• Jacques-Alain Miller: I'm not very happy with the huge concepts you're employing here. They seem to me to dissolve as soon as one looks at things more closely.
  • Michel Foucault: But they're meant to be dissolved, these are only very general definitions....


"The Prisoner" depicts a Foucauldian system of power: while Number Two (right) appears to be in a position of authority in The Village, the real power relations in the village are structured by a complex and interlocking set of dynamics between prisoners, administrators, Rover, and state surveillance equipment.
Michel Foucault uses the concept of the dispositif (or deployment) (or apparatus) to describe a heterogeneous network that brings together institutions, humans, objects, ideas, discourses, and other types of things and non-things to effect and maintain power structures in the social body.

In “The Confession of the Flesh,” Foucault is pushed to provide a definition. He identifies three qualities of the dispositif:

  1. It consists in a “thoroughly heterogenous 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” (p. 194).
  2. The item of Foucault's interest within the dispositif is “precisely the nature of the connection that can exist between these heterogeneous elements” (p. 194). Elements of the dispositif may switch position, relationality, and funcion while still remaining integral to the structure.
  3. The dispositif is formed in response to an urgent need; its elements are pulled together to fulfill a specific strategic function, and continue to exist because of its self-sustaining nature.

This self-sustaining nature he calls a “double process” and describes in greater detail:

  • On the one hand, there is a process of functional overdetermination, because each effect—positive or negative, intentional or unintentional—enters into resonance or contradiction with the others and thereby calls for a readjustment or a re-working of the heterogeneous elements that surface at various points. On the other hand, there is a perpetual process of strategic elaboration. (195)

With strategic elaboration, Foucault refers to the unintended consequences that emerge from the dispositif and create further social changes that can be manipulated and structured for further profit. The institution of imprisonment, which seemed like a good idea at the time, ended up “filtering, concentrating, professionalizing and circumscribing a criminal milieu.” This new criminal space could then be turned toward productive end, enabling further profit to be gained from a new apparatus, and legitimating the institution of imprisonment. This productive recursiveness is the “strategic completion” of the dispositif, its remplissement.

What this brachiated and strange ensemble amounts to is a self-creating, self-maintaining system of power relations. Its many varied nodes react to changes in internal and external power dynamics in order to maintain what can be termed a structure, and allow for incredible flexibility. In these corrections, it resonates and reverberates, and the minute adjustments give rise to emergent properties, new systems that can feed into other apparatuses. It is thoroughly mechanical; when Guy Le Gaufey offers a biological metaphor for the dispositif, Foucault reacts with a clear curtness: “No, I don't agree with that at all. Firstly, I have never used the metaphor of the organism....This isn't an organism..., and I can't see how what I'm saying can imply that these are organisms” (206).

The dispositif is intimately linked with that inescapable chimera of power/knowledge. It can be seen as a means of linking the twain, of embodying the slash that ties power to knowledge.

  • The apparatus is thus always inscribed in a play of power, but it is also always linked to certain coordinates of knowledge which issue from it but, to an equal degree, condition it. This is what the apparatus consists in: strategies of relations of forces supporting, and supported by, types of knowledge. (196)

Integral to the dispositif is strategy, pursued at every point of connection. Not in the sense that all the elements of a dispositif are pieces on a chessboard, deployed strategically by some master force, but in that each element is planning its moves and working towards its own eneds. “When I speak of strategy, I am taking the term seriously: in order for a certain relation of forces not only to maintain itself, but to accentuate, stabilise and broaden itself, a certain kind of manoeuvre is necessary” (206). Because there is no subject structuring the dispositif, its objectives do not belong to any subject. The dispositif does not impose its objectives, they rather “turn out to be imposed” (204). It pursues “'strategy without a subject'” (206).

With a hint of enthusiasm, Foucault uses the dispositif to compare the deployment of power in 19th century Europe with earlier, monarchic power structures: while the social fluidity of the 19th century allowed for the assembly of apparatuses that could pursue power, earlier centralized governments had a powerful monarch whose apparatus of power was limited to their court and vassalage. The administrative apparatus of the King was strong, but inflexible and ultimately less effective than that of the interconnected 19th century apparatuses of parliament, publishing, exhibitions, etc.

The analytical tool of the dispositif sees the most use in Foucault's Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality, in which discipline and sexuality are the two dispositifs of interest.

Writing in 1977, Gilles Deleuze is intrigued by “profound political novelty of this conception of power, in opposition to all theory of the State”, and the system of power enforced “not by repression nor by ideology” but by normalization. Deleuze divides the analysis of the dispositif into a micro and a macro level: the analysis of the diverse, heterogeneous, and interlocking nodes of power and the social and political changes that result from these, the “abstract machine immanent to the whole social order.” He uses some of the aspects of the dispositif in his framing of the assemblage or agencement.

The role of artifacts in the dispositif makes it an especially useful tool for technology studies, where the concept has overlapped with the concept of the sociotechnical system. Bryan Pfaffenburger considers the artifacts of the sociotechnical system as a solidification of the systems of power in which they are framed, a means of supporting the power of the dispositif against the inevitable resistance. “If no form of domination goes unresisted, then one would expect artifacts to be employed in redressive rituals that are specifically designed to mute or counter the invidious status implications of the dominant ritual system” (505).

See also

Apparatus (Weiss)
Assemblage (Weiss)
Assemblage (Wilcox)
Power slash knowledge (Banks)


Deleuze, G. (1977). Desire and Pleasure. (M. McMahon, Trans.). Retrieved from http://eng7007.pbworks.com/w/page/18931081/DesireAndPleasure
Foucalt, M. (1980). The confession of the flesh. In C. Gordon (Ed.), Power/Knowledge(194-228). New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Pfaffenberger, B. (1992). Social Anthropology of Technology. Annual Review of Anthropology, 21, 491-516.