A response to Linda Hutcheon’s: RHETORIC AND COMPETITION

Linda Hutcheon’s 2003 article, Rhetoric and competition: Academic Agonistics is an interesting piece dealing with the modern day definition and application of competition in the world of academia. Unlike many other articles in its genre, Hutcheon, opens her case with a personal and vulnerable story. This personal view into her past was used to explain why she began research the topic of competitive rhetoric and discourse in the world of academia which is very similar to how Dr. Bateson ended her commentary, The Myths of Independence and competition. This use of a personal anecdote is a great way to pull the audience into the article at a more personal level but also appeal to a greater audience than either literally theorists in the case of Hutcheon or anthropologists for Bateson.

Hutcheon’s argument begins with a distinction between rhetoric and competition but also how the two work seamlessly together. Much like the Bateson reading, Hutcheon’s argument is very much a plea for collaboration in today’s increasingly independent and zero-sum game philosophy. Where Bateson applies this plea to the general populous of people Hutcheon focuses her persuasive research onto the field of academia. Hutcheon argues that modern day academia has become , “A place of wolves” based on the culture of one-up-man-ship and  frequent competitive rhetoric. This peace also draws similarities to the Warren reading by arguing that modern competition, especially in academia, is very similar to the capitalistic model of competition where the third party is not some scarce item but the audience and ones image towards that audience. Hutcheon believes this need to appear better than another is seen very detrimentally in the process of critical thinking. She argues that most modern day critical thinking and critiquing of another academics work is nothing more than, “wolfish belittling”. Hutcheon argues another scholar by the name of Deborah Tannen’s phrase, “argument culture” is not just seen in the legal and political arenas of society but also very much in the arena of academia. Her proof for this new culture being present in academia comes in the form of a personal discussion with a fellow professor in the field of philosophy. After listening to these philosophers belittle a speaker with questions and statements that were only aimed at destroying his argument, she asked one of them their reasoning for such an aggressive and harsh critique. The philosopher responded by saying, “We listen to try to prove – and then show – that the speaker is entirely wrong”. Because of this view held by many modern day scholars Hutcheon makes a brilliant case that academia is becoming, “More of a snake pit than ivory tower” and that Tannen is right in saying, “critique scholarship” is now nothing more than contempt towards anyone with a different view or attitude. A little over half way through the paper the tone dramatically shifts to a more positive and uplifting outlook on the situation. Hutcheon poses and much more broad question that is similar to the theories established by warren by asking the question, “even if some win, do others actually lose?” She uses Gerald Graff’s quote, “We stress divisions when, in reality, we share so much” in order to set up a more hopeful tone for her grand thesis or call to action which is that, “True intellectual debate is not a matter of protecting vested interests and must involve better than search and destroy missions”. She ends her article by saying the rhetoric used in counter-discourse needs to be changed to a more positive and community based approach but it needs to be there in order to continue advancing academia.

I agree with connection made by mmravi between Bateson and Hutcheon. Both of these papers are very similar in their message. Although Bateson’s is a lot more broad in the content it’s addressing, the message and ideas around competition are very similar. This became especially apparent when Hutcheon asks, “Cannot the ideal of a community of learning replace individual success?” This question and plea as pointed out by garlandbr is making virtually identical argument to the analogy used by Bateson of the fingers working as part of the hand and not individually. As well, her disappointment in the lack of, “genuine community” is very similar to Bateson’s feelings on modern day society. While there are some similarities between Hutcheon’s interpretation of competition and Werron’s, Hutcheon does two things which fundamentally undermine the argument made by Werron. Early in Hutcheon’s article she describes how competition is not just at the institutional level but also at the educational level. She then describes this competition at the educational level by referring to it as, “Combat”. Werron makes in very clear in his research paper that competition and combat/ conflict are different things and cannot be used interchangeably.  Werron argues that conflict/ combat is, “A social form that requires negating interaction” and competition is, “Parties struggling for the same scarce good”. Werron’s need for scarcity in order to define competition is also disregarded by Hutcheon much later in her argument. She says that this, “zero-sum-game” is detrimental to academia and argues this doesn’t need to happen when she asks the question, “even if some win, do others actually lose?” By asking this question Hutcheon believes that competition can be present in discourse as long as we don’t see the, “loser” to have lost something seeing as it all betters academia. I believe Werron would agree with this statement but not if Hutcheon continues to refer to this rhetoric competition. In order for Werron to believe this is competition  there has to be a level of scarcity and seeing as Hutcheon argues all of the discourse and counter-discourse betters academia, there is no scarcity. For Werron this would be conflict but not competition.

I agree with garlandbr when he/she says, “I understand the interest shown by Bateson” but i do not agree with his/her analysis that, “Hutcheon believes there should be less or no competition in the academic world”. I think Hutcheon understands the need for competition by her definition, she just wants to change the genre of rhetoric and discourse to a more supportive tone. I agree that competition is extremely important in out modern day society but after reading these last there papers I as well as Bateson and Hutcheon agree a change in the way we interact with one another needs to become less individualistic and we should embrace as Bateson argues that, “We are all the same species”.

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