Roderick Ferguson

“Reading ‘Intersectionality’”

One of the primary objections to intersectional work and to the category “intersectionality” has to do with the category’s presumably unwitting fidelity to discrete ideologies. This paper looks at the ways in which the presumption that intersectionality is destined for discreteness emanates from a notion in which the relationship between the vehicle for meaning (i.e. the signifier) and meaning itself (i.e. the signified) are actually predetermined. In such a conception, the signifier “intersections” must always arrive at the signified meaning of discreteness. Such an understanding of language—as it is applied to the category “intersections” and the work that takes it up—ends up disciplining the meaning of intersectional work, threatening to produce a policing consensus that not only jeopardizes future innovations of the category but potentially assigns past work to the dustbin of history, reading that work as the victim of a univocal commitment to ideologies of discreteness. As an alternative to this conception of language and the category “intersectionality,” this paper theorizes intersections as a signifier whose meaning is never predetermined and thus draws on work that demonstrates the multivocal properties of the category.  The paper ends by arguing for a reading practice that analyzes the varied meanings of particular deployments of intersectionality, citing the category as a “plural text”—to quote Barthes, invoking reading—particularly the reading of intersectional work—as one of the dramatic and difficult trials of a modern existence shaped, to a large degree, by the emergence of women of color and queer of color critical formations.