Reading Response: Rhetoric and Competition by Linda Hutcheon

Linda Hutcheon’s article, ‘Rhetoric and Competition’, published in 2003 by Duke University Press, criticises the way in which critical thinking has been “reduced to attack and opposition” rather than constructive debate and urges the audience to pursue a new way of critical thinking that will allow the restoration of the academy as a less contentious and competitive environment. She links the loss of a “novitiate culture” and the increase in competition with the expansion of market economies, arguing that academics have embraced the business model both in their professional and intellectual lives, now viewing their progress in the field as a zero-sum game. Hutcheon does not denounce critique itself, pointing out its valuable roll as provocation, settling on the idea that counter-discourses are “additive in a simultaneously constructive and critical way”.

Mary Catherine Bateson’s ideas in ‘The Myths of Independence and Competition’ intertwine with Hutcheon’s in the sense that they both promote a greater level of cooperation between people to spur progress within their disciplines or reach a common goal. As mentioned in my classmate’s response, the two authors do not necessarily agree on the source of the rise in competition and hostility, but they still arrive at similar conclusions regarding which attitudes must be fostered to redirect the current discourse. While Hutcheon puts more emphasis on capitalistic model adopted by the academy in terms of the origin of competitiveness, both authors identify society’s cultivation of individuality as a core value as a leading culprit in preventing constructive discussion. Bateson goes so far as to claim that individualism is preventing humanity from dealing with some the biggest issues being faced today, e.g. climate change. Similarly, Hutcheon notes, by referencing Gerald Graff, that “we handle conflict badly because we stress divisions” and that individualism is merely an ideological tool propped up by an extensive reward system.

Seeing as Bateson’s commentary was originally written to be performed as a speech, the format used does not allow the same level of factual evidence and referencing to other others in her field, leading her argument to rely more on pathos than logos. Hutcheon adopts a more distanced approach, avoiding the use of anecdotal evidence, and instead structures her argument around theories already in circulation. This allows her to build on their ideas and pose questions such as “Is not the production of knowledge actually more of an “additive” process in which everyone gains?” to further her point.

Although she presents follow-up questions to her and others’ conclusions throughout the article, they serve a different purpose to the ones posed by Tobias Werron in his research article “Why do we believe in competition? A historical-sociological view of competition as an institutionalised modern imaginary”. While Hutcheon guides the reader toward an answer that will support her conclusion, Werron leaves the audience with a set of questions that cannot be answered as of yet and must be researched further. Unlike Hutcheon and Bateson, Werron adopts a more neutral stance toward competition, wishing to delve deeper into the “why” and “how” of the institutionalisation of competition in societal fields rather than the resulting positive and negative effects. Furthermore, the two works discussed previously are urging the readers to rethink their own relationship to competition, whereas majority of Werron’s article focused on competition’s emergence and varying forms. Nevertheless, all three authors recognise the value of competing ideas and advocating for them in order for discourse to advance.

In terms of defining “competition” and the way in which the word is used, the articles differ. Werron settles on a definition for the type of competition he deems should be explored through the questions he poses: “competition for the favour of an audience that is (re-)produced by public comparisons of performance”. This is a fairly narrow definition, as it pertains solely to a specific type of competition. Both Hutcheon and Werron consider that competition implies the existence of a zero-sum game where winner takes all; however, all three articles ultimately suggest that there are instances in which success is attainable without the failure of another and perhaps even amounts to success for a number of people, such as in an academic field or in the pursuit of a solution to problems faced by humanity in general. Werron refers to Simmel when he writes that “modern competition is described as a fight of all against all, but at the same time it is the of all for all.” Cooperation and competition, both as opposite and complementary concepts, may then logically take different forms in different areas of our lives.



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