What is a Dispositif?

Gregg Lambert (Dean’s Professor of Humanities, Principal Investigator, CNY Humanities Corridor Founding Director, Humanities Center)


My lecture will present the genealogy of the concept of dispositif, which has been the subject of much commentary, especially the influence of biologist and historian Georges Canguilhem upon Foucault’s use of  this term specifically to avoid three other dominant terms in the history of political philosophy: organism, machine, and structure. The uniqueness of Foucault’s approach to the nature of power is that he combines both biological and technical forms in explaining its evolutionary path, which becomes more multiple and dispersed throughout modern societies. In other words, sometimes power resembles a living system that is undergoes change through the confrontation with powerful external anomalies (such as madness, sexuality, and race); at other times, it is the effect of the invention of new techniques and “concrete assemblages” (agencements concrete) that will comprise the new biopolitical dispositifs of population, security, and territory that Foucault begins to diagram in his writings and lectures of the mid-1970’s onward. As I will discuss, Canguilhem’s earlier essay “Machine and Organism” (1953) directly influenced Foucault’s own conceptualization of the nature of the dispositif, which differentiates its concept from the idea of mechanism that belongs to modern science after Descartes. According to Canguilhem, the major result of Cartesianism was to rationalize the idea of mechanism as a knowledge that is particular to the human species, and not as a biological capacity that is found to be present in most living organisms. In turn, this was responsible for anthropomorphizing the relation between machine and organism, introducing a fundamental dehiscence between these forms, one that continues to be played out today in the relations between human, animal, and cybernetic forms.


E-mail: glambert@syr.edu