Agamben (2009) proposes that the word dispositif, or “apparatus” in English, is a decisive technical term in the development of Foucault’s thought, as he moves away from using such formulations as episteme, knowledge and discursive formations, preferring instead such terms as apparatuses and disciplines. Foucault uses apparatus/dispositif increasingly frequently from the mid-1970s onwards, when he begins to discuss ‘governmentality’ and the government of people. Later, Foucault goes on to talk of ‘technologies of the self’ (McHoul, 2009: 201)
Foucault never offers a complete definition of dispositif/apparatus. The closest he comes to doing so is in an interview entitled “The Confession of the Flesh”, Agamben suggests. In this interview, Foucault indicates that an apparatus/dispositif is a heterogeneous set, ensemble or assembly that incorporates virtually anything, such as, as mentioned by Foucault (1980: 194), “discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral, and philanthropic propositions”, which are both linguistic, extra-linguistic and non-linguistic, and forms them into a distinctive domain or field. The apparatus/dipositif itself, according to Foucault, is the network or system of relations that can be established among these diverse phenomena.
Furthermore, among these elements, Foucault specifies, there is a kind of interplay of shifts of position and modifications of function which can also vary very widely.
An apparatus is a kind of a formation, then, that, at a given historical moment or particular conjuncture, has, as its major function, the response to a particular urgent need. It has, therefore, a strategic purpose. As such, it emerges at the intersection of power relations and relations of knowledge, as Agamben says, or, in Foucault’s (1980: 196) terms, an apparatus consists in a set of strategies of relations of forces supporting, and supported by, certain types of knowledge.
In other words, a dispositif/apparatus forms a material-discursive practice, crucial for our understanding of the intertwinement of ontology and epistemology at a particular moment. Radomska (2010: 106) notes that Barad mostly draws upon Michel Foucault’s notion of discursive practices and Niels Bohr’s concept of the apparatus, arriving at her own, posthumanist and agential realist formulation of material-discursive practices or apparatuses. She understands discourse in a Foucauldian sense, as that which “constrains or enables what can be said” and what finally is treated, and exists, as a meaningful statement or action.
Other theorists and notions that resonate with Barad’s project, traces of which can be found in it, according to Radomska (2010: 106n), apart from Foucault’s dispositif/apparatus, are Haraway’s apparatuses of bodily production, Latour’s inscription and translation and Butler’s performative.
Agamben, G. (2009). What is an apparatus?, In What is an apparatus? and other essays, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Deleuze, G. (1992). What is a dispositif?, In Michel Foucault, Philosopher: essays translated from the French and German by Timothy J. Armstrong. New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 159–168.
Foucault, M. (1980). The Confession of the flesh. In C. Gordon, ed., Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings. New York, NY: Pantheon, pp. 194–228.
McHoul, A. (2009) Discourse, Foucauldian approach, In Concise encyclopedia of pragmatics, 2nd ed., edited by Jacob L. Mey. London: Elsevier.
Radomska, M. (2010). Towards a posthuman collective: ontology, epistemology and ethics. Praktyka Teoretyczna, (1), pp.93–115. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/513218/Towards_a_Posthuman_Collective_Ontology_Epistemology_and_Ethics