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Turning of the Wheel:

The interplay of the Unique and Universal

A Digital Collection of Events from the Humanities Colloquium Series, Turning of the Wheel,
University of Idaho | Moscow, Idaho | 2011-2012

Turning of the Wheel > Definitions


1) The Humanities

2) Narratives

3) Characteristics of the Unique and Universal

4) The Interplay

The Humanities and its Disciplines.The humanities are academic disciplines that seek to understand, appreciate and critique the human conduction in all its depth and range of meaning.  They, in varied ways, consider the "big questions," both of the contemporary and the perennial, and with these understandings and methodologies engage civic life, both locally and globally, to address the challenges faced by humanity.  

While there are many other disciplines that also seek to understand the human condition, the approaches and methodologies of the humanities are primarily interpretive (analytical, critical, and/or reflective), as distinguished from the mainly empirical approaches of the natural and social sciences, and the creative approaches in the arts.

The second distinction is in what the humanities then attempt to do with the knowledge generated, in the application of understanding. The Idaho Humanities Council goes on to say, �through [the] study [of the humanities it seeks to] yield wisdom.� As written in the 1965 National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act which established the National Endowment for the Humanities and all the state councils, Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens.� Wisdom is that deep understanding that goes beyond knowing to application, engaging civic life, both locally and globally, to address the challenges faced by humanity. To take up the �big questions.�

In his keynote address, Gary Williams, my predecessor in this role of Distinguished Humanities Professor, emphasized that the Humanities are �. . . a way of thinking about and responding to the world � tools we use to examine and make sense of the human experience in general and our individual experiences in particular. The humanities enable us to reflect upon our lives and ask fundamental questions of value, purpose, and meaning in a rigorous and systematic way� (Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities).   As the 1965 Congressional Act stressed, the term 'humanities' pays �particular attention to our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life" . . . . to both the particular and diverse, as well as the national and general �shared in common.�  Attempting to address the �big questions.�

The humanities disciplines typically include anthropology/ethnography, communications studies, cultural studies (such as American, Black, International, Latin American, Native American, Religious,  Women's Studies), languages, law, literature, history, philosophy, and reflection and theory in creative writing, in the performing arts of music, dance and theatre, and in the visual arts of painting, sculpting and architecture.

According to the 1965 National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, "The term 'humanities' includes, but is not limited to, the study of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life" (emphasis added), to both the unique and diverse as well as the national and shared in common.  (from National Endowment for the Humanities website, An Overview of the NEH).

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Narratives.   The humanities landscape upon which we'll travel and explore the interplay of our human diversity and shared humanity will be through varied forms of narratives.  "Narrative" will be defined broadly, entailing some sort of storyline and integrated paradigm of more or less coherent thought and action, all premised on certain ontological principles and expressed through certain symbolic languages.  These ontological principles could include some form of dualism or monism, and materialism, idealism or animism among other principles, for instance.  The symbolic languages include prose, poetry, mathematics, architecture, painting, dance and music, among others.   Examples of narratives can range from such mega-narratives such as Christianity and Science, to specific aesthetic narratives such as Cubism and Romanticism, as well as a Taoist Landscape Painting.  They can be found in Plato's Cave, a Plains Indian Tipi, and a Catholic Cathedral.   They can be viewed from the Apollo 17's image of Earth and from atop the stone tower of Jericho some 10,000 years ago.  They can be embedded in the Christian Genesis, Scientific Human Evolution and Inuit Sedna stories.   And they can be found closer to home, in Dan Bikvich's Missa Africa or in our own Academy itself.  See Resources for more narrative examples. 

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Characteristics of the Unique-the Spokes and Universal-the Rim/Hub.  For the purposes of this humanities exploration, just how �human diversity� and the many spokes, as well as �shared humanity� and the hub and rim are defined will be left open, expressive the widest possible range of human characteristics.  No single metaphor or set of attributes will ultimately serve us well.

