WP 12: Orthodox

The Aporetic Apparatus

Meghan Sutherland

It can be tempting to take the figure of the sovereign for the quintessential agent of power in the discourse of political ontology, with the figure of the modern subject trailing closely behind it like the child of a doting tyrant. Whether one turns directly to Carl Schmitt’s major treatises or to one of their more tempered conceptual offspring, the power to draw and to act on a decisive distinction stands as the sine qua non of the political in virtually every attempt to define the latter as such. This distinction may take its starkest form in Schmitt’s original formulation, where it is the sovereign’s distinction between the friend and the enemy to be killed that forms the essence of any truly political power, but it’s just as decisive for the distinction between a group of people called “us” and a group of people called “them” that Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe identify with the ontological ground of the political in their radical democratic reinvention of Schmitt’s thought—and for the wide-ranging theories of social antagonism informed by this distinction, which encompass everything from populism to agonistic pluralism, and now reach far beyond the writings of Laclau and Mouffe themselves.1 It should be noted that the word “ontology” performs a very different function in these two respective accounts: while it designates the “essence” of a properly political act and subject in Schmitt’s scenario, Laclau and Mouffe turn to the language of political ontology primarily to designate the constitutive effect that any political intervention worthy of the name has on the definition of social objectivity—a shift that continues to insist on the specificity of political acts, but not the dependency of such acts on a specific political sphere or essential subject.2 Nonetheless, the forms of power associated with political ontology involve stark displays of either real or symbolic violence and opposition where the limits of the social order come directly into view—and in radical democratic variants like the ones set forth by Laclau and Mouffe, are challenged and redefined.

I hardly need to tell anyone living through the stunning political ascent of Donald Trump, and the broader shift it marks toward the embrace of right-wing authoritarianism around the world, how dangerous such a power can be; there is nothing “crypto” about the unrepentant appeals to violence and extra-legal retribution against foreigners and enemies that have carried conservative political figures to victory in political settings as different as Poland, the U.S. and the Philippines over the last several years. For many, the risk of fortifying such a scenario—or its filiation with the figure of the sovereign subject and the power of decision it so violently commands in Schmitt’s original conception—is reason enough to render an ontological conception of the political both limited and problematic. To take just one influential example, Jacques Rancière has equated “the buffoonery of today’s proclaimed ‘returns’ of the political and of political philosophy” with “a celebration of pure politics” that inevitably identifies the realm of politics with the unique powers of “a pre-existing subject” and “a specific order of being” yoked to the narrow domain of the state.3 And while it seems to me a much greater act of buffoonery to dismiss any and all theoretical treatments of the political as a sweeping “ontological trap” from which “only God can save us”—especially coming from a theorist so famous for developing his own set of criteria for what counts as a truly political act—Rancière is also right to express misgivings about any particular theory of the political that depends on a “pre-existing” political subject, value or domain of activity such as sovereign power.4

Even so, I want to argue here that neither the figure of the sovereign per se, nor the array of variously radical and liberal democratic conceptions of the subject it has inspired, has commanded the implacable forms of agency ascribed to the figure of the apparatus—a figure more often conjured by theorists of liberal governance to disarm the power of the sovereign—throughout a longer, broader and even more heterodox tradition of political thought. Perhaps more treacherously, I want to argue that we can only begin to make sense of the political crisis that confronts us today—at a moment when the distinctions between radical and institutional political movements, sovereign and liberal exercises of power and the forces of decision and indecision that shape them seem like quaint theoretical constructs—by taking the ontological force of this much-maligned figure more seriously. Simply put, it’s time to reevaluate the ontological nature of the relation between the apparatus, the political and the exercise of power in theory and practice at once, and to see what doing so can teach us about the apparent collapse of these distinctions in the context of contemporary democratic politics.

