Reading Response- Rhetoric and Competition by Linda Hutcheon

In Rhetoric and Competition (2003; Common Knowledge-Duke University press), Linda Hutcheon throws light on agonistics in academia, particularly in the post-modern age, and appeals for the conception of new and better ways of collaboration.

Concerning language and structure, Hutcheon articulates clearly that she believes competition in academic fields is “wolfish” and provides a historical explanation by linking this increasing competition to the rise of market economies, claiming that we have embraced the business model in our professional and intellectual lives. There is no dearth of evidence showing Hutcheon’s adept literary and communication skills. By beginning with an anecdote, she has the reader gripped within the first few seconds. The use of personal pronouns further leaves a mark with the reader.

Hutcheon also poses several important questions that resonate with the reader (Eg: Need enmity enter into the question at all?). Furthermore, she provides alternate explanations for the differences in degrees of competition and aggression, stating that while some argue that these variations are due to discipline, others believe it is attributable to gender. The utilization of these literary tactics indicates that Hutcheon’s intention is not to sway her audience to choose a “pro” or “anti” stance, but simply to create a domino effect of change in outlook towards academic competition by encouraging her audience to form their own opinions based on the arguments stated. That is not to say that her work lacks persuasion; the piece has the ability to influence the reader without explicitly stating so or using coercive didacticism.

When comparing the rhetoric style of the article to The Myths of Independence and Competition by Mary Catherine Bateson and Why do we believe in competition? A historical-sociological view of competition as an institutionalised modern imaginary by Tobias Werron, several distinctions arise. Despite the fact that both Werron’s and Hutcheon’s works have a common medium of communication (written), this particular article is closer to Bateson’s piece. While both Bateson and Hutcheon utilize, among other things, personal pronouns and anecdotal evidence, Werron focuses more on economic, political, philosophical and sociological facts and citation. Bateson’s speech takes a binary stance on competition (for or against), emphasizes on the fact that “there is no such thing as independence in biology”, highlighting that independence is nurtured, not something intrinsic to human beings, and calls for greater interdependence amongst individuals. Werron, on the other hand, approaches the concept ambivalently, and focuses more on how entities, such as businesses, countries, political parties etc, interact in the competitive space.
Hutcheon, in a sense, touches upon both these aspects, asserting that competition not only occurs at the institutional level, but also trickles down to the classroom and individual level. A key difference between the work of Bateson and Hutcheson is that although both pieces target academic audiences, the former focuses on the broad social norms of independence and competition, whereas the latter pays specific attention to the academic community.

Besides, there are also variations in the manner in which competition is defined. Bateson describes competition as an oppositional force to cooperation and interdependence, thereby hindering our ability to progress as a species. Werron believes that modern forms of competition are competitions “for the favour of an audience that are reproduced by public comparisons of the audience”. In other words, modern day competition is relative to a third party and may have to do with acquiring social/symbolic capital. Hutcheon, on the other hand, believes that academic discourse should be “complimentary and inclusive”, making conspicuous the importance of “constructive listening rather than destructive disputation”. Thus, it is clear that the idea of what competition entails is subject to contestation.

Rhetoric and Competition also raises the question of the definition of critical thinking. Throughout the article it is highlighted that the current method of defining critical thinking as an “invective and personal attack” is fallacious. Indeed, this is not far-fetched as academic institutions in the contemporary era place much emphasis on maximizing benefit by minimizing that of others. In the words of the author, there is a “subtractive logic” in academic culture. Hutcheon, therefore, calls for a move to preserve scholarship by imbibing a creative and integrative approach to critical thinking.

Unfortunately, in spite of all efforts that have been made, I personally feel that the issue of intellectual backstabbing and counterproductive competition in academia has only escalated in the fifteen years since the article was published. With increasing globalization as well as the rise of social media as the predominant means of expression, misrepresentation and distortion occur so frequently that they are often dismissed as the norm. Adding on the problem is the concept of pseudo-intellectualism that has risen with the increasing ability for people to remain anonymous whilst belittling and demolishing other standpoints from behind a screen.  This has also further impaired the ability to listen actively and form constructive opinions. Thus, although Hutcheon’s appeal for promoting copresence and greater tolerance for variety is undoubtedly a noble one, the prospects of actually embracing those ideals seem dim in the present context.


  1. Though I agree with your final statement on social media. The idea of anonymity can actually be thought of as a good thing as it allows people the opportunity to preserve their identity. This can be seen in cases such as the #metoo movement where the anonymity provided helped with the safety of the victims and kept them out of the public eye, while still giving them the chance to have a voice and expose those who wronged them. I have to disagree, however, that misrepresentation has become the norm. I believe because people have the safety of anonymity, they have the chance to call out when things have been misrepresented and if there are enough people bringing this problem to light, the end result is favorable to those being misrepresented as the mistake will be corrected.

    In regards to the article, I believe that Hutcheon has similar points of views to Tobias Werron as they both mention the zero-sum game, though used in different contexts they both come to the same conclusion that there is no real winner in a competitive environment but the competition itself. This being said Hutcheon looks at this more in the academic aspect, stating that some people were made for the average school structures while others would struggle to incorporate themselves into these structures through their intellectual differences. While Werron looks at it in a more social context through his knowledge of sociology and how society works in that way. Werron looks more at how competition works in society as a whole in all its different aspects whereas Hutcheon mainly looks at how it worked in the education system and the economic system to a small extent.

    Hutcheon, in comparison with the other authors, looks at how to think beyond “agonistics, and to conceive new ways of working together collaboratively”. Though similar in opinion to the other authors Hutcheon shows different arguments on how working collaboratively does work better and more efficiently than competing against one another to declare a winner.

    #P05 #ASTU101

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I too feel, similarly to Vaishnavi’s response, that in the time since the publishing of the article, this glorified means of ‘academic self-gratification’ that is solely based on the premise of bashing other scholars and their works seems be increasing exponentially. In addition to this, I feel this model of production of knowledge is seeping into lower levels of academic institutions including but not exclusive to middle and high schools.

    It would seem that we are stuck in this feedback loop that essentially institutionalizes/normalizes the zero-sum nature of academic excellence that is prevalent in most institutions today. In my opinion, this is rooted in the fact that a fraction of the individuals that enter these institutions of higher learning where toxic competitiveness is glorified above productive collaboration then leave said institutions and wind up seeking (and gaining) employment in middle and high schools across the world. Thus, they end up teaching, emphasizing, and rewarding these same ‘values’ to their students. The students then become indoctrinated with the same belief systems. Generation by generation, these ‘dog eat dog’ beliefs get passed down and become even more accepted and creating the new ‘norm’. In the long run, this completely isolates the role productive collaboration plays in the production of knowledge.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. @anaispaty
    While I whole heartedly agree that anonymity is not necessarily a bad thing, especially taking your apt example of the #metoo movement into consideration, I was speaking particularly about anonymity related to academia, with a special emphasis on pseudo-intellectualism. In this specific context, I believe that online anonymity has given people the liberty to make false, unjustifiable claims and blatantly attack those whose perspectives differ.


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