Reading Response: Rhetoric and Competition by Linda Hutcheon


“Should we put more effort into finding more constructive ways of detecting and using strengths as well as weaknesses in the work of others? Should we look for what we share as well as how we differ from one another? Should we make fewer assertions and ask more questions?”

The heart of the article “Rhetoric and Competition: Academic Agonistics (Common Knowledge (2003) 9 (1): 42-49)” by Linda Hutcheon is encompassed in the series of questions she asks; a challenge to the wolfish manner of the belittling and demolishing of opposing positions used in academic communities.

Linda Hutcheon is a professor of English and Comparative Literature and an author of books promoting a greater understanding of modern fiction, parody, postmodern literature, irony, and feminist theory, which greatly reflects on the content and arguments she puts forth; a contrast from the authors Bateson and Warren whose academic disciplines are Anthropology and Sociology, respectively. All three articles have a distinctive structure as well – Warren produced a clearly built academic research document with a plethora of well supported theories, examples, and references related to sociology, politics, economics, to name a few. Bateson’s style fell on the other end of the spectrum with a more informal, persuasive speech format constituting of both anecdotes and scientific references, whereas Hutcheon combined feminist, postmodernism and counter-discourse theories and perspectives to put forward an argument against “destructive disputation”.

Mary Catherine Bateson, the author of “Myths of Independence and Competition” brings forth the viewpoint that human survival relies on an interdependent system, rather than acting as competitive organisms, since “interdependence is a myth”. She justifies her argument by referencing scientists in the field of biology and social theory such as Lynn Margolis and her idea of “endosymbiosis” (one bacterium taking up residence inside another in a way that was mutually beneficial) highlighting the event of co-operation, combining, not competing. Warren, on the other hand, takes a different approach by proposing further research in to modern forms of competition rather than giving a definite viewpoint. In his article, “Why do we believe in competition?”(Distinktion. 16(2), 186-210) Warren uses strong supporting evidence such as facts and definite sources, unlike Bateson whose informal commentary includes phrases like “I guess he was an early sociologist” (about Herbert Spencer). Warrens social focus brought forth a different perspective of competition – “competition for attention” and “reputation“,  as well as how competition is a “zero-sum game” for resources perceived as scarce. Finally, Hutcheon highlights the existence of criticism in the form of aggressive counterarguments also known as “Critique Scholarship” (attitude of contempt toward scholars who work in a different theoretical framework); which she presents with the example of the undoing of an entire edifice of a speakers argument in the field of philosophy – a concept she does not entirely agree with, which shows through the way she breaks it down with rhetorical questions and the proposition of a more constructive form of criticism, finally ending with a call to rethink the idea of counter-discourse.

To me, the articles seemed to complement each other. The discourse of competition was represented in a variety of genres with ideas like Hutcheon’s: “The clever and the articulate win in the battle of words that has become the defining characteristic of education, at least when conceived as a primarily adversarial process”, which falls in line with Warrens idea of competition for attention and reputation which is highly influenced by rhetoric. Similarly, constructive criticism proposed by Hutcheon and the definition of competition as “a type of interaction in social fields or systems” by Warren (influenced by Simmel) both support Bateson’s viewpoint of an interdependent community, especially to resolve the conflict of competition. The link between Bateson and Hutcheon is further elaborated by @kynanpacunana in his conclusion which, parallel to the idea of interdependence and collaboration, shows how cooperation can benefit communities.

In conclusion, the 3 questions at the top of this post originally posed by Hutcheon sparked my interest because they seem to represent the main discussions by the three authors in their articles, which shows how well they complement each other:

Linda Hutcheon: “Should we put more effort into finding more constructive ways of detecting and using strengths as well as weaknesses in the work of others?” (better forms of constructive criticism) 

Mary Catherine Bateson “Should we look for what we share as well as how we differ from one another?” (linked with interdependence) 

Tobias Werron “Should we make fewer assertions and ask more questions?” (urging more open questions on modern competition)

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