I should concede from the start that the most influential appeals to the concept of an apparatus take the peculiarities of these powers for granted, and depend on doing so. Perhaps most famously, when Althusser uses the term to designate at once the repressive institutions and functions of the State Apparatus, the comparatively benign institutions and functions of the Ideological State Apparatuses, and the apparatus of the subject that comes into being in the game of human Pong that inheres between them, he neither contemplates nor countenances the fact that the echoing term “apparatus” seems to generate the same exact effect he attributes to “the ideology of the ruling class.”5 And how could he? In his openly tautological formulation, it is the mystifying ideology of this class that secures the unity of these apparatuses’ “function” through what he calls “the functioning of their unity.”6 To the extent that the ruling class can already be assumed to hold the repressive State Apparatus “at its disposal,” he reasons, “we can accept that this same ruling class is active in the Ideological State Apparatuses[.]”7 But unless we take Althusser’s entire supposition for granted—namely, that the privileged position of the ruling class connects the power of ideological influence to the power of state violence in a subtle but coherent structure of domination—then the hollowed out designation of the apparatus would seem to play an even more constitutive role in his account, accumulating rhetorical power as it mutates across and consolidates an array of different indices and forms of activity, in each case signaling interlocking effects of radically different sorts, from murder and imprisonment to pedagogy and parenting. After all, while Althusser readily concedes that “it is quite a different thing to act by laws and decrees in the (Repressive) State Apparatus and to ‘act’ through the intermediary of the ruling ideology in the Ideological State Apparatuses,” he concludes just as quickly that any difference between the two “cannot mask the reality of a profound identity.”8 And in the absence of any “pre-existing subject” like the ruling class to ground this “identity,” it is the name “apparatus” itself that serves to constitute the latter both literally and figuratively—and just as importantly, to mediate the inherently imperceptible interval between “acting” and ‘‘‘acting’” that it mediates in the figure of the subject.

Not mistakenly, one finds much the same scenario at work in Jean-Louis Baudry’s iconic essay on “The Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematic Apparatus.” Although Baudry is most notorious for characterizing this “apparatus” as a seamless and ruthlessly effective “instrument” for the “function” of power, declaring it “destined to obtain a process ideological effect necessary to the dominant ideology…with marked efficacy,” there is hardly anything streamlined or efficient about the apparatus of mediation he goes on to describe.9 On the contrary, this “apparatus” once again encompasses a whole array of different human and non-human entities with radically different kinds of effects and ways of “functioning,” including the various concrete technological apparatuses of the camera, the film strip and the projector that form the images playing onscreen; the complex perceptual, psychological, and spatial apparatuses that orient the spectator’s view of these images in a particular way; and the array of institutional norms that structure this spectator’s identification with the God-like subject who can see them all so freely, to name a few. What is more, the various different contraptions and effects of mediation this “apparatus” marshals ultimately converge in an “act” of political domination that gains its force precisely from its capacity to go unnoticed as such—namely, the rhetorical elision of the difference between subject and camera that Baudry conveys, ironically enough, through his own rhetorical elision of the differences between all of these apparatuses. For a major strain of Marxist thought, then, the figure of the apparatus itself has been largely taken for granted in its specificity, but it names nothing more or less than the rhetorical vanishing point between raw political power and its functional regulation and consolidation by the various multi-media technologies of liberal governance; between the general figure of a hulking instrumental agency and the particular array of different mechanical, institutional and aesthetic instruments that contribute to the unifying “effects” it creates; between the act of political force and the “act” of ideological domination. Contrary to the expressly political displays of sovereign power, it is a power that by definition cannot be seen as political. More simply put, it is the blind spot between politics and governance.

Examples like these help explain why virtually every critical theorist to mobilize the rhetoric of the apparatus from Althusser’s moment forward has done so to display its mechanics, demystify its abstraction, dismantle its various different parts, and deconstruct them one by one, moving from the subject, to ideology and ideological beliefs per se, to the technologies that wire them together, however obliquely. Such examples also help explain why contemporary critical and continental thinkers almost uniformly see the “apparatus” of the agential subject and the instrumental forces it implies as retrograde constructs of liberal governance that are antithetical to any meaningful political intervention in social norms. Or rather, it explains why these thinkers have turned more and more towards theories of affects, objects, and process philosophy to flesh out theories of political activity and agency that do not reproduce the disciplinary resources of the self, its identity, or its capacities to act either autonomously or collectively—let alone the violence of the sovereign.