Human diversity certainly covers familiar characteristics involving gender, race, and ethnicity as well as characteristics of religion, sexual orientation, age, class, ability and culture.  It entails the varied ways individuals and groups are distinct in meaningful ways at the local, national and global levels of human society.   And beyond these social distinctions, diversity can also refer to differentiated ways of aesthetic, epistemological, literary, psychological, and spatial thought and expression, including disciplinarity, exclusivity, the idiosyncratic, the finite and differentiated hinterland, for example.

On the other hand, shared humanity transcends the idiosyncratic in the human experience and entails characteristics involving universality and commonality.  Beyond these characteristics, shared humanity can also refer to inclusivity, trans-disciplinarity, the nomothetic, the infinite and eternal, and the center and the axis mundi.  We might look at the "hub" as referring to the universality we share with one another, while the "rim" refers to some sort of integration or assemblage of the diverse parts under an inclusive, single umbrella.  As these are characteristics that can be infused with abstract, affective, ethereal, and/or esoteric qualities and significances, they can be the most difficult to analytically articulate into words.   And certainly, there may not even be a consensus on what are "universals."   We may not all hold the same conviction that there are "certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" or "nonomaterials and subatomic particles" or "Mind" or a "Life-Force and Spirit" that defines the ubiquitous in our shared humanity.  

And finally, there are no sharp, precise demarcations between these possible characteristics of the spokes and hub/rim, as would be suggested in the diagram below.   Such divisions are often blurred, the qualities of each imbued in the other, as in the example of the Yin Yang.  There can even be a sort of three-dimensional overlay of characteristics, as with, for example, both the overt manifestation and inner transcendent overlaying and embedded within both the individual and the collective.  It is conceptually not unlike attempting to discern the beginning and ending points of the single line in the Mobius Strip.

The Wheel: 
some possible characteristics and extensions
spokes rim and hub
human diversity shared humanity
gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientations, age, class, ability, culture universality, commonality, trans-cultural
local communities  global community
individual, micro, self, soul collective, macro, the Absolute, the Divine
 vernacular lingua franca
exclusivity, dualism  inclusivity, monism 
disciplinarity, multi-disciplinarity, the "silos" trans-disciplinarity, meta-disciplinarity, the "academy"
a reductionist approach a grand-scale systems, holistic approach
the particular, singular, unique, differentiated, specific, idiosyncratic the universal, unitary, ubiquitous, omnipresent, nomothetic
the temporal: finite, immediate the temporal: infinite/Infinite, perennial, eternal/Eternal
the spatial: differentiated hinterland the spatial: the center/Center, axis mundi
the physical-ethereal continuum overlay on each of these characteristics: from the outer manifestation, material, objective, empirical to the inner transcendent, idea, subjective, intuitive, anagogic

For our humanities exploration, we'll likely discover innumerable ways of defining the particular characteristics of the spoke and hub/rim, as with defining the interplay between them.  And in so doing, we'll realize their varied, far-reaching and quintessential implications.   The devil is always in the detail.

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Dynamic Interplay between the Unique and Universal.   There are certainly multiple ways of thinking about and acting out the interplay between the distinct, unique and finite, and the inclusive, universal and eternal qualities of our lives, between our human diversity and shared humanity.  The Wagon Wheel is but one approach.  As suggested by Tom Yellowtail, the Wagon Wheel narrative acknowledges the importance and viability of each differentiated spoke, be it of a social, religious or some other cognitive or behavioral category, and of maintaining the equality of each relative to the others.  Nevertheless, all spokes are united by an anchoring hub and all-embracing rim, by some form of universality shared by all.  For Yellowtail this appreciation allowed him to successfully travel the many distinct spokes in his life, without conflict, a balancing of the turning wheel.   He could as easily engage and speak with a Buddhist monk, a Baptist minister, a medical doctor, as with a Sundancer.  

We see a similar approach to diversity and universality in Hinduism.  While there are many different religious paths or yogas expressed in the religion, for example Bhakti, Jnana, Karma and Raja Yogas, and while there are literally millions of distinct manifest Gods and Goddesses within whom each individual can find affiliation (spokes), nevertheless, all the Gods and Goddesses are subsumed within the ultimate divinity of a singular omnipresent Brahman and all the yogas inevitably lead to the same Infinite bliss, Moksha (hub and rim). 

