Chiasmus has been a popular trope among orators for centuries in large part because it provides scaffolding for so many of rhetoric’s canons: invention (by offering a syntactic template that can be infinitely customized), style (wordplay that can dazzle audiences), and memory (since the repetition of words or ideas makes the turn of phrase memorable to both the rhetor and audience, which is why we encounter it so often in speeches and poetry). Chiasmus supports each of these canons through one of its signature traits: repetition.
Paul (2014) has visualized these repetitious qualities as “circle-chiasmus,” which “brings one back to the starting point; there is mental movement within a closed system” (p. 33). This “mental movement” makes recycling perhaps a more apt descriptor of chiasmus than repetition. When chiasmus reuses semiotic resources, there is also always change. Chiasmus makes the old new again with a new syntactic ordering, a new placement, or a new point of view.
Chiasmus demonstrates how recycling doesn’t necessarily correlate to sameness: Every time the same content appears in a new context, it creates something new. New juxtapositions create new crossing points and thus new meanings. Borrowing from the scientific and philosophical implications of quantum mechanics, Barad (2007) refers to this process as intra-action—the idea that things are not stable, discrete entities but rather dynamic, always emergent relationships between text and context, knower and known. Chiasmus shows us on the macro- and micro-linguistic level how material is always a relationship and that new relationships are created when semiotic materials occupy different positions in time and space.
Take, for example, this excerpt of Gries’s (2015) Still Life with Rhetoric, which is itself a commentary on rhetorical recycling in the context of circulating media. It has been chiastically juxtaposed or “crossed” with a mirroring visual narrative to provoke new ways of reading it. Both the images (recycled from open-source image archives) and the text (recycled from Gries) are changed by their placement in a new context.
For many years, writing and rhetoric scholars have problematized the blurring and dissolving definitions of ownership, originality, remix, and plagiarism (Howard, 1993; Johnson-Eilola & Selber, 2007; Lunsford et al., 2018; Ridolfo & DeVoss, 2009). The figure of chiasmus allows us to see that academic culture’s obsession with “originality” is a historical and cultural anomaly and that rhetorical recycling is old. Not only do chiasms plagiarize themselves, in a way—they also plagiarize all other chiasms. The popularity of the figure is that you can make a chiasmus out of anything (and anything can be made a chiasmus). You simply need to riff on a tried and true structure: but the familiarity of that structure delights us when new terms are supplied and new juxtapositions are created.
Rice (2007) writes that juxtaposition and appropriation are two key techne for 21st-century rhetoricians. He argues that writing in digital remix culture “involves a complete appropriation of the various structures we inhabit and that inhabit us…. Networks of meaning are generated through a variety of appropriations.” What does it mean to inhabit and be inhabited by chiasmus? I think it may mean, in part, to be open to re-seeing what we’ve seen and re-hearing what we’ve heard and, rather than dismissing such redux utterances as repetitious or derivative. It may mean asking ourselves: What new meanings do I bring now, having considered this again, from another time or another point of view? What joy and novelty can be glimpsed when we consider the people and things that recycled work has come across in previous lives?
© Gabriel Morrison, 2021