In the first and more traditional of these two categories we could think of the way that proponents of “apparatus theory” in cinema studies, following the lead of Baudry and others, worked to foreground the mechanical materiality of the projector to the unthinking subject of its illusory transcendence; we could also think of Foucault’s quite different attempt to unearth the buried archaeological traces that link the normative apparatus of liberal governance to the genealogies of modern science, medicine and culture that forged them, and the wide range of similar undertakings it inspired.10 In the second of these two categories, we could think of Derrida’s deconstruction of sovereignty and decision in Rogues or his seminars on “The Beast and the Sovereign,” or Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou’s attempt to elaborate a relational conception of the subject and its claims against the “normative apparatuses” of liberal governance.11 But we could just as easily think of William E. Connolly’s rather different contention that political economy in the age of neoliberalism involves “a moving assemblage of interconnected subsystems [with] loose joints,” where the sheer plurality of these self-regulating systems reduces collective political interventions, “methodological individualism,” and “organic holism” to a politically immobilizing fantasy of human control—a premise directed specifically against the notion of concerted political agency and the instrumental power of an “apparatus” that underpins it.12 For if there is any single orthodoxy that governs the critical political theory of the Left today, or perhaps even constitutes its own kind of normative condition, it is surely the repudiation of any such normative or orthodox conception of power. The term “apparatus,” like the sovereign before it, has become a convenient epithet for the orthodoxy of an existing system in all its machinations and illusions of instrumental efficacy—just as it did in Althusser’s more traditional Marxist account—so the list of examples affirming this point could go on indefinitely without ever boiling down to a unified theory of politics.

To put things in this way may seem like the prelude to an attack, but I have no desire to dismiss the deconstruction of sovereignty, the subject or the instrumental conceptions of modern technology that often surreptitiously empower them. On the contrary, I believe deeply in the importance of these fundamental interventions in poststructuralist political thought, and several of the works I’ve just invoked will necessarily inflect anything I have to say about them. Nonetheless, I think it would be a mistake to dismiss the figure of the apparatus as a structuralist relic of either Marxism, liberalism, or an obsolete Cold War between them. If anything, more recent and more reputable conceptions of the apparatus expand the scope of the latter’s power even further, and regard its ever more elusive incarnations with the same impassive confidence as the spectators imagined by Baudry. Along these very lines, when Giorgio Agamben rehearses Foucault’s characterization of the apparatus as “a heterogeneous set that includes virtually anything, linguistic and nonlinguistic, under the same heading,” and thus provides a “network… between these elements” to perform “a concrete strategic function,” he doesn’t even marvel at the amorphous, hulking power of the conceptual colossus he’s summoned.13 Quite the opposite, he promptly and unreservedly multiplies its powers by a factor of seven more transitive verbs, announcing, “I shall call an apparatus literally anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings.”14

When held up against this conceptual backdrop, even the contemporary theoretical formations directed most explicitly against the modern conception of agency take on an uncanny family resemblance to the ensemble of subjective, institutional, and procedural apparatuses for which this backdrop is now bemoaned. For instance, while Bruno Latour and other proponents of actor-network theory explicitly aim to dispense with both the rhetoric of the apparatus and the commanding figures of technology, the social and the subject it empowers, they often replace this rhetoric with the one Foucault used to define the term apparatus in the first place, and that Althusser might very well have found just as efficacious for his own use: namely, the “unifying function” of a plural and non-medium specific “network” that links multiple human and non-human actors into a flexible system of convergent power relations and effects. In other words, these newer figurations of the apparatus do not quite dismantle the economy of powers their predecessor commanded in the context of modern thought; it would be better to say that they redistribute its wealth across the diffuse array of technologies and interfaces that had always already served to ground the human subject they mobilize, in the end, as their operator—at least if one agrees with any part of the way that Heidegger answers the question concerning technology.

In putting things just this way, my goal is not to suggest that Althusser’s conception of the apparatus is identical to Latour’s conception of the term “network” for actor-network theory, or for that matter, to any of the other accounts I cited above. For instance, it’s safe to say that Althusser’s reliance on a set of pre-existing class categories to describe the social exemplifies the very kind of social metaphysics that Latour sets out to overturn, and that his reduction of the apparatus to a tool of the ruling class takes the “intermediary” status of this tool for granted. My goal is instead to say that once we begin to contemplate the simultaneously conceptual and rhetorical function of the apparatus in Althusser’s account, and some of the peculiar features of this function that I’ve begun to sketch above, it becomes a good deal harder to draw a categorical line—much less an opposition—between them. After all, when Latour describes the renovated concept of agency and social efficacy he means to trace throughout a network of multiple actors, the dispersed mode of action he describes could apply just as easily to the diffuse and obscure proliferation of agencies that Althusser traces across the various state and ideological figurations of the apparatus: it is a kind of “action” that “is not done under the full control of consciousness,” as Latour stresses, but “should rather be felt as a node, a knot, and a conglomerate of many surprising sets of agencies that have to be slowly disentangled”; it effects a dispersal of sovereign power across a ceaseless and inherently multi-platform effort to shape and define the social; and the very nature of its multiplicity produces a sense of “uncertainty” about the nature and coherence of human agency more generally.15 Indeed, when we talk about the “apparatus” of the culture or rights, we describe a cluster of subjects, objects, investments, institutions and actual machines that is no less opaque or diffuse in its machinations than the “actors” Latour describes as their ostensible opposite.

