In “Rhetoric and Competition: Academic Agonistics”, Linda Hutcheon describes a structural defect in the way that academics use rhetoric to make their arguments. She suggests that within intellectual discourse the primary mode of rhetorical engagement is one of competition. The outcome is a fundamentally unproductive, and downright destructive, approach to the discussion and exploration of ideas.
Instead of fostering a constructive discourse, one that literally builds and grows out of a shared investment in ideas and intellectual concerns, this approach privileges the brilliance of an attack mode devoted to breaking down and vigorously unmanning the vulnerabilities of an argument’s rhetorical structure. In other words, rhetorical engagement becomes a combative sport, and its participants gladiators hellbent on the destruction of one another.
In this sense, Hutcheon’s reforms to the state of rhetorical discourse within the academy shares much with Bateson’s own suggestion that we engage in a more “cybersystemic” existence that privileges coordination and cooperation over individualism and competition. In fact Hutcheon’s and Bateson’s reforms go hand in hand, as a collaborative social existence would need to be facilitated by an equally collaborative form of social communication. As long as we continue to conduct our lives and conversations gladiatorally, both seem to suggest, we will fail to harness the full potential of human existence.
However, while Hutcheon’s message paints a brightly positive picture of the cooperative approach to rhetorical engagement, it overlooks the potential vulnerabilities of such an approach. Poster ps0800 exposes just such a vulnerability when he writes that “cooperation is as fragile as trust, where one incentive to break the effort undermines the possibilities of it in the future”. In this light, it might be more interesting to interrogate the following question: if cooperation is so self-evidently more productive as a principle of social and rhetorical engagement, then why has it consistently been undermined by a more aggressive and agonistic forms of interaction?