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.