It’s fitting for us to have read There Was This Goat immediately after Social. If Lieberman’s book is about the neuroscientific foundations of our social selves, then Krog, Mpolweni and Ratele’s book is about the formation/reformation of a particular kind of social self – i.e., the political self—and how enormously fraught and difficult it is to remake one’s political self in a context like that of post-apartheid South Africa. If Lieberman proposes a firmly materialist basis for behavior that has historically been thought of as purely cultural, There Was This Goat reasserts, with a vengeance, the notion of culture cut loose from whatever materialist origins it once had and run amok to rebound upon and oppress the selves of entire populations. In South Africa during and after apartheid, the only kinds of materialism that carry any weight have been the racial differences seized upon by the National Party as a rationale for apartheid and the bodily suffering inflicted on apartheid’s victims in the forms of hunger, poverty and violence.
I’m sure that Social’s presentation of human sociality as an unequivocally good thing was partly a simplification dictated by the shape of Lieberman’s argument, but it bothered me nonetheless. The Intense World Hypothesis section of the book, in which Lieberman considers whether autistic children’s apparent insensitivity to the social world is in fact a mechanism for coping with an oversensitivity to said world, is about the only time he presents antisocial impulses as in any way legible or sympathetic. But the social world is a complicated and dangerous place, and it isn’t only autistic kids who might have an interest in resisting, however selectively, its attempts to mold us. There Was This Goat is all about what happens when the social world’s demands become codified as intense political pressures, and this book goes places and acknowledges realities that Lieberman’s never dreams of. Through the collective analysis of Krog, Mpolweni and Ratele, the seemingly incoherent testimony of one poor, uneducated rural black woman about the murder of her son is revealed as a successful attempt to tell her story in a manner that preserves the integrity of her language, culture and community, without regard to how well her narrative answers to the needs of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or the nation at large. The case of Notrose Nobomvu Konile further demonstrates that claiming one’s selfhood in a public context can be an intensely political act.
Lieberman would probably delight in the Southern African ideas of umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu and ubuntu, the belief that “a person is a person through other persons” and the practice of this ideal through actions that acknowledge and support an interconnected, interdependent community. He would no doubt feel that ubuntu provides proof that the human social urge is universal and inherent, and that individual self-interest is the driver of human behavior much less often than we’re led to believe. But Krog/Mpolweni/Ratele make it clear that ubuntu has decided limitations in a South Africa where distinctions between “The people,” “MY people” and “these people” still prevail, and that ubuntu can coexist with poverty only up to a point. Lieberman could probably have put an fNIRS headband on Mrs. Konile and demonstrated which regions of her brain were activated by tasks that simulated real-world uses of ubuntu in action, but it’s far more important to have Krog, Mpolweni and Ratele’s rehabilitation of her testimony. I found There Was This Goat powerful and satisfying; among our texts so far, I think only Hustvedt and Viegener compare with it in terms of honesty and complexity.
The link between ubuntu and Lieberman’s argument about the social self is fascinating. The way you analyze it makes me think about the fact that social interaction can be just or unjust. Ubuntu is about a certain kind of mutuality that aims for justice, but just because we’re social doesn’t mean our social impulses or structures will be just. I wish we could invite Lieberman to class to talk about this.