Thought, Disability, and Refusal

Photograph by Hervé Guibert
Risks and Boundaries

There is a vital, deeply political, aberrant movement called for in Difference & Repetition that is, in a certain sense, a metaphysical revolutionary gambit. It is the destruction of the dogmatic image of thought which presupposes its own foundational principles. Attempting to apprehend thought outside of this doxa, to move away from the objective and subjective presuppositions and to move outside of the modes of recognition, poses a risk. Foucault’s analysis of Goya’s sketch, Idiot, lays out the stakes clearly.

“Goya’s Idiot who shrieks and twists his shoulder to escape from the nothingness that imprisons him—is this the birth of the first man and his first movement toward liberty, or the last convulsion of the last dying man?”

Foucault 1965, 265

This aberrant movement is one that destabilizes the dogmatic image of thought and leaves in its wake the encounter, the violence from the outside that forces thought. There is a common image of the younger Deleuze, one put forward by Slavoj Zizek and others, that “not a single one of Deleuze’s own texts is in any way directly political; Deleuze ‘in himself’ is a highly elitist author, indifferent towards politics” (Zizek 2004, 18). While this idea is rather specious regarding his oeuvre, this explicitly is not the case with D&R once one really begins to break down the political implications of the critique of the dogmatic image of thought.

The dogmatic image of thought is not just a mechanism by which Deleuze can posit a critique, display some internal invalidity in the history of philosophy, or just expose a necessary error. Rather, the image of thought possesses an explicitly political function.

The moment one assumes the universality of a premise, or, worse, that “everyone knows” a particular presupposition in thought, one has created and circumscribed a constituency of subjects. This constituency is made up of those who reflect, embody, and participate in “the goodwill in thinking” (Deleuze 2000, 95).

But what about those who fall outside of this goodwill? Deleuze opposes the dogmatic image of thought to the image of thought of schizophrenia. The schizo-image does not participate in the real to any less extent. Yet under the dogmatic image it is reduced to error and misadventure. The truth must bear down on this aberrance. The dogmatic image of thought automatically, by resting its foundation upon these subjective presuppositions, pushes bodies and modes of being to the boundary of thought – or the boundary of the Anthropos itself.

One simple question begins to bring light to exactly how a dogmatic image of thought serves to lend philosophy discursive power: where do disabled subjects fit into a dogmatic image of thought? It is not a novel or even controversial assertion to claim that the phenomenological and ontological foundations that ground our understanding of the subject have long casted the disabled body beyond the bounds of these systems. There have been liberalist attempts to rectify these dogmatic images, like Martha Nussbaum’s scrambling to find some extension to loop in the disabled body into Kant’s kingdom of ends or Rawls’s new contract. Disabled subjects remain at this boundary. If, as Deleuze suggests, disability is overwhelmingly viewed as a model for “controlled ‘situations of abandonment’,” the critique of the dogmatic image of thought recenters disability and turns it into a model for revolt (Deleuze 2007, 235).

The disabled body becomes a literary war machine that refuses the philosophical language of the unified liberal subject and becomes a mechanism through which we can come to understand how philosophy itself functions as a dispositif that thwarts the formation of new worlds and new forms-of-life on the grounds of a metaphysical and epistemological incongruity and incorrigibility. Disability speaks through the figure who refuses to be represented or represent anything. Disability liberation coincides with and effectively highlights the need for a new approach to difference and the images of thought that have proliferated across the canon. The disabled body manifests as both the target and refutation of a dogmatic image of thought that acts as method of philosophical immunization.

Normalization and the Image

The normalizing power of the image of thought becomes clearer when one can view the image of thought, and the philosophical project it is posited by, as possessing a certain discursive power. Deleuze, both in his earlier monographs and his later work with Guattari, provided an articulation of the relationship between the state and the image of thought. There is a striking similarity between Foucault’s work on normativity and the formation of apparatuses and Deleuze’s critique of the dogmatic image of thought.

Normalizing power is utilized through processes of identification and intervention. But the apparatuses that enable these processes of subjectivation and interventions into divergent cases necessarily form something else as well. “[O]ne role, among others, of these systems is to form an image of society, a social norm” (Foucault 2013, 214-215). An apparatus is what both establishes a norm, establishes it as the “image” of any given social order, and directs subjects toward that norm.

The dogmatic image of thought doubtlessly sets such a norm, and moralizes it, especially when it must fall back onto a subjective presupposition that “everyone knows” what rationality means or that “no one can deny” the irreproachability of reason. It is through the establishment of this norm that the monster first begins to creep through the shadows of the discourse. Georges Canguilhem describes the monster and the mad as foils for a central norm.

“In the nineteenth century, the madman was in an asylum, where he was useful as a foil for reason, and the monster was in the embryologist’s jar, where it was useful as foil for the norm.”

