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?

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  1. To answer your question at the end about the persistent inclination towards competitive models despite the availability of more functional, cooperative models, I believe Hutcheon addresses it in her argument. Note that her objective was not to antagonize the competitive model and those who use it (as noted in If she had done so, she would have undermined her argument of moving towards counter-discourse, or constructive discourse, as you put it.

    Instead, she notes three things which contribute to being aggressive and agonistic in our interactions: Ancient Greek origins, “critique scholarship” and “the individual.”

    Aristotle dedicated the Lyceum to the god of wolves, perhaps this was a symbol of competition; nonetheless, it has remained deeply ingrained into the system of academia we now find ourselves in. One of its consequences is the violence, as Hutcheon called it, of critique scholarship where the opponent is viewed as sub-human and their arguments belittled. Hutcheon also addresses the ideological weapon, “the individual.” This specific weaponization of our beliefs enables us to divide our own self from others. Combined, these keep us in the current system of tearing down arguments.


  2. In response to your statement regarding the rhetoric of competition causing an unproductive outcome is definitely something I as well found very fascinating during this weeks reading. The fact that societies point of view has become so rooted in competition that we loose sight of what is truly at stake is in my opinion, one of the saddest downfalls when engaging in relationships. Intellectual debate, fruitful conversation and investments for future academic discourse is cut short by our concentration towards always one-upping each other. Think about all the things we could create and progress on if done so in joint effort! Sadly, acting interdependently is seen as a weakness, when in reality, it is through the collaboration of expanding ideas, facilitated by a variety of perspectives, that new interpretations, discoveries and objectives surface and create opportunities for further discussion.

    To follow-up on your concluding question, competition is promoted due to the literal association it has with aggressive and hostile attributes. By belittling and undermining another’s entire perspective, then the “opponent” perspective will always foster success for those who acquire it. This common mistake is taken on by a very large proportion of those involved in the academics which is fuelled by our individualistic way of being.


  3. And yet her notion of counter-discourse as something that “can be seen as working critically and constructively within the doxa” remains somewhat naive in my opinion. If the intellectual arena is to remain a space of consequential cultural contribution it needs to be a place where the passions and unruly currents of human existence should be reflected. This means conflict. It means friction. Or does it? There is a danger when academics deploy their overly refined rhetorical subtleties in rationalizing a discourse that excludes aggression, violence, and competition. Banishing these qualities from the discourse does not banish them from the minds or natures of people. In a sense, this approach may, ironically, dehumanize the academic thinker and alienate from the average lay-thinker whose mind is also plugged into his deeper nature. In this case, wouldn’t that excessive aversion to competition compromise the social utility of such a discourse?


  4. @slanish117
    I understand your concern regarding the naivety of her proposed solution, counter-discourse; however, I do not believe she implied the removal of conflict within such discourse. Conflict and competition are two separate concepts which can be often associated but do not mean the same thing.

    Regarding the banishment of aggressive qualities from human nature, I completely agree that it is impossible to eliminate such qualities. But I have also noticed that aggressive behaviour or rhetoric is often polarizing than not. This would also compromise the social utility of discourse.

    What I believe Hutcheon is suggesting is that we should channel our aggression and remember that our goal is to enhance knowledge (or however you want to think of it), which is what she would label “counter-discourse.”

    But of course, the world is far from perfect. Not everyone will agree with her opinion and follow it, which is why I understand your stance of disagreement.


  5. It is true, as you say, that having our discourses rooted in competition is ultimately unproductive and in some ways even tragic. Your response, particularly your final point about academics being fuelled by an individualistic way of being, provoked an observation which I find curious. Typically, when we think of the tradition of critical thinking we associate it with a certain historical period of Western civilization, namely from the Enlightenment until the present. The entire academic realm is founded on a base core of critical thinking. However, it is also during this period of history that a more individualistic way being began to take root and develop. I find myself wondering whether there is a deeper correlation between critical thinking and individualism which may explain the tendency of most forms of rhetoric to turn towards competition and self-assertiveness. The two things may be more deeply intertwined than we might like to believe.

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