Conversely, when Althusser reels off his provisional list of the Ideological State Apparatuses that serve as supplements to the powers of the State Apparatus—a category that already includes the police, the courts, the prisons and the army that “the proletariat has paid for…with its blood”—the varied mix of institutions and modes of intervention he attributes to the term “apparatus” takes on an even more uncanny resemblance to Latour’s definition of a “network.” Indeed, once we confront the sheer iterability of a term that can refer at once to “the religious ISA (the system of churches),” “the educational ISA (the system of the different Private and Public ‘Schools’),” “the family ISA,” “the legal ISA,” “the political ISA (the political system, including the different Parties),” “the trade-union ISA,” “the communications ISA (press, radio and television, etc.),” and “the cultural ISA (Literature, the Arts, sports, etc.),” it’s clear above all that the “A” in “ISA” does not in fact refer to any particular type of materiality, power or mode of efficacy whatsoever.16 Much as Latour says of the term network, “It is a tool to help describe something, not what is being described.”17 But when defined in this way, the answer to the question that gives Agamben’s essay its title—“What is an Apparatus?—only seems more obscure: is it a largely academic conceptual category for the “heterogeneous set” of elements that it lists, the elements themselves, or something else? And what is it about the rhetorical logic of the apparatus that allows it to perform such an equivocal, ambivalent function—especially if we generally appeal to this rhetoric in far more simplistic and one-sided terms?

As these questions begin to suggest, one of my primary reasons for tracing the rhetorical function of the apparatus across so many mutations in its genealogy is that doing so highlights some of the more striking ironies at work in the deconstructive and processual approaches we now often take to the paradoxes of contemporary political agency. On the one hand, this genealogy helps to dramatize the ontologically irreducible role that the “unifying function” of the apparatus continues to play in the rhetoric of political theory—even in accounts opposed to the notions of unity, ontology and agency the term undersigns in the modern context. On the other hand, however, it highlights the degree to which this “unifying function” has always already depended on the literal and figurative dissemination of the term’s identity across a range of shifting and differentially aligned platforms, bodies, concepts, and activities—which is to say that it has depended on the quiet accumulation of different tropes of the apparatus throughout the discursive expansion of both critical theory and the material culture of technology and institutions, and not on the generic application of an abstract concept that precedes and founds them. Today as much as in the past, then, the rhetoric of the “apparatus” and the logic of “networked” technologies to which it gave birth seems to serve as nothing more or less than a categorical designation for the instrumental efficacy of concerted political power writ large. It names a raw, itinerant capacity to function across different platforms that is inherently non-medium specific, yet functions so inherently well by definition that it refuses to malfunction even in the discourses of medium specificity it is just as famous for serving—the aptly named “apparatus theory,” most notably. Put somewhat differently, the power impugned to the figure of the apparatus is always already mediatic: although the term itself only ever seems to refer to one thing, the power it exerts is distinguished precisely by its translation across more than one conductor, whether human or inhuman, and, is riddled with the very kinds of gaps and deferrals it serves to efface in most standard accounts.

From this point of view, it makes a good deal more sense that virtually all of the philosophers most responsible for the deconstruction of both sovereignty and modern technology studied directly under Althusser. However unintentionally, his work effectively foregrounded the empty rhetorical function that the term “apparatus” served in the structuralist account of power, and with it, laid bare the central political importance of deconstructing the apparatus and its powers. And yet, it isn’t just Althusser, his students and his student’s students who ascribe this transient material function to the trope of the apparatus. The OED marks out the traces of an even more amorphous and extensive assemblage of its variously technical, practical, institutional, conceptual, and organic incarnations over the last few centuries—including, at its most general and Latinate root, “the work of preparing,” but also “the things in which this preparation consists,” including “equipment,” “machinery,” “materials” and material assemblages”; the “mechanical equipment needed for any “scientific experiment”’; “the organs or means by which natural processes are carried on”; “bandages, cures,” and other medical treatments; the “materials required for the critical study of a document,” including theoretical frameworks, etymological resources like the ones I am invoking right now; and lest we forget its most memorable ideological point of reference in recent history, “any (Communist) organization.”18 And once we account for the profound ontological mutability of the term “apparatus” itself, it seems most accurate of all just to call it the empty signifier of power in general: it constitutes the trace of that power’s accumulation as it moves across and connects an array of differentially related platforms in the production of an order that never fully coheres or solidifies—which is to say, an order contingent on a process of constitution and reconstitution that inevitably requires the mediation of an apparatus, and even multiple apparatuses, to exist at all.

