The Jaguar & the Anteater:
Pornography Degree Zero

by Bernard Arcand, Wayne Grady,
320 pages,
ISBN: 0860914461

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Polyvalent Phenomena
by Maggie Helwig

This is a very odd book. Even if you discount Bernard Arcand's defensive tone -he seems to have written The Jaguar and the Anteater primarily to counter accusations that anthropology is boring and not sexy - and the inevitable problems of translation, it remains a very odd book, a rambling intellectual study of pornography (or really, of ideas about pornography) that suddenly pulls up into a most unexpected conclusion.

The first three-quarters of the book are interesting enough, though a bit disunified. Arcand discusses several definitions of, and debates surrounding, the vexed topic of pornography, diverges into a discussion of "modernity" as invented by Baudrillard, Foucault, et al., then examines the place of sexual representation in modem society. There is not much original work here, but Arcand does summarize and present some of the more intriguing thinking that has been done about pornography and the erotic image.

One gets the impression that Arcand has had very little contact with pornography himself, and that he is essentially writing a history of theories, but that in itself is not a bad thing. One cannot avoid, as well, being aware that he is writing as a heterosexual mate, and that his ability to see pornography through other eyes is limited. He does manage to present a not unsympathetic, though somewhat abbreviated, summary of heterosexual feminist debates around pornography, but gay men and lesbians seem not to exist in his world - especially, interestingly enough, gay men.

This is a rather significant omission. Pornography is, before it is anything else, an incredibly polyvalent phenomenon. Its meaning changes drastically along lines of age and class, and especially the lines of gender and sexual orientation. Experiences of pornography can range from those of a heterosexual woman seeing pornography for heterosexual men, who might consider it (not without some justification) an attack on her very status as a human being, to the experience of a gay man for whom pornography plays a vital role in the definition and validation of his identity. It is this polyvalence that makes it impossible to legislate away "bad" pornography and legalize "good" erotica - something we have seen only recently in Canada, when a bill hailed by some feminists as properly defining "bad," "degrading" pornography was immediately used to suppress the representation of consensual lesbian sadomasochistic fantasies.

It is this polyvalence that Arcand who seems to be deliberately blinding himself to the very existence of homosexuality, particularly among men - is unable to quite encompass (though he does make some attempts).

And thus we come to his astonishing conclusion, arrived at almost without reference to anything in the preceding chapters: that pornography is fine and healthy in moderation, but cannot be allowed to get out of hand because it distracts us from reproduction, which is after all the main purpose of life.

Arcand somehow manages to draw this conclusion from a rather elaborate interpretation of a ceremony performed by the Sherente of Brazil, reinforcing this with his curious belief that we live in the only society in the history of the world ever to condone masturbation. Having thus rendered meaningless the sex lives of all gays and lesbians, as well as those heterosexuals who choose not to have children, Arcand cheerfully closes the book.

The Jaguar and the Anteater is full of interesting digressions, pointers to other writers, and entertaining observations. But as a contribution to the "pornography debate," it is, finally, of distinctly limited value.


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