Paradox in There was this Goat

After reading a few pages of this text, I thought the authors must have titled the book “There Was This Goat” because of the phrase’s randomness. I thought it indicated the unknowability of Mrs. Konile’s story. On page 47, however, the goat passage is described as the “key” that “unlocks” the mystery of understanding her testimony. And yet, by the end of the book, it becomes clear that Mrs. Konile’s story can never really be “unlocked.” The researchers demonstrate that Mrs. Konile’s narrative is not incomprehensible because it is senseless and meaningless – not the rants of a crazy woman– but because it reflects the complexity of her culture and her self. I mention the key and lock metaphor to draw attention to the (functional and creative) paradoxical nature of this book. The fact that the researchers even seek a “key” to “unlock” the mystery demonstrates the epistemological violence built into the western framework of evaluation and investigation. The attempt to “know” the “Other” is also an attempt to shape and fit the “Other” into a comprehensible framework. There was this Goat begins with a seemingly chaotic and unintelligible testimony. We are lured in when the researchers suggest they have an explanation for it. Ultimately, the researchers do decipher many mysteries of the story. They do not, however, “unlock” a truth or arrive at a place of certainty or closure. They end up feeling “unmoored” and appreciating that “understanding is obscenity” (172). There are hints that suggest this paradoxical language is intentional: 
”This did, indeed, unlock most of what we were grappling with, but at the same time it opened up new incomprehensibles” (121). In this book, there is also a paradoxical sense of progress. For instance, the researchers note that it is problematic to use western intellectual models to understand the lived experiences of non-westerners. Nevertheless, they draw on Douglas to equate drinking urine with embodying poverty and marginality. Later Mrs. Konile contradicts this by describing urine as clean and nourishing. This shows that Douglas’s theory could not capture her actual lived experience in context. But then on page 169, the researchers say that the “rock incident” was “no metaphor” but the “geology of poverty speaking.” The rock incident is tied to the urine incident. The researchers came to understand “the distance between picking up coal and where water for drinking could be found.” (169). Poverty therefore explains why urine is an acceptable form of nourishment in this situation. If the researchers conclude “urine means poverty” in this story, they erase and disregard Mrs. Konile’s description of her own perception & experience. If they ignore the fact that “urine means poverty” in this story they deny that Mrs. Konile is disadvantaged and fail to acknowledge their own relative position of privilege. In order to avoid ethnocentrism and passive cultural relativity at the same time, they need to depict Mrs. Konile’s story as paradoxical.

Throughout the course we’ve encountered evidence that suggests the self is not static or fixed but exists in a state of becoming. In order to fully understand Mrs. Konile’s testimony, we would have to understand Mrs. Konile as a person (her self), which is not possible. The researchers recognize their desire and responsibility to know the “Other” but also recognize that the “Other” can never really be “known.” On page 170, they articulate their triumph as both full of meaning and ambiguity: “talking to her made us feel that it was possible not to be her, but to be fully towards her.” I love this line! And I love this book. It admirably explores the vulnerability of the self-reflexive/critical researcher, the complexity of the “Other” & the fragility of transcultural communication.

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One Response to Paradox in There was this Goat

  1. Amber, your analysis is amazing. Thank you for sharing! So thoughtful and clarifying. I think you touch on a really interesting conflict when it comes to knowing the Other and knowing the other — we can never truly know another person’s self, you say, and I wonder how that is complicated by power dynamics, Eurocentrism and Orientalism. It is more tricky, puzzling and maybe even worthwhile to explore this mystical testimony by a Black woman. What if there was an equally (seemingly) nonsensical testimony by a white woman? Or a white man? Or a white perpetrator? I don’t think it would seem to warrant the same kind of investigation as Mrs. Konile’s because I don’t think people would view it as foreign, Other, distant, complex, and rooted in ‘culture’ as a Black rural woman’s testimony. I guess that is because the authors are coming from the point of view of the hegemonic power structure, ie white.

    Yes there are absolutely cultural truths that make her testimony, her experience and her understanding come together coherently for the white/Western mind. I think the authors’ bonding over shared class experience/alienation united them above and beyond their racial differences when they were in Indwe. They realized how truly distant they were from Mrs. Konile when they saw her economic* poverty up close. This seemed to be the only moment when the authors believed racial differences could be overcome — by acknowledging class differences.

    *I stress economic poverty and not just poverty because her life itself is not impoverished, just her financial status. She enjoys community and prestige in the women’s coop at the hotel, has a loving family, and displays agency in securing grants and houses and reparations for herself.

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