As this last characterization suggests, Althusser’s impulse to mobilize the infinitely malleable function and materiality of the apparatus is not a bolt from the blue. It is written into the materiality of the signifier itself as it moves across theoretical formulations as different as John Stuart Mill’s writings on the apparatus of liberal governance and Edmund Burke’s conservative appeals to the apparatus of the military—a comparison that also helps to explain the ease with which scholars of contemporary film and philosophy have adapted the language of apparatus theory to poststructuralist models of psychoanalytic and phenomenological thought.19 The term apparatus must thus be recognized as something more than just a theoretical trope for the technological instrumentality of mediation in all of its multi-platform logics and accumulations. By virtue of this very same function it must also be recognized as a multi-media trope for what the concept of instrumentality actually does by positing a hollow, undirected channel of discursive efficacy. It names at once the form and the content through which theory and philosophy have imagined the material indices of anything and everything with the power to effect anything or everything else at a system-wide level, providing an empty and ambivalent figure for that which uses and is used by its own performative multiplication, and tracing the discursive silhouette of conductive power wherever it circulates—as if the rubber coating around an electrical cord stuffed with wires possessed a name of its own that we had never bothered to learn, and it had always been the material force of this name, not just the wires, that had kept the lights turned on.

In keeping with this line of thinking, the figures of modern agency that I listed at the outset of this essay must be understood not as preconditions to, but rather ontological constituents of, an even more fundamental condition of political existence—namely, the very notion of efficacious power, of power that works through its mediatic distribution across a multiplicity of beings and things; in short, the power of an apparatus.Indeed, if the tropes of assemblage and networking prove so useful to a thinker like Latour, or even to Connolly’s account of the forces that upend any direct or concerted form of political agency in the era of neoliberalism—and to other theorists working in this poststructuralist vein—it’s because they foreground the sense of dispersion and transmutability that always already underpinned the unifying rhetorical “base” of the networked apparatus in more structuralist accounts. Simply put, the technical spacing at work in the so-called apparatus of “the subject” or “the state” is simultaneously a condition of its apparent unity and coherence, and the seemingly inexorable power ascribed to the apparatus itself has always already been disseminated by definition; that was the ground of its hulking capacity to “function” in the first place, and of the impulse to deconstruct it moreover. For Althusser and Baudry as much as Foucault or even Latour, the subject of liberal governance was only ever thinkable as the product of its imperfectly secured movements across a heterodox network of jerry-rigged apparatuses, and the human agency ascribed to it was only ever predicated on the technical dispersion of its powers as they circulate both through and across the effects of these material registers. This is the founding dysfunction of functionalism, but one could just as aptly describe it as the functionalist effect of dysfunction.

When seen from this point of view, the rhetoric of the apparatus confronts us with an aporia no less intractable and multi-sided than the one Derrida takes up when he contemplates the possession of one’s own death and life—and does so regardless of how contrary this rhetoric of agency and efficacy may seem to the logics of iterability and dispersion that drive it.20 Although I began this essay by pointing to the acts of decision and distinction that have formed the basis of political ontology heretofore, it should be clear by now that the act of decision and the distinctions themselves necessarily rely on an even more fundamental, but also much less categorical appeal to the “preparatory” function of an apparatus—or more accurately, to the misaligned plurality of apparatuses that always lie nested within the conceit of a “system” and its power. In the case of Schmitt’s appeal to the sovereign, the primary apparatus taken for granted is of course that of the subject itself, but also that of the State, and the full network of institutional, technological and discursive machinations that always subtended its seemingly magical ability to execute both the “act” of decision and the act of “real killing” it sets in motion. In the case of Laclau and Mouffe’s appeal to the constitutive divisions of social antagonism, it is the “apparatus” of language that so fundamentally informs their entire conception of the political, but also the vast network of institutional, technological, affective and discursive machinations that always subtended the hegemonic articulation of this division on either side—and did so explicitly, it should be said, in their complex rhetorical account of this process. In each of these very different attempts to define the ontological condition of the political, then, we cannot help but begin with the simultaneously irreducible and infinitely reducible figure of the apparatus; it provides an ontologically malleable figure of the power to effect anything at a system-wide scale—to say nothing of a concerted political transformation of the existing governmental system.

