Chiasmus evokes visuality and spatiality.

Woodcut from Descartes' 1644 "Principles of Philosophy" diagrams Descartes' theory of vision, which shows particles of light crisscrossing as they meet the eyes.
A diagram depicts how the limited beams of light moving through the pinhole of a camera obscura results in a flipped image
A woodcut diagramming Descartes' theory of vision. In the 17th century, Descartes demonstrated that light refracting on the convex lenses of our eyes should cause images we see to appear inverted, but our brains subsequently "revert" what we see so the world doesn't appear upside-down (Fishman, 2008). This same phenomenon is responsible for the upside-down image produced by a camera obscura.

Chiasmus is derived from the Greek letter X (chi), because the inverted phrases form a metaphorical X, or crossing point. The X metaphor makes chiasmus an inherently visual device. Chiasmus is a pattern, a rhetorical pathway, and visual metaphors offer a way of tracing this pathway.

A drawing of the optic chiasm, the point where optic nerves crisscross, which allows visual information to be accessed from both sides of the brain and enables seamless binocular vision in vertebrates (Kidd, 2014).

An X, however, may not be the only way to represent chiasmus. An X, for instance, always implies other shapes—circles, squares, triangles—that can mark out similar spatial organization.

An illustration of two lines crossing to form an X
An illustration of an X inside of a circle and a square

Scholars who have theoretically explored the concept of chiasmus have found a number of ways to conceptualize it outside of the traditional X. Tyler (1998) draws a number of “thought pictures” to represent the “mutant subjectivities” caused by the chiastic splitting and joining of different identities or paradigms coming into contact.

Hourglass-shaped diagram from Tyler (1998) modeling difference as chiasmus

Paul (2014) expands on these visual metaphors, creating a taxonomy of four major categories of chiasmus: the cross, the mirror, the circle, and the spiral. Strecker (2014) adds the metaphor of a Möbius strip as a possible metaphor for the connection point of a chiasm, since the rhetorical movement that happens there is often counterintuitive and perplexing.

Mobius strip
An animation of a mobius strip

Another example of visual chiasmus might be the double helix, which Watson and Crick (1953) use to represent the DNA molecule and Berthoff (1981) uses to represent the composing process. This visual metaphor suggests infinite, repetitious crossing and recrossing in addition to the circular/spiraling logics that Tyler’s (1998) drawings capture. We might also imagine chiasmus nonhierarchically with multiple asymmetrical crossing points, as Deleuze and Guattari (1987) invoke with their depictions of rhizomatic networks. This construction evokes a less ordered chiasmus, whose crisscrosses aren’t carefully calibrated palindromes but rather less predictable tangents which may spin off of an utterance at any time in any direction.

Double helix diagram from (Watson and Crick's 1953 paper on the structure of DNA
Berthoff's (1981) adaptation of the double helix as a model for composition
Three rhizomes, with networks of lines and nodes, from Deleuze and Guattari (1987)
Rhizomatic crossings from Deleuze and Guattari (1987)

What is clear in all of these depictions is that chiasmus is inherently visuospatial. Drawings and visual metaphors capture the movement of chiastic rhetoric better than language does because visual and spatial modes allow for the simultaneity and ambiguity that crossing rhetoric embraces. In Western culture, images are commonly paired with verbal or written commentary (as the text of this dissertation demonstrates), perhaps because rhetors are conditioned to be suspicious of the ambiguity of nonlinguistic modes. This multimodal combination (visual/spatial and linguistic) always leaves a gap, however, a moment of ambiguity audiences must “cross” to construct meaning. Elsewhere in this chapter, I consider two forms of media—comics and captions—as examples of the gaps that must be bridged in multimodal crossings.

Given this, I would like to offer the following (chiastic) theory: Just as chiasmus is an inherently visual and multimodal concept, multimodal compositions are particularly suited to chiastic rhetoric.

© Gabriel Morrison, 2021