Canguilhem 1962, 35

The individual in the nineteenth century “is always described as in terms of his possible or real divergence from something that is no longer defined as the good, perfection, or virtue, but as the normal” (Foucault 2013, 216). The apparatus is what draws the lines of battle across each and every individual subject. Deleuze and Foucault share a resonance in that the State-form inspired image of thought is one that sees obedience as mastery and adherence to reason. One ought to look no further than Foucault’s processual theory of the subject. Foucault’s shift to Ancient Greece toward the end of his lectures at the Collège de France is not a conventional “ethical turn,” but rather a demonstration that “the strength of bourgeois rule has been built—even before economic factors—on two centuries of ethical struggle, of transforming morality, of a generalized dictatorship over behavior and attitudes” (Tarì 2021, 189). The model of civil war is fundamentally maintained in these lectures, it is just extended to the foundations of the ethical itself.

Giorgio Agamben, in his genealogical treatment of the term dispositif, explicitly includes the discipline and literature of philosophy as an apparatus. To Agamben, an apparatus is that which has “the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure, the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings” (Agamben 2009, 14). The dogmatic image of thought which upholds the validity to a particular mode of being and the validity of a particular form-of-life coincides directly with both Agamben’s and Foucault’s utilization of this term. It also becomes quite clear that it functions as a mechanism of capture and correction if one returns to Deleuze’s treatment of Nietzsche. Nietzsche posits a picture of philosophy that cannot be separated from its historical or political milieu. Nietzsche finds the smiling upright Prussian citizen sharing a startling number of resonances with Kant’s image of thought.

Biopolitics and the image of thought, especially as it pertains to the immunopolitics of the sovereign right to life, come to a critical interaction. A terror must be made to reign, a “terror of straying too far from the norm” (Tiqqun 2011, 162). We will have to, once again, return to Peter Singer.

An old dogmatic image of thought sits at the root of the bizarre, yet terrifyingly institutionally respected, utilitarian ethics of Singer which forge a defense for mass eugenical infanticide. Singer’s argument about the ethics of the use of euthanasia for disabled people comes down, fundamentally, to his belief that a human being is defined by its capacity for rational engagement with themselves and their social environment, and to distinguish between the two (Singer 2005, 130). However, nowhere does put the notion of the “rational” up to the necessary scrutiny. His method is not “tortuous enough” (Deleuze 1994, 129). The question of the rational and what it means to think are left beyond reproach, for everyone knows and no one can deny. One wonders whether his Journal of Controversial Ideas could handle the tortuous circle Deleuze is looking for in his critique.

The image of thought is a mechanism of domination because the chasm between thought and practice collapses. One may recall Foucault’s statement about thought itself.

“As soon as it functions it offends or reconciles, attracts or repels, breaks, dissociates, unites or reunites; it cannot help but liberate or enslave.”

Foucault 1970, 328

These dogmatic images of thought give rise to, maintain, and justify domination. There is a figure, though, who manifests among these bodies abandoned to the monstrosity of difference and the phantasmic folly of error. This figure is emblematic of the reality that the “front line […] runs through the middle of each of us, between what makes us a citizen, our predicates, and all the rest” (Tiqqun 2011, 12). It is in Deleuze’s rejection of the dogmatic image of thought and the conceptual persona of the figure of refusal that his anarchic, metaphysically insurrectionary, politics shines through. The disabled body and the figure of refusal come to share a common resonance, a solidarity in revolt against dominant images of thought that presuppose unified, obedient, and normalized political subjects. The mechanisms that command thought, and align it with the morally good, are rejected.

The figure of refusal explicitly delineates the political, truly anarchic, intensity of D&R as well as how Deleuze’s work alters the conventional approach to disability studies and liberation. The act of refusal becomes a means through which subjects, as individual battlegrounds where the struggle for domination takes place, can intervene in the process of subjectivation, and begin to counter apparatuses that function to capture. Rejecting the presuppositions of a dominant image of thought necessarily coincides with the rejection of the notion of the subject that that image underwrites. Such a recognition immediately initiates a broader refusal – it becomes the necessary foundation of an open revolt.