And yet, precisely because the very “functionality” of the apparatus depends on an aporetic logic—a logic by which the very same distinctions the apparatus serves to draw inevitably dissolve into a series of diffuse, uncertain transmissions conducted by the “apparatuses” nestled within it—the same can be said of frameworks that emphatically reject any ontological conception of the political, yet still treat the figure of the apparatus as a de facto instrument of the governing system. This point of course applies to many of the examples I’ve already discussed above, but also to Rancière’s own distinction between the logics of politics and police. For in this case, too, the condition of a properly political act—which Rancière identifies, in brief, with a disruption of “the natural order of domination” by “a part [of the people] with no part” in that order—depends on the linkage of just as many complex apparatuses as any other, including the procedures of “subjectification,” communication technologies and culture, and even the “order of domination” to which this figure of disruption successfully points, to name a few.21 In other words, the figure of the apparatus once again marks out a vanishing point between an exceptional act of political agency and the imperceptible “act” of structural domination carried out by the governing order; the former cannot be thought without a liminal point of conductivity with the powers of the latter—or even more importantly, without enacting their eclipse in the moment of political action.

This is why I describe the figure of the apparatus as an aporia of great significance: It is a theoretical “shibboleth” whose exoteric pronunciation simultaneously demarcates, multiplies, and erodes the borders between the logics of radical politics and the structural orders of governance, between different theoretical discourses and categories of power, different instances and concepts of material efficacy, and the different entities and activities that form the “interminable experience” of the subject; it bears the groundless ground of responsibility for virtually anything we might describe under the dubious heading of “media effects,” and to the extent that it does so on the terrain of social representation, it posits a “negative form” of power that stands as the necessary but impossible condition of any political transformation whatsoever—which is to say, of any attempt to effect change in “the system” by harnessing its powers to a different end or image of the social.22 Indeed, it seems fair to say that all political activity relies on the aporetic logic of the apparatus it seeks to challenge, at least to the extent that any meaningful effort to change the governing system of power involves an interminable and often opaque encounter with the seeming impossibility of locating, affecting and perhaps even being so bold as to seize the structuring conditions of that power.  And yet, to the extent that contemporary theory has found itself unable to stabilize, dismantle or abandon the responsibilities and rights that the figure of the apparatus provides to political theories of all sorts, it poses an impasse in the political imaginary that is tantamount to death itself—namely, the foreclosure of any capacity to effect, intervene in, or transform the existing social order.

This impasse is theoretical, but in no sense purely so. The rhetorical materiality of the agency commanded by the trope of the apparatus structures our practical sense of concrete objects and their powers as much it does our speculative ideas about them. I see no better indication of this point—and not coincidentally, of the lessons I’d like to draw from it in the remainder of this essay—than the unprecedented political charge surrounding the uncertain status of all sorts of governmental apparatuses today. Although it has become a commonplace of critical and cultural theory to treat the apparatuses of governance and institutional order as antithetical to and suppressive of any meaningful political activity—in other words, institutions and orders are what meaningful political activity is understood to destabilize, not the other way around—it is precisely such instruments and orders that concern the most fervent political demands of populations around the world at the moment. The standard oppositions between politics and police, or radical change and liberal reformism, do little to capture the scale and complexity of these demands, or the political implications attached when a government actually acts upon them.

In the trash filled streets of Beirut, for instance, protestors standing with the “You Stink” Movement began by demanding nothing more or less radical than an end to corruption and the most basic functional operation of government services: the collection and removal of the trash, or as one protestor put it, “Electricity, water, and dignity.” The demands set forth by the people of Detroit in a series of recent confrontations with city officials sounded much the same—access to electricity and police services, among other basic governmental resources—but in both cases, the connotations of these demands were also political through and through. As Michael Kimmelman put it in an article recounting the long-awaited return of working street lamps to the full expanse of the city, the most important function of this project was a matter of representation and equality: to say to the residents of a city that was always already shaped by the violent structural logics of environmental racism and segregation that “no matter where you live in Detroit, you are no longer forgotten,” and that “government here can finally keep its basic promises.”23

