Limits

Following is a long quote from Warren Montag’s essay in the latest issue of Borderlands, Althusser and Us (via), which has some excellent stuff.

I like this quote very much, but I wonder if histories of genesis aren’t in their own way a defining of limits, a conceptual drawing of lines between existence and nonexistence, a presupposing of a collective subject that enacts a fissure within history. Does it matter if they do?

To the search for the genesis of the opposition of reason and madness in that original negativity that is itself negated even as it remains present in its negation and thus to the “verticality” of an ever present origin, Althusser counterposes, by citing Foucault against himself, the notion of “a history of limits” (Foucault 1994:161). To undertake such a history would be to pose limits (significantly, in the plural in the text of the preface), defined by Foucault as “those obscure gestures, necessarily forgotten as soon as they are accomplished, by which a culture rejects something that will be for it the Exterior,” as irreducible. To do so, however, would appear to involve us in insoluble difficulties. Limits, according to the passage just cited, are not simply the lines or the borders which separate a culture from what it will (note the future tense) define as its Exterior; on the contrary the limit is a gesture or an action, the drawing of a line, the act of separating the interior from the exterior, the rejection of what will only henceforth be foreign to that which carries out the rejection. Indeed, Foucault will go so far as to speak of a culture “exercising its essential choices, making the division that will give it the face of its positivity” (Foucault 1994: 161). All of this suggests a linear causal sequence requiring an original actor or subject who pre-exists and then accomplishes its end. Althusser, however, seeks to precisely to develop (although he will do so only later in his own texts) the concepts that Foucault produces but from which he will ultimately retreat. In particular, can we not think, indeed, must we not think, if we are to avoid the twin dangers of functionalism and voluntarism, the notion of a gesture without a subject? If we take this a step further, we can even speak of the gesture itself, the act, not as preceding the division it carries out, but as having its whole existence in that division itself. Only in this way can we speak of a truly constitutive division, a division before which there is nothing because the division and the act of division are one and the same thing. In this way, there is no origin, no priority: not only is there no subject (even the collective subject of culture), neither term of the division precedes, logically or chronologically, the other. Madness is not the origin (however mediated) or truth of reason or vice versa; rather, their existence is simultaneous, their antagonism defines the singularity of the culture that is theirs. Every culture in a manner of speaking “divides into itself” (Beckett), into that antagonistic relation that makes it what it is through the distance that it takes from that which it cannot be.

Further, the existence of this antagonism is no more ideal than its genesis: it takes the form of a struggle or a war for mastery, capture, control: the victor must defend his (always temporary) victory against the resurgence of the vanquished whose revolt appears always so imminent that they must be confined behind walls, the material form of reason’s hegemony. Thus, the antagonism never resolves into an order; whatever fragile equilibrium of forces permits the domination of reason remains perpetually threatened. At the extreme, reason cannot escape the fear that it may itself become at some future point or already have become without its knowing it precisely that against which it measures itself, that which it is reason’s very duty and destiny to study, to know and to master, in a word, to confine.

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4 thoughts on “Limits

  1. hi Eric,
    I’ll need to read this again when I’ve had more sleep. I’m also not sure I understand your remark, do you mind unpacking it? For now, my two cents on what I think I understand about this … origins: if they’re useful, great. I like reading about history, I get a use out of knowing that things came into being. That helps me get a more solid grasp on their possible ceasing to be, not just as a thought but as a real belief. (Likesay, capitalism, for instance. Reading about its earlier history helps me to really feel like maybe it could go away.) But it’s not at all clear to me what knowing an origin actually does beyond this sort of literary function that I get out of history (literary cuz a decent novel might well have the same effect on my imagination and gut). I can see how it might also be a form of limit.
    take care,
    Nate

  2. Thanks for your comment, Nate. I agree with you on this value of origins stuff.

    I’m not entirely sure what I was getting at here, to be truthful. As I said, I really like this quote, but at the same time there was something about it that bothered me, something I felt but couldn’t exactly name, which is why I threw out some questions. Maybe it’s better stated this way: If we are trying to create a subjectless theory, which I’m all on board for, to describe “the gesture without a subject,” then how can we envision genesis, which to my mind necessarily implies a historical break, without a subject to enact that break? Is there a way to describe origins without drawing a historical line between the problem’s being and not being (as well as a subject to do the drawing)? Maybe this doesn’t matter, maybe I’m objecting to something that’s nonexistent or easily solved, or maybe this type of limit being posited is qualitatively different, but it’s something I noticed.

