Report Dispositif Workshop Luxembourg University
By Tim van der Heijden
On June 20-21st, we organized an international workshop at the University of Luxembourg on the multidimensional concept of “dispositif”. A group of twenty scholars from various backgrounds – from philosophy and history to film & media studies – came together to discuss different perspectives and approaches to the concept. The workshop was organized by Maastricht University, University of Luxembourg and University of Groningen, in close relation to the NWO-research project “Changing Platforms of Ritualized Memory Practices – The Cultural Dynamics of Home Movies”. The workshop was co-funded by the University of Luxembourg and the Research Stimulation and Valorization Fund of the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences at Maastricht University.
For the research project, the concept of dispositif is constructive as it allows us to think about the complex (inter)relations between materiality, mediated content and perception in home movie practices. Two more workshops will be organized later this year on other concepts central to our research: ‘generations & technologies of memory’ (University of Bremen) and ‘user typologies’ (Maastricht University).
The theoretical concept of ‘dispositif’ emerged in French post-structuralism in the late 1970s, among others in the works of Michel Foucault and Jean-Louis Baudry, to describe the ideological processes of subject construction throughout (technological) “apparatuses” in socio-spatial contexts. Over the past decades, especially within French and German academia and more recently also within Anglo-Saxon academic worlds, the concept has been developed as an increasingly important analytical and methodological tool for research in the humanities and social sciences.
Generally speaking, the French term ‘dispositif’ refers to a ‘system’ or ‘set of relations’, ‘assemblage’ or ‘ensemble’ of things. Despite its increasing popularity and application as a term, there is actually less consensus on how the concept of ‘dispositif’ should be defined, what it means, and how it could be used. This often depends on the discipline or object of study. In philosophy, for example, the term has been used mainly ontologically in order to approach or describe the identity of a medium, i.e. cinema (Baudry). In architecture, the concept helped to highlight the spatial ‘disposition’ of architecture’s materiality in relation to human perception, whereas in media historical studies a more pragmatic approach has been maintained to describe important (inter)medial changes over time.
The morning session of the first day the dispositif-concept was explored as an analytical tool. In her presentation on television exhibitions in Germany, Great-Britain and the United States in the 1930s, Dr. Ann-Katrin Weber (University of Lausanne, Switzerland) differentiated between four ‘types’ of dispositives: ‘spectacular dispositif’, ‘reflexive dispositif’, ‘dispositif of liveness’, and ‘daylight dispositif’. This analytical application allows her to analyze and describe the historical contexts and changes, as well as network of institutions and technologies in which television emerged as a ‘flexible and adaptable medium’ in this phase of experimentation.
For Dr. Gian Maria Tore (University of Luxembourg), however, the dispositif-concept is more useful as a ‘synthetic tool’, rather than an analytical one. By attributing dispositif with this heuristic potential, Tore argues that historians of film can distinguish more accurately between the various elements or dimensions of, in his case, cinema. In his presentation “Rethinking ‘cinema’ as a/and dispositif” he illustrates his approach by stating that “all that is cinema is not in cinema” (e.g. sounds from the audience are not part of the film, yet part of the cinematic experience and ‘dispositif’). Therefore we should distinguish between film as a medium, object, product, etc. to describe the “network of mediations”. In addition, Dr. Martin Doll (University of Luxembourg) argued that the dispositif-concept also allows for taking into consideration the ‘non-discursive’ aspects besides the ‘discursive’, for example when contextualizing the paleo-anthropological hoax of the “Piltdown man” or for analysing how ‘fake’ news items (i.e. false documentaries by Michael Born) came to be accepted in/by the media.
The afternoon session was devoted to the use of dispositif as a methodological tool. Prof. dr. Andreas Fickers (University of Luxembourg) explained his pragmatic use of the concept in his research on the history of technology and media history from a transnational European perspective. Departing from the material object, the dispositif-concept allows for building bridges between technology, mediated content, processes of perception, domestication, and appropriation. While advocating for a pragmatic use of the term (rather than a theoretical one) he postulates the question: what happens when putting on the ‘dispositif-glasses’?
In their follow-up presentations, Dr. Jo Wachelder (Maastricht University) and Dr. Susan Aasman (University of Groningen) discuss the challenges of the dispositif as methodological approach. Departing from Frank Kessler’s “Notes on Dispositif” (2007), Jo Wachelder compares the dispositif-approach with the ‘social-construction of technology’ (SCOT) and especially the ‘actor-network’ approaches. Like Thomas J. Misa does in his contribution to the book Does technology drive history? (1994), Wachelder pleas for adopting an analytical “meso-approach” to balance between explanatory accounts of ‘determinism’ (agency) and ‘contextualism’ (structure).
On a more practical level, Susan Aasman discusses the challenges of ‘performing’ the dispositif. In a recent media archeological experiment the home movies project team ‘staged’ the dispositif of amateur film, video and digital screening practices during the 9th International Orphans Film Symposium, held at the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam. See for the video:
In her presentation “The Art of Failure”, Aasman makes up the balance: what have we learned? Breaking out of the comfort zone while ‘becoming’ an actor on stage was definitely one of the personal challenges for us as historians. In terms of content, another challenge was the reconstruction of the social dynamics between family members while watching a home movie or video. Since this often has not been documented well in the written sources, the question arises: whose memories are we ‘performing’ or ‘staging’? Who are we watching? From a historical perspective, perhaps the most revealing encounters are those moments of mismatch. Re-enacting what happens when the projector fails to function as expected may account for a less familiar understanding of past home movie practices. And this is from a hermeneutic perspective even more crucial! After all, not only what is in the film is part of the family’s memory (as well as the other way around).
On the workshop’s final day, a variety of researchers presented how they used dispositif in their own research. Dr. Jack Post (Maastricht University), co-organizer of the workshop, gave a presentation on the dispositif in/of the printing press and typography. Tim van der Heijden (Maastricht University) & Tom Slootweg (Groningen University) presented how they make use of the dispositif-concept in a pragmatic way to describe the changing dispositif of respectively early amateur film practices, and the transition from ciné-film to video in the process of (pre-)domestication. Maarten Michielse (Maastricht University) presented on the “mash-up dispositif” in contemporary online musical practices. Dr. Markus Stauff (University of Amsterdam) gave a presentation on the ‘second screen dispositif’, and Christian Olesen (University of Amsterdam) on digital dispositifs of contemporary film historiography. Lastly, Danièle Wecker (University of Luxembourg) presented on ‘haptic visuality’ in the viewing experience of home movies.
The two-day workshop on dispositif was a very productive one. The interesting presentations, in combination with the stimulating and thought-provoking commentaries by Prof. dr. Bart Verschaffel (Ghent University), Prof. dr. Michael Astroh (University of Greifswald), Prof. dr. Sonja Kmec (University of Luxembourg), Dr. Markus Stauff (University of Amsterdam) and Dr. Stefan Krebs (Maastricht University), resulted in fruitful discussions on the meaning(s) and use(s) of dispositif. Since the workshop probably raised more questions than answers, a follow-up workshop is expected to take place in the near future.