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Braudel Center research topic of two recent books

Professor Richard E. Lewis, deputy director of the Fernand Braudel Center, recently published Life and TImes of Cultural Studies: The Politics and Transformation of the Structures of Knowledge, which focuses on research being conducted at Binghamton Unive
Researchers at the Fernand Braudel Center at Binghamton University have been looking at how we understand the world in a radical new way. Now two new books are giving others a look at that research.

Richard E. Lee, M.A. ’90, Ph.D. ’95, the center’s deputy director and an associate professor in the Department of Sociology, recently published “Life and Times of Cultural Studies: The Politics and Transformation of the Structures of Knowledge” (Duke, 2003), which grew out of his long-term research agenda in world systems analysis.

Lee said world-systems analysis has generally been concerned with the economic and political arenas, those of production, distribution, coercion and decision-making. “But that does not make up the totality of our existential reality,” he added. “There’s something else. We have sort of beat around the bush about it as the ‘social’ or ‘cultural’ and it has been very hard to conceptualize what I’ve called this ‘third arena,’ the structures of knowledge, in the same terms that we use in our analyses of the unique economic and political structures and processes we recognize over the past 500 years, but not before.”

Over the past decade, Fernand Braudel Center scholars have identified the basic long-term structure of this “third arena.” It is the separation of facts and values that is not only mental, but reproduced in the organization of the disciplines of knowledge formation and in the departments of universities – the “two cultures” of the sciences and the humanities and more recently, the social sciences somewhere in between. “We’ve begun to think of it in terms of cognition and intentionality,” he said, “In other words, how we see the world and what that allows us to imagine we can do in the world.”

“Life and Times of Cultural Studies,” then, is not a book of cultural studies, as in working-class culture. It is instead a detailed investigation of the conditions for the emergence, development, significance, and impact of a knowledge movement called cultural studies. The book is, in that sense, a story, but it is also an intervention in two ways—of an activist social science exercising the social agency of the scholar, and of a presentation of a concrete example of a methodological solution to the dilemma of choosing between a chronological and particularistic history or a generalizing mode of analysis that does not take time, and therefore historical construction, into consideration.

The book starts by arguing that cultural studies was the product of the impact of the conjuncture of short-term of world events (Hungarian Revolution, Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, Suez crisis) and medium-term (150 years) development of literary/social criticism on left intellectuals in Britain in the mid-1950s. Rejecting the politically suspect (East Bloc) base-superstructure model as well as (Western) impersonal and non-historical quantitative methods, “practitioners began reading the social text.”

The second part of the book examines the trajectory of the work undertaken at the primary institutional base of the cultural studies project at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies since its founding in the early 1960s at the University of Birmingham, and its eventual export.

The last part of the book begins with a close analysis of post-1945 developments on a world scale. Then, the last chapter, according to Lee, “casts the forgoing analysis in the long term—500 years of history of the modern world-system—arguing that the basic structure of knowledge of the modern world was established by the beginning of the long 16th century and was based on a new and unique division between facts and values. This was not true of the medieval structures of knowledge where it would have been inconceivable to think of something as real without being associated with a value, or of something having a value without being considered a reality of life.

Lee’s book is the first full-length study based on the structures of knowledge approach. The second book, “Overcoming the Two Cultures: Science versus the Humanities in the Modern World System” (Paradugm, 2004), which was released in October, includes the work of additional researchers coordinated by Lee with Immanuel Wallerstein, and helps to expand the base of knowledge on this complex subject. “Overcoming the Two Cultures,” tells the story of how the very idea of “two cultures” — the so-called divorce between science and the humanities — was a product of historical development and just as fundamental to the constitution of the modern world-system as the new economic and political structures.

Lee hopes that while readers will discover that the way we think equally limits and facilitates what we believe we can do in the world, it will also become apparent that these structures of knowledge can be changed, leading to a scholarly agenda of imagining possible futures, neither impossibly utopian nor inevitably predetermined.
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Last Updated: 10/14/08