further concerns of rhetorical corruption in Ramsay…

The title of this comment is borrowed from James, who has recently expressed some concerns with what he views as problematic elements in Ramsay’s work. I have also found the book to be difficult, and have two particular issues that I’d like to make note of, and wonder as well if anyone else shares the view held by me and James. I would say that I have two problems with this writing – dealing first with issues of accuracy, and second with questions of relevance.

The first issue may seem like nitpickery, but I think it is of some small degree of importance. The opening lines of Ramsay’s second chapter are “The word “algorithm” is a strange neologism. Most scholars now believe that the word relates back to the word “algorism”, which is in turn a corruption of the name of the Persian mathematician al-Kwarizmi from who book, Kitab al-jabr wa’l-muqabala (“Rules for Restoring and Equating”), we get the word “algebra.”

Algorithm may be several things, but a neologism is not one of them. A neologism is a word that is new to a particular language, often having been invented. Algorithm has been in use in English for at least 360 years, making it not terribly new. It is not terribly old either, but it would be a stretch to call it a neologism. If we do not call it a neologism, what should we call it? Ramsay gives a pretty good explanation himself (“a corruption of the name of the Persian mathematician”), except for the name of what type of word this is – eponym.

Again, this may seem like it’s making much of a small matter, but when reading a book that deals with issues of semantics, language, and reading, finding that the author does not distinguish between these terms is somewhat troubling.

I was somewhat discomfited as well by Ramsay’s uncritical quoting of Schirato’s take on Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa: “so Abish’s text asks what narrative might emerge from a text in which no one can “die” until chapter 4 or “suffer” until chapter 19.”  It would appear that both Ramsay and Schirato are subscribing to a peculiar school which has an aggressively monosemantic view of vocabulary. Can no one really die in Abish’s poem until chapter 4? They cannot be tagged with any word beginning with D, but they can adead, afare, alley, asterve, or croak – all of which have meant “to die” in some form or register of English. And while characters in this poem can perhaps not “suffer” until chapter 19, they can certainly ache, affamish, agonize, ail, asuffer, or engage in the verb form of any one of a large number of synonyms for “suffer” that begin with a letter between A & R.

This avowal that characters cannot “suffer” until S, or “die” until D is essentially a meaningless statement – so why include it? I will freely admit that there is much in this book that has passed well over my head. I would perhaps be more comfortable if I could simply tell myself “you don’t understand what he’s writing here because it is quite complicated” every time I found myself scratching my head. But instead there are some small number of points at which I think “you don’t understand what he’s writing here because it really doesn’t make any sense” and a rather larger number of points that I still think “it’s quite complicated”, and it’s not clear to me all the time which one is which.


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