The New Apparatus Theory

So my comrade in gadget theory, Grant Wythoff, and I have been bouncing notes back and forth for a year or so about the return of the apparatus to media theory. I suppose it'd be more precise to say it never left. But the sources for "apparatus theory" have shifted over the years. In the 1970s and early 80s work by Baudry, Comolli, Mulvey, etc. on film as an ideological apparatus (appareil/dispositif) swept film studies. In the last fifteen years however another, intersecting theory of the apparatus has taken hold in media studies, science studies, theories of digital cinema and so on. Notions of a productive, assembly-like apparatus (dispositif) put forth by Foucault, Lyotard, Agamben and Deleuze today dominate contemporary apparatus theories. This "new" apparatus theory is not so distinct or independent from the "old" apparatus theory, as Frank Kessler has shown. As Grant and I batted around ideas about the intersections and divergences in these two waves of conceptualization, the idea of putting together a panel arose--leading to the proposal below. At the moment Christian Kassung and I are also working on a major German-funded research project on mechanical writing and recording in the nineteenth-century (Selbstschreibe-Apparate in 19. Jahrhundert), so the three of us joined forces for the panel proposal below. I hope it gets approved.



The New Apparatus Theory


Proposal for SLSA-Turin 2014


Stream: Life, in Media: Neocybernetics, General

Ecologization and the Rethinking of Environmentality


Panel Conveners:

Grant Wythoff and

Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan


Apparatuses are back. Although various notion of an appareilor dispositifappeared widely in 1970s structural post-structural discourse, the term remains most closely associated with schools of psychoanalytic and semiotic film theory that aimed at correlating the forms of subjectification peculiar to the cinematic configuration of projector/screen/audience. The electronic and digital shuffling of image, space, and screen, as much as the vagaries of theoretical fashion or new historicisms, helped bring down the curtain on that particular notion of apparatus in the 1980s and 1990s. But a new apparatus theory now seems to have retaken the rostrum: Movements as diverse as new materialism, media archaeology, object-oriented ontology, actor-network theory, and platform studies have thrust the apparatus to the center of analysis again.


This panel presents three approaches to the new apparatus theory, with a particular attention to mutually constitutive relationship between apparatuses and environments. Questions to be addressed include: In what ways might media “archaeology” denote a commitment to classical archaeology and environmental study as much (or even more) than a mere preoccupation with technologies? In what ways is every environment a product of social and historical apparatuses? And, how do local instruments and tools come to function as social apparatuses for binding and dividing cultures and communities?



Paper I

Mobile Media and the Paleolithic

Grant Wythoff, Postdoctoral Fellow

Society of Fellows in the Humanities, Columbia University


In the mid-1950s, a collection of Neanderthal artifacts was unearthed in the southwest of France, kicking off one of the most famous debates over the study of cultural transmission through the archaeological record.  At a time before the development of chronometric techniques like radiocarbon dating that would allow later archaeologists to definitively order these artifacts in time and space, the Mousterian debate centered on the question of how we can extrapolate history from the formal properties of a technical object.  In this presentation, I attempt to put debates from the history of archaeology into conversation with an exciting new field in media studies known as “media archaeology.”  Media archaeology has thus far been informed by Michel Foucault's (largely metaphorical) use of the term archaeology to denote an inquiry into “the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events.”  But I will argue here that the traditional field of archaeology, its primary concern being the study of how objects mediate our relationship to the past, has much to offer a mediaarchaeology.  I focus on the two principal figures in the debate—the established French archaeologist and sometime science fiction novelist François Bordes and the upstart American Lewis Binford—in order to draw larger conclusions about how we both experience and interpret the artifacts around us.



Paper II:

What is a Psychic Apparatus?

Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan, Postdoctoral Fellow

Institute for Cultural History and Theory, Humboldt University of Berlin


The concept of a psychic apparatus is as old as psychoanalysis itself. Already in the 1890s Freud accepted the psychischeor seelischeApparatas a necessary conceptual site within the development of any rigorous science of mind. But in the years following 1945, this concept took on a new meaning as scientists including Gregory Bateson, Warren McCulloch, Claude Shannon, and Jacques Lacan embraced the experimental use of circuitry, switches, and cinema to instantiate the properties of the mind in hardware. Although the assumptions of these various scientists diverged on key points, they united around the conception of the mind as a kind of distributed, communicative ecology. In this talk I examine how the apparatuses employed by these scientists established common conceptions of mind across diverse regional and disciplinary site. I argue that these scholars’ conception of the mind as a kind of cybernetic-apparatus provides historiographic and epistemological clues for the origins and constraints of “old” and “new” apparatus theories alike.



Paper III

Automatic Imaging: The Planchette as a Selbstschreiber

By Christian Kassung

Professor, Institute for Cultural History and Theory


The selbtschreibende Apparatwas the exemplary device of the nineteenth-century. In fields such as physics and physiology, the powers of self-writing apparatuses (or self-recording instruments) promised an escape from human error and a release into the freedoms of scientific objectivity. Yet self-writing apparatuses also played a prominent role outside official sciences: In occult and spiritualist circles, self-writing boards such as the planchette and the ouija board promised instrumental verification of elusive, spiritual influences. This paper analyzes the structural, technical, and epistemic parallels of the self-writing scientific apparatuses used by spiritualists and scientists. Through a close examination of patent records it looks at the role techno-scientific instrumentation played in validating authentic knowledge and distinguishing productive and meaningful signs from mere “bosh.” As such, the history of the self-writing apparatus also provides an object lesson in the cultural techniques [Kulturtechniken] of hegemonic knowledge.


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