At the moment I’m reading Harold R. Issacs’ Images of Asia. I say reading, I’ve only managed the preface to the 1972 edition, and the Introduction which outlines the interviews conducted in the course of research for the book which first appeared in print in 1958. Ostensibly I’m reading it as a primary source, to get a sense of prevalent western ideas about China in the years immediately following the foundation of the PRC in 1949. However, having read the Introduction, I feel like I’ve found a kindred spirit – someone who shares, not only my passion for China, but the construction of images of it, and even the way I’m going about my research. I love Isaac’s description of his quest for tidbits to illuminate his research, which he found not only in the answers of his respondents, but in snatched, random conversations on planes and in references to Hollywood films and comic books.
I don’t read a lot of research reports, but I’m pretty sure that very few are as engaging and well written as this. In Isaacs’ hands even a table reporting the political affiliation of each of his respondents is interesting. But it’s the level of self-reflexivity in his approach, which I’m guessing – though I don’t really know – was fairly unusual in the 1950s, which I appreciate the most. This quote is going in my thesis:
Whether he [or she!] learned it long ago from the philosophers or the poets, or more recently from the nuclear physicists, the student of human behaviour must know that the observer, his location, and his method are all undetachable parts of every observation, and that every observation remains subject to the awareness that the aspect of knowledge is constantly changing. (p. 34-35)
In the same way I fully recognise that my research is firmly embedded in my own perspectives and viewpoints and I intend to go into some depth in my introduction explaining the background behind my research, the reasons I’m interested in China and the reasons I’m interested in communism. Unlike Isaacs I won’t be doing masses of interviews – just a few for background research – and so I am aware that my thesis will be my personal interpretation of the information I have gathered. And I quite like that. My approach will be similar to the message I’ll be trying to get across: That images are illusory, ethereal things, that find no basis in fact or objectivity, and that while museums and exhibitions are held up as makers of objective fact, they are – in fact – no different from the rest of us; the messages they transmit are just as subjective and prejudiced and driven by impressions and misconceptions as the images held by their audiences.
Just as an aside, I see that Amazon reviewers of the book, Stasiland, that Mary mentioned in her comment on my previous post, have criticised the author for her personal approach. It seems they wanted something scientific and detached, and what she gave them instead was her personal impressions via the genre of travelogue. I can’t wait to read it!