    This is difficult stuff I don’t understand as well as I’d like, but I think the heart of the issue here is trying to escape from dialectical thinking, and as one of the interviewees in the Althusser issue points out, escaping dialectics is extremely difficult. For me, really thinking around the idea of the subject is difficult, and it seems like even the people–like Althusser and Deleuze–who went the farthest doing it are not always successful. Which is basically what I was trying to point out with my question.

  3. hi Eric,

    I know I’m getting more conservative as I age – case in point: dialectics (another case in point: teenagers! what’s they’re problem?!). I’m actually coming around to that view a lot more recently. I think the Hegel thing is overdone, but I find the anti-hegel thing so too. I’ve found a certain tendency in encounters I’ve had with some folks – arch-hegel types and arch-antihegel folks – to say “you must/mustn’t say X!”, which is in many ways a demand to speak their idiom. I find that offputting, and is one of the ways I think that some anti-hegel folk can end up doing the hegel thing all over again – with the added neurosis that while Hegelians can quite happily say “you should all speak our idiom because if you don’t you’re wrong” (and if they’re hegelian marxists they may add “and reactionay”), whereas folks whose project is “don’t be hegel!” can’t cop to an urge to demand that others speak their idiom and so when they have that urge they turn themselves in knots a la neurotic symptom that one cna’t cop to.

    As for the subject, what’s wrong with the subject? That sounds aggressive. I just mean, what do you mean and what’s at stake (or exciting) for you in this question? I ask because that anti-subject thing doesn’s speak to me.

    (I should also add that to my mind I think the court of appeals is probly better “what is X doing with Y idea?” or “how does Y idea help/hinder our project(s)?” than some sort of essence of terms along the lines of “subjects are X therefore subject-talk can only have Y outcome.” That’s overstated, but not entirely, and anyway, what I mean to say is that for me I get a certain use – we’re not totally determined, we can act, things can get better, it makes sense to do things, etc – out of the term subject that I’m attached to, and so am nervous to lose the term because I don’t how to get that use without it.)

    take care,
    Nate

  4. hey Nate,
    I know I’m getting more conservative as I age – case in point: dialectics (another case in point: teenagers! what’s they’re problem?!).

    Ha! I think I’m starting to “get” teenagers these days. Of course, I have to since I’ll be living with two of them in a few years. Plus I have some sympathy for them: we adults give them a shit world to live and expect them to not be fucked up. Also, I have a huge fear of old-fogeyism.

    I’m with you on this purity of thought thing, even though I sometimes find myself falling victim to it. Abandoning Hegelian thinkers would mean dismissing Marcuse, Adorno, Benjamin, and many others, some of my favorite people.

    My problem with subjectivity is that a subject implies an object in the same way that a worker implies a boss, a citizen/subject implies a state, a female implies a male, etc. In other words, heirarchies and domination. Like dialectic opposition implies a limiting negativity.

    But I also agree with you on attachment to subjectivity. How can you think about freedom and the ability to act and change without something like the subject? I don’t know. Spinoza, the anti-Hegel, denied the existence of free will. It’s difficult for me think about how that sort of view, how monism, doesn’t lead to cynicism, despair, and acceptance. So I’m sort of in between on this, and confused. Maybe it’s best to live with the tension that holding both outlooks can give rise to, which could allow for some fecund creativity? Maybe?

    take care.

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