Apparatus – Dispositif

A narrative environment could be conceived as a ‘dispositif’ or a concrete social apparatus, understood as a ‘practical system’; or as being inscribed or situated within an apparatus. Other terms with similar or overlapping meanings which are used in this context are ‘agencement‘ and ‘assemblage‘ and possibly ‘arrangement’ and ‘distribution’.

Jerome Fletcher notes that the term ‘apparatus’ is often used as a translation of the French term dispositif, a term employed initially by Foucault and elaborated by Agamben and Deleuze. In this usage, apparatus does not simply refer to a mechanism, device or physical object, such as, for example, computer hardware, but is more like an arrangement, for example, of hardware, software, code, writing, performance, usage, texts, ideology, writers, readers, coders, decoders, executions (of programs) and so on, together.

In response to the question of what the meaning or methodological function of the term apparatus or dispositif is for him, Michel Foucault (1980: 194) replies,

“What I’m trying to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions – in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements. Secondly, what I am trying to identify in this apparatus is precisely the nature of the connection that can exist between these heterogeneous elements … Thirdly, I understand by the term ‘apparatus’ a sort of – shall we say – formation which has as its major function at a given historical moment that of responding to an urgent need. The apparatus thus has a dominant strategic function.”

What takes place within the apparatus, in this sense, is a series of events. Such an approach may be useful in developing one’s thinking about the design of a narrative environment.

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 the interview cited above entitled “The Confession of the Flesh”, Agamben suggests. In this interview, Foucault indicates that that an apparatus/dispositif is a heterogeneous set, ensemble or assembly that incorporates virtually anything, such as, as mentioned by Foucault, “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.

Foucault’s discussion of ‘dispositif’ has resonances with his discussion of what he elsewhere calls ‘practical systems’ (Foucault, 1984: 48-49). Such systems stem from three broad areas, he suggests: relations of control over things, relations of action upon others and relations with oneself. These three areas are not mutually exclusive but are wound through each other. Thus, Foucault (1984: 48) argues that “control over things is mediated by relations with others; and relations with others in turn always entail relations with oneself, and vice versa”. Nevertheless, this scheme suggests three axes “whose specificity and whose interconnections have to be analysed: the axis of knowledge, the axis of power, [and] the axis of ethics.” (Foucault, 1984: 48). [1]

The historical ontology of ourselves has to answer an open series of questions which can be systematised as follows:

  • how are we constituted as subjects of our own knowledge?;
  • how are we constituted as subjects who exercise or submit to power relations?; and
  • how are we constituted as moral subjects of our own action?

A dispositif/apparatus, then, forms a material-discursive practice, crucial for our understanding of the entwinement of ontology and epistemology. Radomska (2010: 106) notes that Karen 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, and the traces of which one may find in Barad’s project, according to Radomska (2010: 106n), apart from Foucault’s dispositif/apparatus, are Ranciere’s ‘distribution of the sensible’, Haraway’s apparatuses of bodily production, Latour’s inscription and translation and Butler’s performative. Another key example is Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) notion of assemblage. They assert that “every assemblage … is simultaneously and inseparably a machinic assemblage and an assemblage of enunciation. In each case, it is necessary to ascertain both what is said and what is done.” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 504)


[1] These three axes may be fruitfully articulated with those of Greimas in his actantial model, in order to relate narrative theory to a Foucauldian political theory.


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, 159–168.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Foucault, M. (1980) “The Confession of the Flesh” [Interview, 1977], In Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, edited by Colin Gordon. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, pp. 194-228.

Foucault, M. (1984). What is Enlightenment? In: The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 32–50.

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:

edited 4 March, 2018 by Allan Parsons