There is a tendency to read Deleuze as an endlessly affirmative and joyous thinker. Andrew Culp attests that “[w]e must correct Deleuze’s error: failing to cultivate a hatred for this world” (Culp 2016, 13). Culp suggests that the “effect of the Joyous Deleuze’s image of thought is a sense of wonder accompanied by the enjoyment of creating concepts that express how the world really exists” (Culp 2016, 2). This depiction of a joyous, politically unengaged Deleuze may persist somewhere in the academic discourse, but this depiction is a false one. Culp may be presenting an incomplete explanation of Deleuze’s alternative image of thought. The “affective tones” of the senses of “wonder” and “love” that seem to define this Joyous Deleuze can only come into existence only through a sweeping act of destruction. Just like the child at the end of Zarathustra’s Three Metamorphoses, they are preceded by an act of fundamental rejection and obliteration. This image of a hyper-affirmative Deleuze is no different from Nietzsche’s braying ass that “does not know how to say no” (Deleuze 1983, 182). Culp’s Dark Deleuze is a great text that serves as a necessary corrective for some of the tendencies in Deleuzian scholarship, but it may not be a correction of Deleuze himself. The shadowy figure of refusal proves Deleuze’s work to be plenty “dark” and conspiratorial in itself. The figure of refusal surely possesses a hatred for this world.

This “individual full of ill will”, who “neither allows himself to be represented nor wishes to represent anything”, is the final hindrance and merciless destroyer of the dogmatic image of thought (Deleuze 1994, 130).

This act of refusal initiates the process by which the individual can intervene in the process of their own subjectivation. But the “moment of refusal is rare and difficult.” It is difficult because “one must refuse not only the worst but also what seems reasonable” (Blanchot 1997, 111). The figure of refusal is, in a sense, not immediately intelligible. This refusal, which culminates in a revolt, is a rejection of representation. It is to proclaim that one does not possess this good will, that one does not think this way, and that one refuses to be represented as a subject. The individual “who rebels is finally inexplicable” (Foucault 2001, 449).

If this figure is to simply be reduced to error by a dogmatic image of thought, then they are an incorrigible error. They refuse to be hidden or eliminated.  They are comparable to the error that has become animated in Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death. “No, I will not be erased; I will stand as witness against thee, a witness that thou art a very poor writer!” (Kierkegaard 1941, 119). The figure who refuses representation stands as witness to the insufficiency of the dogmatic image of thought. If the overwhelming model for disability is a “controlled ‘situation of abandonment,’” the refusal of the dogmatic image of thought turns that position into the revolutionary one. Remember, the war machines always make contact with, or come from, the outside. The State-form inspired an image of thought, but the state “has no war machine of its own” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 355).

The disabled body is certainly often confined, rejected, and abandoned. Tobin Siebers may have been correct to attest boldly that disabled people belong to the nation of the “abandoned and the dead” (Siebers 1998). This is a pessimistic outlook. But it is the pessimistic that must be organized, rather than those with malformed extensionist optimism. It is only through this refusal of the image of thought, this rejection full of ill will, that new images of thought become possible, images that are no longer functioning as the tribunals of an underexamined, yet all too powerful, reason. The abandoned carry with them wounds of the failure of the present. However, they possess the insurrectionary threat of a different future. “The coming people will be made from today’s enfants perdus” (Tarì 2021, 75). This act of refusal recognizes one crucial thing. It recognizes that “politics precedes being” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 203). The image of thought becomes revealed as a “governmental machine” that is no different from any other apparatus of capture (Agamben 2009, 22). It is this recognition that allows for the intervention in the processes of subjectivation to begin. The destruction of the dogmatic image of thought opens up the possibility for new forms-of-life. That is always the role of emancipatory disability theory. Deleuze’s open and wonderous image of thought can only be realized in the wake of the destruction of the dogmatic image of thought.

Opposition of the Present

Deleuze’s critique of the dogmatic image of thought exposes the normalizing power of philosophy as an apparatus. The dogmatic image of thought shows the biopolitical role that philosophy plays. It impedes the materialization of new forms-of-life by reducing them to error, to the mutilation and misadventure of thought. This is an explicitly biopolitical function. For “biopolitics has never had any other aim but to thwart the formation of worlds, techniques, shared dramatizations, magic in which the crisis of presence might be overcome appropriate, might become a center of energy, a war machine” (Tiqqun 2011, 150). Disability comes from the outside, with hands that converse, eyes that listen, and skin that sees.

It is not simply a rejection of the violent ableist framework. In obliterating the old image, new assemblages of sensation can break through. Crip theory must always philosophize with a hammer, but it must always move towards new forms-of-life. It must move towards a radical Yes-saying. It allows for the exploration of new modes of being, new phenomenological orientations, and new political ontologies. To achieve this, disability must remain militant in its opposition. Those who attempt to articulate disability literarily must never serve to “justify traditional ways of thinking” (Deleuze 1995, 154).

Disability rejects the dogmatic image of thought as insufficient, and it refuses to represent it or be represented by it. The rejection is what allows for the Deleuzian affirmation to burst through. But the “use of philosophy is to sadden. A philosophy that saddens no one, that annoys no one, is not a philosophy” (Deleuze 1983, 106). A philosophy that does not sadden and does not annoy only serves the present.


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Žižek, S. 2004. Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences. New York: Routledge.

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