insist that, whatever its shape or purpose, an apparatus always intervenes on the field of emotion, feeling, love, affinity, pleasure, desire, fantasy or whatever you want to call it. Let’s call it the “libidinal field”. This libidinal field, we think, might be the most important thing that liberal dispositifs regulate, since the bourgeois subjects’ conducts, including their profound investment in liberal-capitalism, follow their paths of enjoyment rather than their "rational" choices (see "Enjoyment"). To the extent that they all conform to the basic governmental framework of liberal-capitalism, contemporary dispositifs shape a tight libidinal field: their relentless production and deployment of images and symbols aims to shape all affective processes, thus “being”, according to their templates. And the success of liberal governing can be measured by the extent to which the bourgeois subject without effort, “naturally”, finds these images and symbols seductive, desirable or enjoyable. I find it quite successful, scarily so in fact, since when successful the dispositif makes one identify with, love, hate, fear, desire, prefer or enjoy this rather than that.
Obviously, an apparatus cannot control perfectly the subjectivity or reality it focuses its actions upon, something always escapes it; it is a tactical device, after all, that tries to create a predicted effect without full guarantees that it will succeed. Like in a military deployment of forces, the end result of the battle is not fully predictable. Since I am discussing power here, rather than domination, there is always a struggle involved, a "game of freedoms" (not in the liberal understanding of freedom, though). That the liberal-capitalist apparatuses manage to create such constant and resilient reality effects must be due, then, to a certain inclination of the bourgeois subject to submit to these apparatuses, to a form of passionate investment in the realities that these apparatuses shape. And this is indeed one of the main interests of our analyses: the bourgeois subjects’ enjoyment of their submission to liberal-capitalist apparatuses.
ii. Practice makes perfect (bourgeois subjects)
When discussing ideology or, respectively, discipline, both Althusser and Foucault insist, somewhat oddly, that our actions are not caused by our "mental beliefs". In their different manners, both argue that "ideology" takes hold of the subject within the tactical and “material” arrangement of a dispositif, rather than being some sort of invasion of the subject’s “beliefs” by ideas that float freely in media, art, books, etc. They even suggest that ideology is located in the practices regulated by the dispositif – praying, shopping, military drill, work procedures, educational exercises etc. – and not in “ideas”. Indeed, arguing that ideology exists at the level of ideas and that it is ideas that determine one's actions could be considered a liberal ruse, an “ideology of ideology”. This “ideology of ideology” articulates itself with various other modern myths: that one’s subjectivity is equivalent to one’s conscious thoughts, beliefs, ideas or utterances (“I think therefore I am”) which means that one can perfectly know oneself and therefore control their conducts according to a universal rationality; that ideology operates by distorting some “true”, “objective” or “common-sense” ideas about the world that, in the absence of ideology, would flourish in the subject’ mind; or that the evils of the contemporary bourgeois order are caused by lack of education or information and can be eliminated by “democratising” access to education or information.
To try and interrupt this liberal mantra that “social transformation will be brought about by more access to institutional education and information”, I would propose the simple (simplified?) schema that education and information either: (1) Do not affect the enjoyment a subject derives from their practices; or (2) Threaten the subject’s patterns of enjoyment, pressuring towards a restructuring. Most bourgeois dispositifs and subjectivities have some in-built devices to prevent (2) from producing any lasting effect: when education or information do threaten the bourgeois subject’s enjoyment practices, the dispositif and the subject will use various tactics to deflect this threat and return unscathed to their “usual” enjoyment practices. In general, any liberal dispositif tends to make (1) highly probable and (2) highly improbable. Thus, even the most “radical” education, when performed within a liberal dispositif – media, educational institutions, family, etc. - tend to leave bourgeois, pro-capitalist conducts and enjoyment undisturbed, in which case they end up justifying and fuelling them.
