Linda Hutcheon’s eight page article, “Rhetoric and Competition”, mulls over the current state of academic discourse, scholarly work, and professional life under the lens of a broader “agon” (ancient Greek term for a struggle or contest) she pleas to approach more collaboratively.
Hutcheon’s overarching theme, and/or request, is for academia as a whole to re-evaluate the way they operate in their field, with regard to other scholars. Her plea is to “learn to think beyond agonistics”, the political theory that emphasizes the potentially positive aspects of certain (but not all) forms of political conflict. It’s her wish to see people “conceive of new ways of working together collaboratively”, in classrooms, research and “professional life” generally.
To me, Hutcheon makes a great case for her “plea”, not short of examples of ruthless agon across our social circles. Her mention of capitalism and romanticism greatly summarizes how economics and literary genre are examples of heavy reinforcement of the dangerously competitive spirit, in her view, in academia and education as a whole. To her, the capitalist “pecking order” has been “easily translated into the status hierarchy of higher education”. This is further implied by her mention of “the commercialization and corporatization of the universities”, that more or less pump out individualistic scholars bent on their own success, devoid of concern and value of community learning and success.
According to Hutcheon, there is a much larger problem of contempt, towards others, at play. Animal instinct tells us, according to the article, that “attack has meant survival” and it hasn’t disappeared in our evolutionary journey, merely evolved. In academic discourse “we listen to try to prove – and then show – that the speaker is entirely wrong”. Hutcheon says that “violence is not too strong term for what we so often witness”. When I first read that my immediate reaction was to write a strongly worded paragraph on how far-fetched of a statement that is, but I realized that would be further proving her point!
Gerald Graff states that “we handle conflict badly because we stress divisions when, in reality, we share much”.
Mary Catherine Bateson’s speech on “The Myths of Independence and Competition” takes a comparative view on human biology and social norms, to the likes of Hutcheon’s article. Bateson views independence as an illusion, and that the truth of our biology, to the degree of our own cellular makeup, provides a clear view of how we, according to Bateson, ought to be in the societies we live in. As children we are fully dependent on whoever provides what we need. The cries for help or sustenance directly contradicts the idea of leaving a child alone in their crib to come to an understanding of what it means to be alone.
In conclusion, Hutcheon’s article on “Rhetoric and Competition” is a well supported case that attempts to woo the reader to consider their own competitive nature and to what extent it helps or harms their world at large. The explanation of “true intellectual debate is not a matter of protecting vested interests” but “must involve better than search-and-destroy missions” comes off to me as a very realistic view of what academic discourse is, should be, and should not be. A step in the right direction is to stop consistently viewing what others say as either/or, and to more often consider it as both/and.