We will also recognize that the Wheel has a fundamental similarity with the Taoism and Yin Yang narrative.   Ultimately each emanates out of a monism - for Taoism, the nameless Tao, and for the Apsáalooke, the varied-named Creator.   Nevertheless, both manifest the myriad expressions of reality beginning with a binary - for Taoism, the Yin Yang, and for Tom Yellowtail, the hub/rim and spokes.   In contrast with the critique of Western Philosophy and indeed Western Civilization by some, the Tao and Apsáalooke binaries are neither oppositional or hierarchical, and hence not hegemonic.  Interdependent, balanced complementarity highlights these binaries..

In this dynamic interplay I don't think Yellowtail assumes a static, intransigent nature in the Wheel's spokes and their interplay.   New spokes are added to the wheel, while others dissipate.  Yellowtail effectively traveled a spoke, that of Christianity, his distant forefathers had not known.  One additive process, for example, can entail syncretism.   Syncretism is the blending of characteristics from distinctly separate spokes into an integrated single new spoke, as exemplified in American blues and jazz, the blending of elements from distinctly African and American musical traditions to form a new tradition.  And it might be argued that on a micro level this ability to transcend the idiosyncrasies of one's own spoke and freely envision and then reconfigure characteristics from distinctly separate spokes, of going beyond the overt manifest forms into the inner reaches of transcendent realms, that goes to the heart of the processes of discovery and creativity.  And with discovery comes the possibility of new spokes and the deletion of "out-dated" others, as the scientific cosmos of Ptolemy was replaced by that of Copernicus and Newton, and, in turn, perhaps replaced by that of quantum mechanics and chaos theory.  And with creativity comes the possibility of new spokes supplementing existing spokes, as the artistic world of 19th century Neo-Classicism was followed by Realism, by Romanticism, by Impressionism, by Cubism, by Surrealism, by Abstract Expressionism, by . . . .

In an initial review of a few other ways of approaching the interplay of our human diversity and shared humanity there can also be very different outcomes.  We need to be able to critically critique the interplay,  as much as celebrate it.  Take for example the following.   

Compartmentalization - the exclusive separation of the spokes, without any form of integration between them, as exemplified in the schisms of the contemporary "culture wars" between conservatives and progressives, or even in the academy between the humanities and sciences disciplines, and between positivists and postmodernists, and, at a more insidious level, in the history of segregation in the United States and of apartheid in South Africa.

Assimilation - the dominance of one spoke resulting in the incorporation of another spoke within it, as exemplified in the intentions of the European Christian Inquisitions and Crusades toward "heretics" and "infidels" beginning in the 12th century, in the federal policies of the United States toward the indigenous populations of North American in 19th and early 20th centuries, in the religious fundamentalism expressed in many religions throughout the world today, and even in the academy as expressed in "scientism." 

Extinction - the dominance of one spoke resulting in the elimination of another, as exemplified in the policies of Nazi Germany toward Jews and other minorities during the 1930s - 40s, and in the Rwanda Genocide of 1994.

In contrast with the Wheel approach, the above three instances seem to be orientations that focus on the spokes alone, devoid of a hub/rim consideration.  And in addition, any acknowledgement of some sort of equality between the spokes is dismissed or even challenged, and any sort of a shared humanity, any sort of hub/rim, seems implicitly or explicitly understood as something exclusively embedded only within "their" particular spoke.   Here we likely find the binaries as oppositional and hierarchical, with their hegemonic results.

Certainly there are other approaches to the interplay between our human diversity and shared humanity.   Like Tom Yellowtail's Wheel, these approaches are often expressed in some sort of narrative or theoretical paradigm, a storyline that accounts for and integrates, in some fashion, the diverse and the universal.  Beyond the Wagon Wheel, there is a range of the diversity/universality interplay, from some sort of oppositional dualism and antithesis at one end, while at the other end, some sort of complementary and integral binary. 

In the Resource section there are additional examples on the interplay found in the stories and images from various world traditions, including that of Christianity and Science.  What other approaches to the interplay between our human diversity and shared humanity might there be?   Join us in adding them to our humanities exploration.  

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