Chapter 378: Nominal Difficulties

on May 11, 2009 in Book 14

In Which Attention Is Paid In Class

It didn’t take long at all for them to clear my room. Amaranth came around to Dee’s doorway as the guards were moving on to the next room, with a larger towel. She threw it to me.

“I’ve got your bathrobe tucked away,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s contaminated, but I figure it should go through the wash.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Go wash your hand,” Dee said, giving me a mental push towards the door. “Before you do anything else.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. Amaranth giggled and stepped back from the door, and I headed out into the hall and towards the lounge.

The twins’ door was open. I didn’t stop to peer in or listen, but I couldn’t help hearing the clinking of glass bottles. Of course… the dumbasses didn’t think they had any reason to get rid of their empties or even hide them. Not when the resident advisor was their drinking buddy. If nothing else good came out of it, the Leightons were having a worse day than I was. That was almost worth losing all my bath stuff.

It seemed like nobody was in the lounge, though I realized Honey and Hazel were sharing one of the easy chairs when Honey gave me a stiff hello as I walked past.

“Hi,” I said.

Hazel was red-faced and silent, and I gathered from the way that neither of them said anything else while I washed up that they had been speaking about something before I arrived and were waiting to be alone again before they resumed. I had a pretty good guess what the topic was… it had to be getting harder for Hazel to deny that Amaranth was right.

I skipped showering and other stuff that would take me into the bathroom… not only was the morning rush being somewhat compacted, but it seemed like people were hanging out there just to be near ground zero or something.

Breakfast was kind of hurried and awkward. Dee seemed to be feeling some lingering embarrassment over her conduct under the influence of the fumes. I couldn’t blame her for feeling the way she did, and I also sympathized with her embarrassment for something that wasn’t her fault, but I didn’t know how to address either thing without making her feel more embarrassed.

Two was very forthright in stating that the people on the fourth floor were nicer and that their bathroom and hallway were cleaner than the ones on our floor.

Steff had already heard the gist of what happened through the rumor mill. She seemed to think the whole thing had been a wacky misadventure and not something that was in turns terrifying and humiliating, continually expressing her wish to have been there.

It was only through sheer chance and overheard classroom chatter in the minutes before my thaumatology class started that I remembered Professor Goldman’s two-part extra credit assignment, where the first part of it was to write out a wish. I’d settled on a motorcycle, but then had become distracted imagining the possibilities… or impossibilities. I took out a piece of paper and wrote out “I wish I had a vehicle that functioned exactly like a motorcycle.” then looked at it. Was that good enough?

The point of the assignment was to show how a wish could be purposefully misinterpreted or subverted, so no matter how I wrote it, I was going to get back something that was pointedly ironic or double-edged or something… and even if I worded it in a perfectly one hundred percent ironclad fashion, it wasn’t like I’d actually get it. By that light, “I wish…” was all it really needed. But I added “except for never needing any external fuel or science-based maintenance or repairs.” to it, because that would be the obvious way of foiling the original wish. There was no sense making things too easy for whoever my wish partner ended up being.

Even though it wasn’t a very serious assignment to begin with, I still felt like it was a really half-assed way to go about it, and I almost didn’t hand my paper forward when Professor Goldman called for them at the start of class. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who’d left it until the last minute, though, as other people were scrambling to write things out and he said he’d accept them at the end of class.

“So,” he said after accepting the papers, “as you no doubt recall, we’ve been talking about comparison and metaphor. Before we get to the quiz, we’re going to wrap that up today with a little bit of discussion about nominalism, the magic of names. What’s in a name? Not much, as it turns out. Nominalism is not used very often, which sometimes leads people to think it’s a discredited or outdated viewpoint… and they’re kind of right. It used to be widely accepted that names were at the root of all magic, or all real magic… that anything else used to establish a comparison or relate to a subject was just bits of trickery.

“The first codified definition of a ‘wizard’ as opposed to other less formal and implicitly inferior magic-users was someone who did ‘name-workings’. Nowadays, the formal definition of ‘wizard’ is somebody who uses spells, whether they invoke true names or not, as opposed to sorcerers, who throw around raw techniques… but of course, nowadays, few people exclusively do one or the other and the two words are usually used as synonyms.

