The first part of Hutcheon’s paper that really struck a chord with me was her pointing out the fact that the Ancient Greek tradition of rhetoric is intimately connected to the figure of Apollo Lukeios, or “the wolfish Apollo”. She seems to believe this discovery to be prophetic, clairvoyant of how the discipline of rhetoric has become wolflike. Interestingly, however, when one takes into account Bateson’s assertions that nature clearly shows a preference for collaberation over competition, being “wolflike” is perhaps not the worst notion for the discipline to take on. Bateson would concur with me that without predator and prey, a natural form of competition, nature would indeed collapse on itself. Without a predator limiting the population of a particular species, that species is free to multiply to unsustainable numbers and eventually wreak havoc on its environment. Could it be that the so called rhetorical “wolves” are preventing those who are lower in the “pecking order”, to use Hutcheon’s own words, from ruining the discipline and thus lowering the general quality of work?
Collaboration is no doubt a positive thing, but in a theoretical context, true collaberation in fields that are inherently merit-based (as they should be, or else there would indeed be a lack of quality work) would involve the so called “prey” accepting their rung on the ladder and rejoicing in their less prestigious place. This would be to allow the wolves, who are more skilled or highly taught, to write the best speeches possible or present their arguments in the best ways.
Unfortunately, as Hutcheon points out, competition of the more toxic and less collaborative variety is completely pervasive not only in institutions but also in classrooms and playgrounds: two places where many spend their formative years shaping their personal philosophies and views on life. She further states the rather disheartening fact that certain personalities dominate in these settings in a rhetorical context. This, however, cannot be stopped. Just as one cannot (not yet, anyway) prevent a wolf from wanting to feed itself with flesh, it is impossible to eliminate competitive personalities entirely. One of Bateson’s main points was that if the human race is going to survive the Anthropocene, collaboration will be a key part of our survival strategy. She states implicitly that our natural propensity for competition is due, in large part, to our cultural upbringing, but psychologists agree that personality is at least somewhat inherent as even Hutcheon describes herself as “congenitally non-confrontational”. Because of the existence of people with such competitive personalities, it could then be stated that competition is indeed in our biology.
That being said, competition can clearly go too far when it begins to treat someone with an opposing viewpoint, even if that person is clearly wrong, as an enemy rather than someone who should be merely corrected. As Schandorf states, beginning an argument with the mental notion that one’s opponent is irrefutably wrong is no way to engage in productive discourse about anything, let alone important topics like environmental stability, philosophy or politics. Hutcheon cites Jane Tompkins’ account of a conference where a speaker used evidence that work against the argument of another academic as a way to implicitly show off and entertain the audience. It is at this point where a healthy competitive spirit becomes one of self inflation and selfish exaltation through one’s wit. Rather than attempting to correct her constructively, the dissentress on stage illustrates the notion of “critique scholarship”, a toxic practice in the academic world that Hutcheon calls “adversarial” and “wolfish”.
It is this kind of adversarial competition that is indeed toxic, as those who engage in it are often out to merely make themselves look good in front of an audience, like luchadors tackling their opponents in flashy displays. The self-obsession of these adversarial thinkers thus leads to far less advancement in their field than it could if they were to learn how to correct people in a more collaborative and constructive way. Unfortunately, Elaine Showalter, whom Hutcheon cites, has stated that personal attacks in rhetoric have become a key part of American culture at this point. This is clear as such attacks and destructive forms of competitive debate are present on our News Stations, in our government and even within our sports culture.
Interestingly, Hutcheon uses the Ancient Greek word agon, which originally meant “a public gathering” but eventually came to mean “contest, debate and struggle”. How could it be that a word initially denoting a simple gathering of people could come to connotate competitive rhetorical practice? Clearly, from this entymological evidence, debate has been used for spectacle and public entertainment for millenia in the Western World, perhaps, in part leading to the pervasiveness of competition in all rhetorical practice.
At any rate, I agree with Hutcheon that competition could potentially be destructive for the academic field, and like Schandorf, I was initially very shocked upon hearing some of the things that she alleges have been said in academic discourse. As I mentioned before, however, a complete lack of competitive spirit is not the solution, as the quality of research, art and even though itself would all diminish if society were to be entirely egalitarian. Rather, society must function like a ladder, with each rung put into its respective place to fulfill its own position. While some rungs must be higher up on the ladder than others, each rung has its own important duty to fulfill or else the ladder cannot function. In my opinion, that is how we will achieve quality, civility and more productivity in academia and beyond.