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  • The Limit of Queer Theory
  • Iain Morland, lecturer in cultural criticism
Priscilla, (White) Queen of the Desert: Queer Rights/Race Privilege Damien W. Riggs New York: Peter Lang, 2006. xx + 126 pp.

Damien W. Riggs seeks successfully to "contribute to the queering of white privilege itself, but also to an interrogation of white queer privilege—something that queer rights campaigns on the whole have most often failed to do" (4). In redressing this, he makes an original contribution to debates about sexual, racial, and national identity in a range of disciplines. Riggs draws a correct contrast between "much queer rights rhetoric, which often accepts the framework of liberal individualism," and his proposal that "rights advocacy may constitute a critique of the very notion of state sanction itself" (107). In this divergence from canonical queer theory, his book's title is rather a misnomer: although Riggs's arguments are germane to queer rights, they are not classically queer arguments to the extent that they apply readily to lesbian and gay rights, too. This elides some tensions [End Page 597] between queer theory and lesbian and gay studies, but nevertheless makes Riggs's book pertinent to sexuality studies beyond queer theory.

The author summarizes accurately his trajectory as "(a) an elaboration of why it is that researching simultaneous identities seems at first to be difficult, (b) an examination of how particular identity claims privilege particular white queer accounts of subjectivity, (c) an interrogation of what it means to identify as white in a colonial nation such as Australia, and (d) an engagement with Indigenous critiques of white privilege" (110). The readings of the film from which the book takes its title are relevant but brief; this is not a film studies book. Nonetheless, the author is a sensitive close reader. Analyzing the maiden parliamentary speech by Pauline Hanson, founder of Australia's conservative One Nation party and self-styled white victim of "reverse racism" (37), Riggs comments cogently that "at the very moment where white people claim to feel disenfranchised, they do so from a position of power and privilege" (38–39). Riggs also performs deft readings in chapter 4, notably of the Let's Get Equal campaign literature, which promotes "equal rights for same sex couples" in South Australia (66). His close reading in chapter 5 of the queer parenting slogan "love makes a family" is similarly astute in its revelation of love's discursive ambivalence and its consequently uncertain political utility.

The book is valuable too for its lucid reference to a range of Judith Butler's texts (e.g., 89, 101–3, 108), instead of the reiteration of her early work that has characterized much academic queer theory. But I was disappointed that Riggs does not discuss Richard Dyer's seminal White.1 Another minor irritation is that the book lacks an index.

Significantly, Riggs identifies implicitly the limit of queer theory. "When those of us who identify as white speak out in regards to rights, and assert that we are entitled to do so, we draw upon our privilege as white people living in a society that accords us significant social status, regardless of our sexuality" (71). Put differently, it is the social constitution of one's whiteness that in certain situations renders one's sexuality irrelevant. Concomitantly, queer theory, understood as a story of sexual dissidence, becomes redundant. And queer theory's redundancy is specifically a moral failure rather than a lapse in the theoretical project of describing identities: there are "moral implications," Riggs states, that arise "from claims to equality that do not interrogate racism and race privilege" (66). He therefore rejects Marilyn Frye's formulation of ethics as primarily pragmatic in its context-dependence (70), arguing instead for critical reflexivity as a foundational effort for any ethics (71). "By examining our own moral claims, and by looking at what we can bring to a coalition with Indigenous people, those of us who identify as white queers may more reflexively engage with multiple simultaneous axes of privilege [End Page 598] and oppression, rather than simply focusing on our sexuality" (73). This is an important challenge: queer theorists who read Riggs will need to account for his...


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