“But once upon a time, wizardry was held to be rooted in names. To name a thing was to know it, the elven wizards said, and to know it was to have power over it. It only made sense to them. The elves learned their first magic from the sidhe, over whom names are power. When they began moving away from faerie magic, they brought a number of assumptions with them, which shaped how they viewed things. And of course, the name of something, whether it’s a person, object, or concept, is a tremendously useful symbol for the thing in and of itself. That’s why it worked, to a point: because a name is a symbol.”

I followed what Professor Goldman was saying, but I began to feel a little uneasy. I felt like I’d missed something, earlier in the week… in point of fact, I didn’t recall talking about comparison and metaphor. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been paying attention in class… okay, maybe it was, a bit. I’d got a bit distracted thinking about the wishes on Wednesday. That was just one day, though. On Monday I’d… well, actually, I’d probably been a bit distracted by my plans for the afternoon.

“So, while it’s a discredited viewpoint, it isn’t so much that nominalism has been abandoned as a technique,” Goldman said, and I realized I’d spaced out again while castigating myself for not paying attention. “If you’re trying to do a remote casting on somebody and you have nothing else to establish a relationship to them, no other symbol to invoke, a name can work. If you’re trying to address the whole of a being and not some aspect or quality of it, you can invoke the name and thereby invoke the whole of itself. Some pretty powerful magic has been performed this way… but when you deal with things in their entirety, it sort of limits your flexibilities. This is why there is a whole era of history from which most of the surviving magical objects seem pretty unimaginative. If your idea of enchanting a sword is to say ‘SWORD!’ really loud, you’re going to end up with a sword that is swordier than other swords, but it’s harder to break things down and specialize them, or add effects that aren’t encompassed under the heading of ‘SWORD!’

“When the nominalists started branching out and started addressing the properties of their subjects , they still thought of what they were doing in terms of naming… they’d mentally contort any techniques they used into being ‘parts of the name’, and so they spent more time exploring techniques that could be fit into this scheme and ignoring those that couldn’t. And of course, this one-size-fits-all approach limited the accessibility of magic because like any other technique, nominalism does not work equally well for everybody. Some people just don’t relate to names. Some people don’t see a fundamental connection between the name for an object and that object. In fact, there was an interesting survey done about practicing nominalists and their linguistic knowledge. Most nominalists, of course, are elves, and so their first language is elvish. Not surprising. What was interesting was it seems that the more languages a wizard speaks, the less likely he is to be an effective nominalist. There are counter-examples, of course… the Merovian archmage Girault, who came to power during a revival of nominalism two centuries before the current era, collects languages because the names they have for the same concepts have slightly different connotations which he is able to employ for different effects.”

Nominalism wasn’t that interesting to me, because as Goldman had said, it was mostly associated with an outdated viewpoint, and was mostly useful for big displays of power rather than precision. I engaged in a bit of nominalist thinking by giving a name to what I was trying to invoke or enhance, but only because it was easier to think “fire, fire, fire” than to focus purely on the intangible quality. The name was literally a handle to hang onto.

I listened, though, as Goldman described a lecture he’d seen the venerable Girault give during his own post-graduate studies, wherein the ancient archmage had called fire into being using various tongues, revealing differing conceptions of it. Elvish-conjured fire was dangerous and spread easily. Dwarvish was smoky but short-lived, if not tended carefully. Merovian and Pax rendered something that was more tractable and usable than either of the two. The Merovian fire was prettier than the Pax one, but that might have reflected his own bias.

It was kind of interesting, though not really terribly applicable. Not relying on the names of things let you achieve those kinds of effects without having to hunt for the right language.

The lecture portion of the class was brief, because of course we had to get to the quiz… and except for the few questions about nominalism, it was all about stuff I hadn’t paid attention to. The multiple choice questions were easy… even if I didn’t remember them being talked about in class, I could still reason them through from my basic knowledge of thaumatology, and by ruling out the obvious gag choices.

