Lex van der Steen profile

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Lex van der Steen

University of Brighton (2023)


Mark Devenney


Reconceptualizing the dispositif for genealogical approaches to biopolitics: on dispensability and interdependency


This research critically investigates the notion of dispositif in genealogical approaches to biopolitics, notably those of Giorgio Agamben and Roberto Esposito. A ‘dispositif’ refers to a system of relations between bodies of knowledge, practices and material realities that orders and limits ways of thinking and acting (Agamben, 2009; Koopman, 2013). The most discussed analyses of biopolitical issues are the recent interventions by Agamben and Esposito in debates on the COVID-19 restrictions. However, critics argue that their genealogies of biopolitics fail to understand political action (Christiaens, 2021; Wolfe, 2013). Scholars such as Campbell (2011), Devenney (2020), Lewis (2022) and Primera (2019) have investigated the notion of the dispositif in Agamben’s and Esposito’s genealogies of biopolitics. Other literature investigates Michel Foucault’s initial understanding of this term (Frost, 2019; Peltonen, 2004), and the practical dimensions of genealogy (Hartcourt, 2022; Koopman, 2013). However, the importance of the dispositif in explaining and overcoming this lack of practical applicability remains insufficiently theorised. Without such an understanding, scholars of biopolitics remain producing and reflecting on flawed genealogies, resulting in a self-sustaining cycle of inapplicable scholarship, as the COVID-19 example demonstrates (Hartcourt, 2022). My research remedies this deficiency through a comparative study of Agamben’s and Esposito’s different interpretations of the dispositif and a reading of Foucault’s idea of a ‘play of dependencies’ between discourses (Foucault, 1978). Drawing on these studies, I reconceptualise the dispositif as: 1) either dispensable or indispensable, 2) determined by its relation to other dispositifs, specifically in its level of dispensability, and 3) changeable in dispensability through the suspension of other dispositifs. As such, genealogies have A) to be situated in a specific context, B) to trace dependencies between dispositifs, and C) to move beyond any singular discipline. The intended result is a theoretical understanding of the dispositif that stimulates and informs political action.