Reading Response: Rhetoric and Competition by Linda Hutcheon
Competition is a concept so ingrained within modern society and our everyday lives that most tend to forget that competition often brings as much discord as it does benefit to discourse. In her 2003 journal article ‘Rhetoric and Competition’, Linda Hutcheon informs us on the negative role competition plays in modern academia, and how her fellow academics can create a community based on positivity and cooperation, rather than belittlement and invective critique.
Despite Hutcheon’s work being published in an academic journal, its content and structure draw far more similarities with Mary Catherine Bateson’s speech ‘Myths of independence and competition’ than Tobias Werron’s ‘Why do we believe in competition? A historical sociological view of competition as an institutionalised modern imaginary’, another academic journal article. Whereas Werron takes an impartial stance on the concept of competition, concluding that more sociological and empirical observations and examples were required to define the idea of competition as a social and academic form, Bateson and Hutcheon actively side against it, favouring interdependence and cooperation over competition. Similarly, both Bateson and Hutcheon’s works include “a plea for [the reader] to learn to think beyond agonistics and to conceive new ways of working together collaboratively”, a plea asking us to reject the negativity of independence and competition and accept cooperation and interdependence. Likewise, while Werron utilizes detailed examples and definitions of economic, political, and academic competition in order to support his arguments, most of the evidence used by Bateson and Hutcheon’s arguments comes in the form of anecdotes. One of the few differences between the two works’ content is that while Bateson’s speech is intended for the general public, or another large community, with the intent of maintaining human culture and society, Hutcheon’s is intended for the community of higher educated scholars and academics who wish to improve the current condition of scholarly definition.
Although all three works centre around the idea and concept of competition in the modern world, the interpretation of the term varies drastically between the three writers. As mentioned above, Hutcheon’s very specific presentation of competition focused around the aggressive competition between academics and scholars. She views competition within an academic institution as a contentious and subtractive environment, where intellectual debate has regressed to a point where a scholar must devalue or destroy another’s viewpoint in order to protect and elevate his own. She attributes this to the aggressive ‘combative oral performance’ within the Western society where a “deeply competitive, indeed adversarial, culture that has been fostered within the academy, as in the culture generally” has been considered the norm over more collaborative cultures. Furthermore, Hutcheon also believes that competition in academic discourse is caused by a notion of false independence which forces us to funnel our academic efforts towards an artificial zero sum game, and that competition is unnecessary in academic discourse.
In contrast to Hutcheon’s commentary on the agonistic culture and unnecessity of competition within scholarly discourse Werron investigates the construction and procedures of competition, trying to forge a detailed idea of how one can classify competition. He provides multiple definitions for competition, such as suggesting that competition is the fight between multiple competitors for the preference of an external and neutral third party where the parties only interact and conflict with each other through the third party. However, with many of his interpretations overlapping or contrasting with each other, Werron concludes that the definition competition is still unclear, and advises his fellow scholars to further research this topic as to properly refine the classification of competition. As a result of this, Werron fails to give a clear definition of the idea of competition, opting instead for a series of definitions.
Similarly to Werron, Bateson does not give a proper definition of competition, vaguely referencing competition when speaking of Darwin, Spencer, and the ‘survival of the fittest’. Instead Bateson focuses on the cause of competition, which she believes to be the disproportionate amount of emphasis on individuality and independence in modern society. She states that “There is no such thing as independence, but it is a very powerful illusion that drives people’s behavior, very often including anti-social behavior.”. It becomes clear to us that Bateson’s ideas of competition is based on the aggressive behaviours of people under the notion of individualism and independence, but never elaborated upon. However to regard Bateson’s speech as evidence that competition is too unrefined to be defined, similar to Werron’s paper, would be untrue as the purpose of her paper is dissimilar from that of Werron’s. To generate a clear definition for competition is not the goal behind Bateson’s speech, but rather that as a human species, we must learn to depend on each other and cooperate, in spite of false ideas of individualism and independence.
In conclusion, I believe that given the content and arguments presented in Hutcheon’s, Werron’s, and Bateson’s works, Hutcheon’s article is the only one to give a singular and specific definition of competition; the agonistic behaviours in scholarly discourse. The other two do not give out enough emphasis (or in Werron’s case, puts out too much examples) on a specific definition for competition, rather opting to give vague ideas on its definition or providing multiple definitions. This leads me to believe that it is not possible to decide if these three scholars are using the same definition of competition, as two out of the three don’t provide a proper definition in their argument.
In response to Hutcheon’s article, I believe that her criticism towards the competitive characteristics of discourse in academia is entirely legitimate. Academic discourse should be utilized to progress and expand ideas, not destroy them, and Hutcheon’s claims of the regression of discourse into a destructive nature is also completely justified. As provided in warnersam’s response, the American elections in 2016 displayed this regression through the televised debates of Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton, where the two candidates attacked the other’s campaign despite sharing common ground on many positions in order to gain the favour of the public. For example, Clinton attacked Trump on his distaste towards the North Atlantic Trade Agreement (NAFTA) multiple times during debates despite also actively supporting a re-evaluation of NAFTA. To see such animosity between two candidates for what is considered the most powerful and respected office in the world confirms to me that Hutcheon’s statement on the wolfish and barbaric nature that academic discourse has devolved to.
However, I would like to disagree with Hutcheon’s suggestion that competition be entirely removed from academic discourse. The goal of academic discourse is to improve upon each other’s ideas in order to progress as a whole, and criticism and competition is required for this improvement. By removing these aspects from academia we don’t allow scholars of the opposition to voice their opinions in academia, opinions that, despite often attacking another person’s ideas, are often completely valid. Without these opinions attacking each other, how does a subject in academia improve? Without criticism from an opposition pointing out the weak areas of an idea, how would we strengthen our arguments and knowledge on that area? How would discourse spread if nobody could oppose each other’s ideas? Even when it comes to philosophy, an area in which Hutcheon expressed her distaste for the disintegration of arguments, criticism and competition is used to improve upon pre-existing ideas. In fact, the Greek philosophers Diogenes, one of the founders of cynicism, and Plato criticised and debated other each other’s philosophies as a method to improve and teach his own. Competition is embedded into the pillars of academia, and by removing it from scholarly discourse, we not only remove aggression and violence from academia, we also remove the spread and improvement of academia as well.