It was the fill-in-the-blanks that left me stumped. I didn’t know the name of the thaumatologist who’d first articulated the principle of exclusionary comparison. I didn’t even know what it was. I was used to being able to just go down the line answering them in order, and then having some time to sit there while the slowpokes wracked their brains… this time, I was the slowpoke.

The embarrassment at realizing this only deepened my frustration, which only made me go slower. The fact that Goldman chose to use this opportunity to make some editorial comments towards the class didn’t make things any easier.

“I see a lot of head scratching and blank stares out there,” he said. “Well, more than usual… and not just from the usual suspects, either.” It should have been hard to believe that he was singling me out, considering it was an auditorium-style lecture hall and I wasn’t anywhere near the front, but that’s what it felt like. “You might recall I said on Monday that we’re going to be picking up the pace now that we’ve covered all the foundations.'”

I didn’t recall that… in fact, I couldn’t clearly recall anything he’d said on Monday, or anything more than the wish assignment on Wednesday.

I didn’t even really understand what he meant by “comparison”. It seemed like he was talking about symbolism, sympathetic magic, but I didn’t know if something more specific was meant by the term.

“Remember, we do one of these every week,” Goldman said… still talking to the class, though he might as well have been using elven voice magic to dump it right in my ear. “The main point of the quiz is not the grades, which are just easy points, but letting you know where you stand and if you need to tighten things up a little in some areas.”

Easy points. Yeah, that was so not helping. At the end of the class, I had the fill-in-the-blanks empty, except for the one that was practically a gimme: “What five-hundred-year-old archmage is still noted for his use of nominalist wizardry?”

Well, there was still the wish assignment. Maybe that would make up for the missed questions.

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8 Responses to “Chapter 378: Nominal Difficulties”

  1. Arkeus says:

    Yes, Mack, you have been messing up quite a lot lately, as the more you are playing to your sub tendency the more you loosen your control on your arrogant ones.

    Current score: 0
    • Pamela says:

      I think that, in part, her arrogance is the problem. She doesn’t feel the need to pay attention, because this is all kid stuff. If she played to her sub tendencies, though, she’d be more likely to acquiesce enough to listen to subject matter she otherwise would think was beneath her.

      Current score: 5
      • capybroa says:

        Exactly. She’s resisting the very good advice of her handlers to deal with her issues and get serious about her coursework, including her battle studies. All you Amaranth haters out there should think for a minute about what Mack’s life would be like without her, or whether she’d even be alive at this point in the school year without her friends.

        Current score: 9
  2. BlackWizard says:

    I’m thinking that this is also that day ‘demoned’ out & was possessed the reason she’s having trouble this week also.

    Current score: 1
  3. Anthony says:

    A sword that’s swordier than other swords. Did anyone else immediatey think of Fighter from 8-Bit Theatre upon reading that? He’d think that was the greatest enchantment ever!

    Current score: 4
    • Duke says:

      No man, swords are so last century, Fighter’s all about the sword-chucks now, but sword-chucks that are sword-chuckier than other sword-chucks, that he’d be all over.

      Current score: 2
  4. JerK says:

    I’m amazed by Mack’s “ability” to completely forget seemingly important things over and over again. It’s like she only can focus on whatever is happening to her in that moment and lately not even that. Not to mention every time it bites her in the butt she has little interest in trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again… ummm well I guess that’s completely in character for her. Still as a reader it makes me want to bash my head into the wall in frustration.

    Current score: 0
  5. Jechtael says:

    “I engaged in a bit of nominalist thinking by giving a name to what I was trying to invoke or enhance, but only because it was easier to think “fire, fire, fire” than to focus purely on the intangible quality. The name was literally a handle to hang onto.”
    Khersarnit, Mackenzie, that IS nominalism!

    Assuming Merovian correlates to French the way Low Draconic and High Draconic relate to Italian and Latin: I think of “fire” as having a powerful, Germanic sound, especially since it conjures up the image of a beautiful dancing light fueled by destruction. The fire itself brought to my mind by “feu” looks similarly beautiful but not as tall, the smoke seems thicker and more greasy (and it has smoke by default, which “fire” doesn’t), and it smells, for lack of a less childish word that is as appropriate, “stinky”.

    Current score: 1