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.