agonistic discourse (rhetoric)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Agonistic Discourse
"The emphasis in traditional argument," says Nancy V. Wood, "is on winning the argument" (Perspectives on Argument, 2006). (Angelika/Getty Images)


In rhetoric, agonistic discourse is a discussion, debate, or argument perceived as a competition or contest. A participant in an agonistic ritual is called an agonist.

The term was popularized by Walter J. Ong in his books Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness (1981) and Orality and Literacy (1982). Ong argues that masculine consciousness has traditionally perceived most aspects of life, including education, as a contest or struggle for power.

In his book Sophistical Rhetoric in Classical Greece (1995), John Poulakos examines the agonistic connection between rhetoric and athletics in ancient Greece, arguing that the sophists "turned rhetoric into a competitive enterprise."

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Greek, "contest"

Examples and Observations

  • "Like all games-play, rhetoric, as it has been traditionally understood, is a symbolic substitute for war and other forms of agonistic struggle. Certainly, marshalings of rhetorical force can be far preferable to deployments of actual force--civilized and civilizing substitutions, but they are substitutions nevertheless, and merely defer the inevitable. My hope, however, is that settlement by force is inevitable only when the parties involved believe the field of play is closed and set prior to deploying rhetorical strategies in struggles that will determine what the parties believe the configuration of reality within the field will be."
    (Stephen R. Yarbrough, After Rhetoric: The Study of Discourse Beyond Language and Culture. Southern Illinois University Press, 1999)
  • "Winning the Argument, Losing the Campaign"
    "There is a phenomenon in political campaigns known as 'winning the argument, losing the campaign.' Your opponent will always be poking, prodding, and goading you to debate in the 'zone' of a campaign where they know they will ultimately win, no matter how strong your argument is on its academic merits. . . . [O]ur inclination to argue these points ad infinitum and prove we're right can be a dangerous one. The reality is that many voters simply don't have the time or desire to tune in and learn the nuances of difference on every particular issue."
    (Jeff Blodgett and Bill Lofy, Winning Your Election the Wellstone Way: A Comprehensive Guide for Candidates and Campaign Workers. University of Minnesota Press, 2008)

    - ["When the lion invites the mouse to a disputation, your majesty, the mouse, however fond he may be of arguing, would do well to avoid the disputation if he can. For the poor mouse does not know which to fear most: losing the argument or winning it."
    (Alan Dobie as Rabbi Moses in The Disputation, 1986)
  • Discursive Conflict
    "Discursive conflict among ideas--a form of agonistic rhetoric based on tolerance and mutual respect of people--lets people explore and test ideas against the strong contenders. It acknowledges that around issues, such as equality, we may enter areas of deep, irreconcilable disagreement. But the response should not be to avoid, bracket, or silence those uncomfortable differences but to put them on the table in the spirit of inquiry.'
    (Linda Flower, Community Literacy and the Rhetoric of Public Engagement. Southern Illinois University Press, 2008)
  • The Decline of Agonistic Rhetoric in the Coeducational Composition Classroom
    "[T]he decline of all-male agonistic rhetoric and the rise of a more irenic [or conciliatory] rhetoric of composition has resulted in a very different climate in the writing classroom. Traditional rhetorical training was harsh, competitive, filled with public testing, and often brutal and humiliating. But the entry of women into colleges changed the most basic rhetorical rules of engagement, and from cold, distanced, demanding lecture-recitation teaching and agonistic competition, rhetoric after 1900 became at its most typical a personalized editorial relationship. At its most progressive, it became a partnership between teacher and student."
    (Robert J. Connors, Composition-Rhetoric: Backgrounds, Theory, and Pedagogy. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997)

  • The Lighter Side of Agonistic Arguments
    Charlie Kelly: Take a look at this picture. What do you see?
    Mac: I see two trannies shooting at each other.
    Charlie Kelly: No, dude. They're dueling, okay? These are lawyers settling an argument by dueling it out.
    (Charlie Day and Rob McElhenney in "The Gang Exploits the Mortgage Crisis." It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, 2009)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "agonistic discourse (rhetoric)." ThoughtCo, Dec. 17, 2016, Nordquist, Richard. (2016, December 17). agonistic discourse (rhetoric). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "agonistic discourse (rhetoric)." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 18, 2017).