Friday, June 27, 2008
The Apparatus of Language
The by now agreed upon English rendition of Foucault’s “dispositif” as “apparatus” is one of those fortunate choices that gain in translation an aspect of the original term still hidden from view. Think, for example, about the “Apparat” from Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” and especially about the uncharacteristically happy ending of this fable, where the operator of the torture apparatus is being subjected to his own device. Soon after the machine is set to inscribe with precise little needles the sentence “Be Just” onto the flesh of the executioner, the mechanism gets out of control, destroying itself while brutally killing its operator. In an early and little known gloss on this parable, Agamben suggests that Kafka’s apparatus stands for language itself. He claims that “the ultimate sense of language...is the commandment ‘Be Just.’ Nonetheless, precisely the sense of this commandment is what the machine of language is absolutely incapable of understanding.” Twenty years later, his What is an Apparatus? elaborates on the same idea, now calling language “the most ancient of apparatuses – one in which thousands and thousands of years ago a primate inadvertently let himself be captured, probably without realizing the consequences that he was about to face."
But the idea that language is an apparatus is already present in Freud’s first book, On Aphasia, where he explicitly and consistently speaks about “the speech apparatus” as the field of his investigation. This is a clever move that allows him to avoid the need to deal with the abstract structure of language (what Saussure will call langue), as well as its actual use by a speaker (parole). Instead, it enables Freud to treat language as this impersonal and pragmatic machine that can break down from time to time, thus leading to aphasia, whereof one cannot speak. He realizes that aphasia should not be understood as a single entity, but rather as a complex variety of speech impairments. Instead of localizing those different aspects of aphasia in particular parts of the brain, he insists that they are the result of different linguistic functions and dysfunctions, associations and dissociations.
Given Agamben’s call for a hand-to-hand struggle with the various apparatuses in which our life is captured, it is helpful to follow the strategies embedded in Freud’s analysis, which are surprisingly similar to Foucault’s own method of analysis of the different power apparatuses in his writings and lectures. For example, Freud is already interested at this early stage in what we call today a Freudian slip: this fleeting breakdown of the speech apparatus. One way to cope with our apparatuses is therefore to notice their pathologies in everyday life, their blemishes or blunders, which might signal deeper or more colossal vulnerabilities still hidden from sight.
As you can see, the investigation of the speech apparatus led Freud to what he later calls the “psychic apparatus,” which is the subject to which he will devote his mature thought. It is therefore interesting to compare his early and later models of the psychic apparatus (the topographical and the structural) with Agamben’s early and later models of the apparatus of the modern state, as the first volume of Homo Sacer (Sovereign Power and Bare Life) and the last one (The Reign and the Glory) demonstrate. These models should not be seen as discrepancies or contradictions within the same thinker, but as the evolution of the tool with which he handles and dismantles the very same apparatus.