Funny, this thing: ideology, which supposedly installs in the subject’s “mind” the basic framework according to which they make sense of reality and, as I’m not tiring of repeating, according to which they desire, does not operate directly through ideas but takes hold of the “soul” through regulated practices. The reverse, then, holds as well: ideology does not primarily determine the conscious beliefs of the subject, but rather their practices; more exactly the practices through which they obtain enjoyment. In this equation, professed beliefs, ideas, convictions, causes and so on are largely irrelevant: relevant are the conducts though which one obtains enjoyment and it is these that are ideologically-shaped. Thus, for example, liberal education would not function ideologically without the specific practices in which the ideas it transmits are embedded: the teacher-pupil dyad (or despotic four-eyed machine), the institutional hierarchies and taxonomies, the explanation, the lecture, the homework, the classroom disciplines, the schedule, the recess, the holiday, the test, the exam, the grades, the supervision, the reference letter, the scholarship application, the teaching assistantship, etc. It is the compulsive and ritualistic engagement in the practices of education that makes a student into a bourgeois subject and this happens irrespective of whatever ideas, thoughts and beliefs the student might profess at the end of her stint through the various liberal educational institutions, State-run or not. Ideas and beliefs are largely irrelevant both to the educational institution and to the student’s ideological make-up.
But, all this being said, how exactly is one supposed to make sense of this process where ritual conducts are, so to speak, moulding the soul? I can propose a version of this mechanism, without caring much about faithfulness to the statements of the two famous authorities I have just referenced or, indeed, any other. My version is incomplete: to understand ideological investment in a tactically useful way, I think that we need, at the very least, to take into account the bourgeois’ identification with authority figures, their tenacious love affair with authority.
“Get on our knees, pray and you will start believing in god”: performing the action of praying or, more generally performing any ritual action within a dispositif, will produce belief. But this belief can happen only if and when the ritualistic practice – praying - becomes part of the person’s sense of a stable reality and of a stable and desirable self. Once the subject starts depending on that practice in order to create a symbolic framework through which they make the world meaningful, belief will follow. The belief is optional: this connection between practice and selfhood can happen even in the case of prisoners or addicts, where belief is not necessary. But the ideological hold is stronger when there is this belief, so that the apparatus takes hold of the subject at all levels; hence, most of the typical modern apparatuses (consumption, religion, the bourgeois family, the army, etc.) are focused on inculcating belief. If and once the connection between the ritualistic practice and subjectivity is established, the subject will adopt the belief that supposedly causes the practice in the first place (for example belief in god), in order to defend the practices and the affects through which they are confirmed as an existence.
Let me insist on this discussion of the way in which the ritual practice mobilises affect and shapes subjectivity using a couple of examples. First, that of Christian religion: this is a dispositif that connects the authority’s love for the subject (“god loves me”); practices (praying, going to church, charity, fasting); fetishized objects and symbols (the cross, the icon, the shrine, the rosary, the book, Jesus’ crown or wounds, the virgin’s tears); Christian dogma (the whole gamut of Christian texts, principles, laws, regulations and policies); and, in another libidinal twist, the believer’s love for the authorities that police these laws (the saint, the priest, the pope and so on). It is not hard to see that most capitalist dispositifs have an almost symmetric construction. Within this dispositif, the practice of praying connects the standardised moves of the body (kneeling or sitting, bringing the palms together, making the sign of cross, bowing the head, counting the rosary) with the mantra (repeating the words of the prayer) and with the praying subject’s demand to be loved by the supreme authority (“god, please listen to me; god please grant my wish; god, please bless me” – in short, “god, acknowledge me!”). This demand for love is something fundamental for the formation of subjectivity since it represents a demand to be recognised as a subject, in this case by no less than the cosmogonic, supreme authority, by what we could call the Other. Thus, bowing the head in prayer is a form of ritual submission in exchange for which the subject is granted existence that is, recognition by god. If I may insist, the crucial connection that the prayer ritual establishes is between some automatic gestures/words and the subject’s sense of being, or selfhood, or having a unique soul, which sense necessitates the recognition of this being, selfhood or soul by the Other. Once this connection is made, the repetitions of the mindless rituals become not only automatic modalities of demanding love from the Other; but also modes of personally communicating with the Other, on a one to one basis; and what better recognition as a subject than having a direct line to the supreme Other? Praying, then, becomes a form of (temporarily) confirming and stabilising the subject’s sense of being.
Once we describe the libidinal loop “subject-prayer-Other” as above, it becomes clearer that one does not need to believe in or profess any dogma to start with; one simply needs to start associating the process of obtaining the Other’s recognition (or love, or desire) with a set of ritual gestures that can be anything, really: praying, shopping, breastfeeding, working, military drill and so on.
