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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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