Response to Rhetoric and Competition by Linda Hutcheon

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.

10 Comments

  1. Good post. I agree with you, that competition is an important part of making society function on all levels. However, I found it a bit confusing the use of the word “ladder”, which brings the idea of distinguished classes, like casts. In your personal idea, won`t it be even less collaborative society, if it is going to have a “ladder” structure? It will be interesting to hear your opinion. Thank you

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  2. Hutcheon was a very reliable narrator because of her professional background and impressive reputation. She started off with a clear admittance of a single mistake she made which allows the readers to gain a trust in her credibility and emphasizes how rarely she makes mistakes. She also used first person pronouns when expressing her own opinion. She clearly gives credit and states when she is referencing other people’s ideas. This is similar to Bateson’s article as the structure to share points are the same. They state their opinion and then use someone who has a very credible and impressive reputation to help back up their opinion. They both use a very wide range of topics such as biology and mythology to help convey their message to a very wide range of readers. The use of rhetorical questions helps Hutcheon persuade the readers while not taking away their option of free will and choosing options against the articles message.

    Both Hutcheon and Bateson use the word competition as humans fighting to survive during Anthropocene. Bateson main message is about trying to eliminate competition between humans and trying to show how we should be united and working to survive as the Anthropocene age. The rough connections between both articles are very strong but when analyzing the main points we can see that the points themselves are very different, although the strategy to express the points are the same.

    In Josiah’s post I found that we both agreed on “the wolfish apollo” being an incorrect choice to portray her point to the reader in the beginning of her article. Wolves being dominant animals that arguably control their communities shows the emphasis on how much power the word rhetoric has. Bateson disagreed with competition against each other. This can not be possible as Josiah said, “nature would indeed collapse on itself”. Bateson argued that even the most fundamental and microscopic organisms work together and without that, nothing would exist. Hutcheon’s main message was that competition can be destructive and I personally agree however nature still needs a little competition in order to keep social systems and institutions alive. Bateson’s main message was that we need to work together, when reading Hutcheon’s article I felt as if this was reinforcing Bateson’s message.

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  3. Hutcheon also made a great point on the issue of “citations” that it is a practice that is enough to reveal some patterns of sharing, borrowing and building on the good work of others. In this case people tend to appreciate individual work or ideas but do not look behind the curtains, this shows that in order for a person to come up with a perfect idea that gains a lot of attention, it is not just their own work. In relation to the Bateson article, the idea of working collaboratively is also being emphasized with Hutcheon in terms of academics.The academic competition lies on the idea that people tend to pay attention to the work of others with the motive of finding faults in their work, people criticize the work of others in order to remove them from the picture. The author refers to this as a ” Zero-Sum-Game” competitive scoring system, where by disadvantaging the work of others through critics makes their loses your gains.

    Furthermore, Hutcheon is also against the idea of individual research in academic fields which result in the success and failure of others. She suggest to the audience that instead of destroying the work of others why not put effort into finding more constructive ways of detecting and using strengths and weaknesses in the work of others.

    #words150

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  4. Very insightful analysis, Daler. Just building on your ideas, I’d like to point out that Bateson doesn’t seem to completely rule out the idea of competition. What she criticizes the most is the extreme emphasis of independence in the western culture and argues that a more sustainable model for human species is getting people to co-operate than to compete with each other. On the other hand, Hutcheon discusses the aggressive culture of competition in the academic setting and calls for a collaborative and constructive model of collaboration in the academia. Although their target audience is different, I do agree that Hutcheon’s proposal of collaboration echoes Bateson’s statement.

    #WRDS150

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  5. I really enjoyed reading your response! I find it interesting that you say competition is necessary for ensuring the quality of the knowledge produced. I am wondering if you base this claim on the assumption that there is only one truth and that we must compete and challenge each other academically in order to get to a single universal truth? I come from the field of Anthropology and in that field truths are many. Human activity is shaped by its context. Therefore a universal truth about human activity is highly controversial. When I apply Hutcheons argument to Anthropology I can see how competition is counter productive because there is not a scarcity of truths in Anthropology, therefore competition is unnecessary. However recognition is scarce and there for competition in Anthropology seems to be motivated by a desire to to arrive at a universal truth but to achieve fame and fortune.
    I too don’t believe it is possible to totally eliminate competition in the academy. However, I am very intrigued by the idea. The alternative definition that Hutcheons offers for counter-discourse, based on the principle of “both/and” reminds me of improv. In improv there are no wrong answers, however your answer has to be a “yes/and” to your audience or your performance teammates. As a result improve is a wildly creative and beautiful thing to witness. It is fun for me to imagine a world in which there are no wrong answers in academia, were people are free to be as wildly creative as they can be, a world where there could be many solutions for one problem. Lastly, based on her approach to counter-discourse, one of “both/and”, I think we can design an academic model based around cooperation and competition. A model in which competition and cooperation are limited to areas in which they aid in knowledge production.

    #WRDS 150 #14M

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  6. I found this post very easy to follow and engaging. Your ideas were clear, to the point and I liked how you compared the Hutcheon and Bateson and how their ideas were based on the same idea, that society needs to come together as a whole to become more efficient, but also pointed out how their arguments differed.
    I was wondering, in your opinion, who do you think was more persuasive with their arguments, and why? Did you prefer one style over the other?

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  7. This post is super well written! I love how you brought up her point of how there are competitive personalities, so we can argue that it is sometimes in our biology to be competitive (which differs from the first article we read that says we are not competitive biologically).

    #WRDS150

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  8. Thanks! I find it interesting that there is a lot of division on the topic of whether we are actually biologically competitive. Most of said division probably stems from the differing ideas and theories of whether personality is biological or conditioned (or possibly both). If personality is indeed purely conditioned, it could be said that we could theoretically adopt methods of raising our children that would be conducive to more cooperative personality traits (something that Bateson would support).

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  9. In any functioning society involving different roles and careers (anything but the absolutely most primitive of hunter gatherer societies), castes of some kind will develop as parent teach their children certain skills that may differ in different families and environments. The ladder of which I was speaking was not a feudal system or a system determining the status of an individual but rather a system where some people naturally have to be subordinate in purpose and occupation to others. This “ladder” is often what separates settled peoples from primitive hunter gatherers and is the reason why agrarian societies like our own are able to make technological advancement, as there is an administrative structure that serves to implement and promote new ideas and technologies. Agrarian and settled societies (the First Nations of the Northwest Coast were not agrarian but were still very much a settled people) also require some kind of subordination in their structure as otherwise it would be impossible to manage a large population density and economy. The true nature of collaboration in society is knowing one’s place in the so called ladder and taking pride in whatever position one has. This does not mean we should simply settle for any job that we are not satisfied with but rather that we should understand that there will always naturally be a hierarchy and that being lower on the ladder is not a negative thing as all people in out society are like individual gears of different sizes. Without one gear, the machine may not function as well regardless of its location or size.

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