Chiasmus is a way of entertaining two perspectives at once.

Even two lines can create a simple rhizome.

Chiasmus works by eschewing a simple linear connection between two points and instead complicating that connection by doubling and crossing these points. In doing so, it provides options, multiple pathways toward understanding. The crossing also implies a third point, the point where things meet, which breaks binaristic thinking at the same time as it conjures ambiguity.

"Chiasmus works not simply through a logic of crossing or exchange between two terms, but also through the generation of a third term that becomes the bridge between the original pairing.... [T]he generative power of the reversal comes from consciously having to supply something to cross the chasm between the original set and its inverted double. The crossing pattern proves to be most powerful not because it compares by inverting binary terms, but because in doing so it supplies a new term as the common ground on which the contrasting propositions can stand together."

(Hariman, 2014, p. 52).

Chiasmus can perhaps be thought of as a device that generates diffractive interference (see Barad, 2007, and the video above), where chiasmic strands interact with themselves to create new patterns at the intersections.

The crux of chiasmus is a moment of simultaneous uncertainty and stability, in some ways like the eye of a hurricane, predictably preceded and followed by winds that appear to blow in opposite directions.

Perhaps another apt metaphor is the uncertainty principle in quantum physics, which states that the more accurately one predicts a particle’s location, the less accurately one can know its momentum—and vice versa. The uncertainty principle suggests that the properties of a phenomenon are not fixed but always contingent on the perspective adopted by an observer. In a chiasm, the more one focuses on one arm of the figure, the fuzzier the other axis becomes, but one can “shift focus” between both strands, creating a continuum of interpretations. The center, where the two axes meet, where audiences attempt to balance the meaning of the independent inverse statements against each other, means something qualitatively different from the isolate parts.

This uncertainty makes chiasmus fundamentally generative. The rhetor produces the crisscrossing strands, but the audience must construct the implied third space of interpretive fusion at their intersection. McCloud (1993) calls this process closure, and the comics medium is uniquely suited to it because of the implied chiasmus of text being reflected through image and vice versa.

Panels from Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics" explaining the concept of closure. Text: "

Comics always offers multiple ways into a text, and there is always a gap in meaning—literally visualized through the gutter between panels—which readers must bridge by supplying the intervening narrative. Because chiasmus often features mirrors or paradoxes, this generative instability creates a unique way to entertain multiple perspectives at once—or, if not quite simultaneously, then by toggling rapidly between perspectives or by constructing unique assemblages from the component parts.

© Gabriel Morrison, 2021