Second the example of work: one does not need to believe in capitalism or have a protestant ethic to repeat the automatic gestures required of the worker on the assembly line or behind the till, or to repeat the mantra required of sales assistants. However, once the connection “ritual practice-recognition” is established in the subject’s psyche and life - for example, when the subject receives the recognition of a work-related social identity, a wage, belonging to a social group, etc. - their identity or worth becomes enmeshed with the proper performance of the ritual gestures. Once this happens, the way is wide open for the subject’s adoption of the belief or idea that was supposed to cause their practice in the first place. That is: once the mindless rituals that constitute “work”, invented by our bosses or managers and learned by rote, become attached to the processes of recognition and self-recognition, we will automatically adopt the ideologies that justify these practices: capitalism, gender, Eurocentrism, modernity, civilisation, colonialism, progress, meritocracy, calling, vocation, and so on. At this point, the worker will demand higher wages but not the abolition of the capitalist work system. On the contrary, they will passionately defend capitalism in various forms, like the worth of “working hard and doing one’ s job well”, or the idea that capitalism can be improved through social reforms, or the idea that capitalism insures the freedom of the workers more than any other possible regime and so on. The mechanism is the same for those forms of work that are much better rewarded by capitalism and that, allegedly, contain some inbuilt critical thinking element, like say the arts or academic jobs. Once the learned by rote rituals and the associated rewards of their profession – titles, teaching-related obligations, publishing requirements, grant applications, administrative tasks, departmental meetings and so on – become associated with their demands for recognition and love, academics, even the most radical critics of capitalism, will defend the bourgeois university as the only institution that makes possible emancipation.
The trick here is that, since belief in the discursive part of the ideology - the religious dogma for example - follows from the very intimate processes of demanding love or recognition from the Other, belief also assumes an intimate, personalised form for the subject. The "true belief" of the religious bourgeois subject, what in psychoanalysis would be called their fantasy, is not the religious dogma as written in the holy book but a tailored variant of it in which the subject inserts themselves into the religious dispositif and makes the religious dogma and practices to be about themselves, about their selfhood, their being, their unique soul. The orgasmic nature of mystical ecstasy or trance (“sex with god”) is a symptom of the subject’s intimate communion with the religious dispositif. In the case or work or shopping, this intimate communion not only explains the moulding of our enjoyment into the compulsive masturbation of work or the hysterical orgasm of shopping; but also explains how the “belief”, the defence of capitalism, becomes self-defence. By defending work or consumption the typical bourgeois subject actually defends their enjoyment: what better ideological operation than that?
These practices that are used to foster belief in capitalism or god represent the "material", practical, performed existence of capitalism or religion. Shopping is capitalism; praying is religion; these are the practices that reproduce capitalism or religion in their dispositif form and neither capitalism or religion can survive as a system of power without these practices. The trick that the bourgeois dispositifs perform is to make the subject as unable to survive without these practices; or rather, to make them believe that they cannot survive as a subject without them.
And here we can observe the hypocrisy of the Kantian dictate of freedom: “think and say whatever you want, but obey the law in your acts”. This dictate, which assumes that "speaking truth to power" while obeying the law in one’s practices creates the conditions for perfecting social order without creating chaos, is a deception meant to keep the order forever unchanged. What one says or thinks while choosing to obey the law is irrelevant; what is important is one’s "true belief", the fantasy that guides their enjoyment. And as long as the subject decides to obey the law in practice, they truly believe in the law; it is the law that shapes their practices of enjoyment and their fantasy. Ideology is not that which causes the words that come out of our mouths; ideology is that which causes our practices of the self (shopping, praying, gender). This is why many academic leftists, with their cottages by the lake, their SUVs, their nuclear families and their mortgages, are often quite fond of Kant. And yet, the “radical” things they might say while performing their bourgeois practices and the “radical” thoughts they might think while obeying the laws of capitalism are irrelevant: their fantasy is staunchly bourgeois.
iii. So what?
So, the task ahead is pragmatic: to increase and compose our forces (potencia); to damage and rupture the essential bourgeois dispositifs; and to construct alternative affective and symbolic economies. Let’s leave the task of saving souls through preaching and praying to the “progressive” liberals or to the leftists that enjoy proselytism. Liberation from the current models of doing can happen only through inventing different doings, different "material" practices, rather than through first changing our ideas or beliefs. To finish in circular manner, this is something that Foucault possibly hinted at when arguing that the question is not one of "liberating desire" from the shackles of ideological repression, as so many thought in the 1960s and 1970s; the question is one of inventing new pleasures; and only then, maybe, desire will follow…