In a similar melding of governmental and politically constitutive social demands, the refugees fleeing violence in Syria and many other countries around the world have not arrived on the shores of Europe or any other country with calls for revolution or the transformation of social representation, but for the most basic rights and services that are already promised by the humanitarian institutions and ideologies of western liberal governance: shelter, food, water, safe harbor from violence, and in many cases, governmental intervention in the political crises of sovereign power that forced them to flee their home countries in the first place. Meanwhile, in the cities and university quads of the U.S., where the Black Lives Matter Movement has continued to channel some of the most meaningful currents of political energy in a generation, the most pressing political demands sound much the same: that the police uphold their constitutionally mandated duty as police, that government institutions ensure the equal rights and protections they promise to all, that government agencies and infrastructures provide clean water and schooling facilities, and that leaders of institutions effectively honor the beliefs and values encompassed by the ideological apparatus of liberal pluralism. And as this characterization already suggests, it would be hard to reduce any such set of demands to an instance of police or politics in itself; it concerns the inequality of the governing system and the politics of identity precisely insofar as these things prevent the apparatuses of this system from functioning according to their normative legal mandates—or more simply put, it concerns the politics of the apparatus itself, dramatizing the aporetic nature of the boundary between the logics of police and politics.

One finds an equally urgent reason to focus on the liminal relation between politics and governance in the halls of Congress and on Air Force One, where the representatives that hold the greatest control of all over the apparatuses that shape the institutions of American liberal democracy are also expressing frustration with the failure of those apparatuses to function as designed, and are responding in turn by seizing on the aporetic logic of the power that circulates between them at the limits that once seemed to separate them. This point was made most memorably by President Obama when he embraced the sovereign technology of the executive order to break through longstanding legislative deadlocks, noting dryly, “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone, and I can use them when Congress fails to act.”24 And yet, this controversial appeal to the powers of sovereign decision—an appeal that was carried out not through an act of murder or a suspense of the law, it should be stressed, but through the meticulous writing and promotion of new governmental rules and regulations—cannot be understood apart from the radical politicization of governmental procedure that first provoked them. After all, it is the notoriously partisan re-mapping of the boundaries separating the various different state congressional districts, carried out in exacting procedural detail by the Republican Congress in 2010, that offers the most widely accepted explanation for that very same circumstance of legislative deadlocks, indecision and political anomy towards government. And as if that weren’t enough, it was the displacement of those very same boundaries that facilitated the purely procedural victory of the so-called “populist” Donald Trump in the 2016 election, affecting yet another scene of breakdown between acts of radical political intervention in the articulation of “the system” and more structural “acts” of liberal governance, on the one hand, and on the other hand, between the territorial definitions of one voting district and another. The list of these cases could go on and on, and by all means should if we hope to find our way out of this crisis and the ones that will surely follow from it until we do, but the point is the same in each: virtually all of the most pressing political concerns that confront us today concern the function and dysfunction of the apparatus of power itself, and the increasingly undecidable relation it bears to the exercise of radical political agency, on the one hand, and to the structures and procedures of liberal governance, on the other. What is more, they remind us that the figure of the apparatus is the pivotal medium of exchange between these frequently opposed categories of power; it is the ground of the multi-media power they share in common, opening up a liminal point of contact between the kinds of activities and effects they encompass and depend on for their significance.

In each of these different but highly resonant instances, then, it would seem to me that we see traces of the impasse surrounding a fuller reckoning with the figure of the apparatus all around us. And yet, I’d like to conclude by proposing that these particular demonstrations of this impasse have something valuable to teach us about recovering a sense of responsiveness to this figure and its political stakes. Consider, for instance, the stagings of the apparatus that run through many of the most iconic scenes from the demonstrations I’ve mentioned above. The technologies of communication, transportation and the jerry-rigged electrical circuits that appear there are not the incidental trappings of a hasty political production, but an essential part of their mise-en-scene: they are the literal and figurative traces of a governmental technology that was always already imagined in the image of a multi-media apparatus of social representation, but that stands here as the latter’s only remaining metonymic ground, disseminating a desperate public appeal for it to function more responsively, and to reckon with the borders that circumscribe its existing form. In something like a reversal of the way that the display of the apparatus always functioned in seventies film theory—where the goal was to demystify the latter’s claims to an impartial and invisible medium of social representation—protestors marching with the Black Lives Matter movement have mobilized the technological apparatus of the broadcast camera, and the abstract social gaze it so famously serves to reify, as a stand-in for the unfulfilled promise that the apparatuses of government would actually function just as impartially and transparently.25

Indeed, the cell phones pointed at police officers by protesters in the movement effectively function as a “hailing” of institutional power in reverse: they stage a call to carry out the impersonal work of justice that the Constitution already promised it would. They are there precisely to interpellate the police as a group of institutional subjects invested with the powers of reason, responsibility and judgment established by a normative social order—not just a gun and a handful of hair-trigger prejudices. They are there, in short, to make the power of the system function more like an abstract agent of social representation, but this same gesture makes a distinctly political claim on the scope of that agency.

