Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish quoted some measures from a seventeenth-century French public order dealing with the plague. These included round the clock curfews, shuttered shops, and curtailment of movement: “if it is absolutely necessary to leave the house, it will be done in turn, avoiding any meeting.”

The efficacy of discipline to right disorder was not lost on authorities. Finding new ways to impose discipline became the new normal. Michel Foucault made out other spheres where governmentalité – the mindset of governance – took a leaf out of the book of plague ordinances. Jeremy Bentham’s model prison was one. Others were workshops, armies, schools. “Discipline,” for Foucault, “may be identified neither with an institution nor with an apparatus.”

The term apparatus (in French dispositif) recurred in Foucault’s works. In The Birth of Biopolitics he declared that “ the coupling of a set of practices and a regime of truth form an apparatus (dispositif) of knowledge-power.” Foucault added later that the apparatus was made up of “discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral, and philanthropic propositions.”

Mitchell Dean’s and Daniel Zamora’s The Last Man Takes LSD (reviewed on this weblog) highlights Michel Foucault’s preoccupation with the “displacement of the question of power from institutions towards the dispositifs shaping subjects.”  

Where did the notion apparatus come from?

Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer, his summa, is permeated with biopolitics, and his reading of the term apparatus prompted his essay, What is the apparatus? where he tracks three stages in the conception of dispositif/apparatus. It emerged in antiquity; was shaped in Christianity; and informed the theodicy of Leibniz and Malebranche.

The common theme in each stage was the interaction of providence and free will. The Enlightenment detached oikonomia from its roots. Adam Smith cast it as the Invisible Hand and Jean Jacques Rousseau as the volonté générale.

Latin apparatus has a range of meanings, e.g., equipment or harness. French dispositif descends from Latin dispositio, the Latin translation of Greek oikonomia.

Let us follow Agamben tracking the trajectory of the term.

Classical oikonomia

Xenophon was the earliest writer on oikonomia. His Oikonomikos described his skill:

“Once I had an opportunity of looking over the great Phoenician merchantman, Sokrates, and I thought I had never seen tackle so excellently and accurately arranged. For I never saw so many bits of stuff packed away separately in so small a receptacle.”

If Xenophon discovered oikonomia was about efficiency, Plato in Politikos and Aristotle in Oikonomike widened its sphere of application. Oikonomia could be at work in a household, in a polity, or in a kingdom. Stoicism scaled up oikonomia even further. The Stoic oikos took in the entire universe and had it ruled by a numinous oikonomos. This notion gained traction. For the historian Polybios change in history was worked through oikonomia.

Christian oikonomia

Oikonomia took on even greater import in Christianity than it had had in Stoicism. The Gospel of Luke gave oikonomos two meanings:  either as someone who worked on behalf of himself or on behalf of another party. This understanding became critical for understanding the Trinity. Tertullian expounded that when St Paul invoked the terms oikonomos and oikonomia theou he meant to show that Jesus had worked as God’s oikonomos, fulfilling his Father’s objectives.

The afterlife of oikonomia in the Enlightenment

The division of tasks within the Trinity provided a template for G.W.F. Leibniz and his contemporary Nicolas Malebranche as they wrestled with a dilemma: how could God be all-powerful as well as benign? If evil was ineradicable, the inference had to be that God could be either all-powerful or that he could be benign. But he could not be both.

Leibniz’ Essays of Theodicy on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil (1710) resolved this tension. The persistence of evil did not stymie God’s salvific aims. God’s power and benignity were indeed unlimited, however, this power was held back to allow for human free will. A better world than the one humanity inhabited could not be imagined. For Malebranche, God reigns but does not rule.

The French économiste Francois Quesnay carried over notions of oikonomia into the Enlightenment. He wrote,

“There exists a natural, immutable, and essential order instituted by God in order to govern civil societies in the way most advantageous for sovereigns and subjects; men have by necessity partly conformed to it; otherwise any association between them would become impossible.”

Rousseau and Adam Smith were heirs to that legacy.

Rousseau explained,

“the word economy or oeconomy is derived from oikos, a house, and nomos, law, and generally means the wise and legitimate government of the house for the common good of the entire family. The meaning of this term was then extended to the government of the great family, the state. In order to distinguish between these two senses of the word, the latter is called general or political economy and the former domestic or particular economy.”

Adam Smith cited,

“ancient Stoics [who] were of the opinion that, as the world was governed by the all-ruling providence of a wise, powerful, and good God, every single event ought to be regarded as making a necessary part of the plan of the universe, and as tending to promote the general order and happiness of the whole.”

Ancient disposition, modern dispositif

A continuous lineage links oikonomia to dispositio and then to the theodicy. The Enlightenment detached oikonomia from theology: its secularised descendent breathed in Rousseau’s volonté Générale, in Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, and in Foucault’s biopolitics. This lineage traced by Agamben matters not only for historians of ideas. An enduring tension beats at the heart of disputations of oikonomia and biopolitics, the contest between free will and the forces that constrain it. What is the apparatus? widens the frame of reference for biopolitics.

Biopolitics became a matter of public controversy after the outbreak of the Covid pandemic in Giorgio Agamben’s native Italy. Agamben fulminated against the government’s blanket measures that shuttered the public square, barricaded citizens in their homes, and locked families out of funerals of their next of kin. His polemic, such as published in 2020 in February, March and April, accused authorities of overruling objections by invoking an authority even more dictatorial than any government had ever been, namely science, to eviscerate the body politic and reduce it to a vegetative state. It was symptomatic of habituation to the power of the dispositif that authorities around the globe could impose layer after layer of restrictions, bypass the checks and balances of representative democratic process, and rely on the tacit acquiescence of leaders of civic society. Covid measures, in effect, might have been described as an update of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. That Giorgio Agamben, a reclusive philosopher now in his ninth decade would find himself in the eye of a public storm is a token of the acute analytical edge of biopolitics.

Benedikt Koehler

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