Reading Response to ‘Rhetoric and Competition: Academic Agonistics’ by Linda Hutcheon

Photo from http://www.shodo-style.com/cat1/ (人is a Chinese character meaning human. It is comprised of two humans supporting each other.)

In this blog, I’m going to compare the content and structure of Hutcheon’s argument in ‘Rhetoric and Competition’ with Bateson’s in ‘The Myths of Independence and Competition’ and state how they use the word ‘competition’.

In the journal article, ‘Rhetoric and Competition’, published in the journal, ‘Common Knowledge’, in 2003, the author, Linda Hutcheon, talks about her concern regarding “the linkage between what we say (rhetoric) and how we act (competition) in the academy”. She guides us through her argument by introducing two Greek key terms: wolfish and agon. First, she demonstrates an interesting parallel between the Lyceum which was named after the wolfish Apollo and the current wolfish state of the academic community. She points out how intense competition and adversarial mindset have become the essence of academic discourse, which turned the place of learning into a wolfish place, where the main objective is to out-prove the opponents by demolishing opposing ideas. She then talks about the etymology of agon and explains how its meaning has shifted from “gathering or assembly” to something that “connotes contest, debate, and struggle” through the interference of fierce competition. She refers the original meaning of agon to the ideal state of academic discourse where critical thinking is used as a tool to mutually enhance each other and the shifted meaning of agon to the current agonistic state of academic discourse as explained above. She insists that in order to “return to the notion of agon as a gathering place” (within the academic field), we must consider criticism as an additive and constructive process of generating better knowledge, but not as a subtractive and destructive process of undermining the opinion of others. This can be accomplished by practicing collaboration, embracing diversity, and representing complementary and inclusive counter-discourses.

While Hutcheon discusses competition within the context of academic community, Bateson discusses competition within the context of society and humankind “as a members of a single species”. She thinks that we must cooperate “not as a separate and competitive organism”, but as parts of an interdependent system in order to survive, especially in this era of Anthropocene. She argues that competition created by the strong sense of independence and individualism embedded in society is what restraining us from cooperating in a sustainable manner and stresses how we are all interdependent even on a biological level.

Despite the difference in the type of the two articles (Hutcheon’s article is a scholarly essay, whereas Bateson’s is a speech transcript), as mentioned in the blog of ryuo100, I agree that the structure of Hutcheon’s article has many similarities to that of Bateson’s. Basically, both build an argument by sharing personal opinions and insights on the problems caused by the big emphasis on competition and propose cooperation as the solution. They both mainly support their assertions by giving examples and citing other credible scholars (although Hutcheon has more direct quotations compared to Bateson). Moreover, in addition to the use of personal anecdote, they both make connections within their article and further develop their argument. For example, Hutcheon refers to the Greek term agon in different parts of her argument and creates a sense of flow. As for Bateson, she talks about how American people practice “independence training” from the first day of the infant’s life. Later she refers to the story and shows how actually infants are dependent from the first day of birth to insist the importance of perceiving ourselves as an interdependent existence. This process of making connections also helps the readers to be more engaged and gives them a better understanding. Besides the similarities, there is one distinct rhetorical device that Hutcheon uses very often in her article: rhetorical questions. This often appears at the end of former paragraphs. It does not only help frame Hutcheon’s argument but also makes the readers think about her argument. The rhetorical questions that Hutcheon raises sound very urging and forceful that it seems like it’s giving a call to action; One example is “Cannot the ideal of a community of learning replace individual success (success at all costs) as the goal of the profession?”.

 

Although Hutcheon and Bateson incorporate ‘competition’ in a different context, both strongly favor the idea of cooperation. If cooperation is arguably the way to survive (as Bateson states), I think it is surely something that has to be done in an academic setting too. Certainly, I think there are some merits of having competition because it can enhance the performance and production capacity. However, when it is overdone it could lead to the loss of mutual understanding, trust, cooperation, and the increase in disparity. Giving my personal example, within my middle school, I saw many students thinking of their peers as competitors to defeat rather than companions to improve each other’s learning because of the rankings that we were given. Because of this, many students hid their works and ideas from each other so that they can preserve what they think is something that could outperform others. Sometimes this led to the deprivation of trust in each other as friends. On the contrary, in my high school where students weren’t ranked, students seem to be very open to helping each other although there were certainly fewer students who worked hard. Thus, I think it is important to also think about the ideal way to balance competition and cooperation. 

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