Something similar can be said of the empty tracks and halted trains that loom in the background of so many images from the shifting territorial, social and political borders of Europe: they serve as inverted indexes of a technical failure to govern, to uphold the basic political values of the European Union. And along much these same lines, the cell phone circuits and gaggles of cords that guide migrant populations on their way through this gauntlet form nothing more or less than a technical corrective to the dysfunction of these values and institutions. As we all know too well, though, a spotty wireless network is no substitute for a functioning apparatus of government, or for the social services that only such an apparatus can provide. So if we hope to address the most urgent political problems of our time in a spirit of genuinely democratic equality, it will not be sufficient just to deconstruct or display the apparatus of a functional power system—or to dismiss this apparatus as the stultifying instrument of a governmental norm that stands in the way of political transformation by definition. This undertaking has been and will be important in the years to come, to be sure, and has already yielded important steps toward reclaiming some of the powers and rights formerly associated with the now-maligned subject of liberal governance—most recently, Judith Butler’s ongoing efforts to develop a relational conception of the subject.26 But even the most generative moves in this direction, including Butler’s, tend to position this understanding of the subject as a necessary corrective to the “normative apparatuses” of liberal governance, taking for granted a certain opposition between these two conceptions of agency. If tracing the aporetic logics of the apparatus teaches us anything, though, it’s that we can stop fretting over the perils of concerted political agency quite so much, let alone searching for “messianic” and “network”-distributed alternatives to it: in the end, the illustrious power of the modern sovereign subject was never predicated on any necessary fact or self-perception of individual autonomy; it was predicated instead on the very same processes of heteronomic organization and conductive power, and the human and non-human institutions and discursive “agencies” that constitute the “unity” of their effect, that we “discovered” behind the curtain of the apparatus years ago. And if the stagings of the apparatus that we find in the images above teach us anything more about the state of these processes today, it is the urgency of a robust response on the part of contemporary critical political theory to the actual functioning of governmental apparatuses and their organizational politics, and to the channeling of collective political demands through the circuits of these apparatuses in a more productive way.

Perhaps this is part of the reason why so many voices from the recent Women’s Marches in Washington and elsewhere placed an unusually strong emphasis on the organization of ongoing political interventions by larger and larger consolidations of the groups involved, and well beyond the expression of mere dissent they had staged that day: because the importance of political organization, forever entangled with the concepts of representation, agency and order that many progressive political theorists identify with the inherently problematic procedures of governmentality, has been ignored by the theoretical innovators and activists of the Left for too many years now—and in some cases, passed off as the practical concern of either people “on the ground,” liberal apologists beholden to “the system,” or right-wing extremists beholden to the unconcerned violence of ethno-populist mobilizations.27 Either way, we ought to embrace the lead of the Women’s March in our intellectual contributions to this movement as well. Instead of focusing our most incisive attention on the fleeting moment of political subjectification or the unsettling event of an ethical relation itself, we must also begin to connect these insights and undertakings more directly to a reconsideration of how to make systematic power work effectively for the Left and its investments. For if we hope to contend with the shifting borders of the landscapes all around us, we will also have to reconstruct the systematic flows of power that define and coordinate these landscapes differently, concertedly, passionately, emphatically. And in order to do that, we will need a theory of the political that recognizes the functional power condensed in the mediatic figure of the apparatus for what it is: both the central stake and the founding condition of all political power, even when it breaches the very boundaries that define that power as such.


Meghan Sutherland is Associate Professor of Cinema & Visual Studies at the University of Toronto and a founding coeditor of World Picture. She is also the author of The Flip Wilson Show (Wayne State University Press, 2008) and a number of essays on the politics and aesthetics of mediation. She is currently completing a book called Variety: The Extra Aesthetic and the Constitution of Modern Media (Duke University Press, forthcoming).