Canned Goods

Raymond Chandler saw the primary task of the “natural” writer as bridge-building, between “what one wants to say” and “what one knows how to say.” The scholarly study of how best to bridge one’s words and ideas is an ancient one, and rhetoricians have systematically identified and classified a wide variety of linguistic forms with which to give our meanings a persuasive force. These rhetorical devices are so effective in the shaping and delivery of well-developed meanings that they can also lend our less substantial thoughts the unmerited appearance of solidity. This is not always a bad thing: a well-chosen rhetorical form can act as a scaffolding for an undeveloped idea, allowing it to take root and grow during subsequent elaboration. Nonetheless, just as good painters sometimes paint fakes, clever orators sometimes abuse rhetoric, to suggest profundity where there is shallowness, and sincerity where there is indifference.

One such rhetorical device is chiasmus, which takes its name from the cross-shaped Greek letter chi, or ‘c’. The name is apt, for chiasmus is the crossover repetition of words, meanings, images or syntactic structures in a text. It is a much-used device in the texts of the Bible – it is used in both old and new testaments – and in other ancient Hebrew and Greek texts. Indeed, one of the most widely-quoted examples of chiasmus is also nicely self-descriptive: “Those that are first shall be last and those that are last shall be first” (Matthew 19:30). Biblical uses of chiasmus combine a profundity of thought with a symmetry of form, and the effectiveness of this balancing act has not been lost on orators throughout the ages. Consider this use of chiasmus by Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me,” and this use by its 35th president, John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. JFK’s use of chiasmus at his inauguration in 1961 was both memorable and effective, allowing his words to hold a mirror, structurally speaking, to what he saw as a much-needed shift from selfishness to selflessness in America and her allies.

The crisscross pattern of chiasmus is the linguistic equivalent of a tightly laced boot, or in more forceful instances, a boxing glove. When used effectively, with a substantial meaning to communicate, the surface crossover of linguistic content implies a dove-tailing of ideas at a deeper level. Chiasmus relies on repetition to drive home these ideas, though this duplication of content is not always superficial or obvious. James Joyce, for example, employed chiasmus to lend balance and symmetry to his use of imagery in Dubliners, but nowhere is his use of the form as structurally obvious as it is in either the Lincoln or Kennedy examples. The explicit repetition of words is a hallmark of chiasmus, as in this popular slogan of the American gun lobby, “when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” (though even here, the verb “to outlaw” is repeated as a noun). But one can implicitly repeat an idea in a chiastic crossover by referring instead to its opposite counterpart, as in these wise words from the Dalai Lama: “In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher” (here “practice” aligns with “teacher” while “tolerance” crosses over to “enemy”).

These are aphoristic uses of the form, in which the chiasmus is designed to be noticed, just as the resulting epigrams and slogans are designed to be remembered. Yet this repetition with crossover can be just as effective even when it is not overtly noticed. Consider this use of chiasmus by the always quotable fashion-designer Karl Lagerfeld: “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants”. If you feel the need to repeat yourself, as Lagerfeld does here with withering contempt, then repetition with crossover may subtly strengthen the logical force of your argument. Notice how Lagerfeld begins by asserting a causal link from sweatpants to defeat, and quickly follows this generalization by asserting a causal link in the opposite direction, from a loss of personal control (defeat again) to the purchase of those very same sweatpants. His use of chiasmus suggests abductive and deductive reasoning, and shows us the same causal link from complementary perspectives, effect ß cause and cause à effect. The overriding impression that one is left with is that sweatpants are more than merely indicative of shame and demoralization; viewed through Lagerfeld’s gimlet eye, they are one and the same thing.

By drawing our attention to superficial similarities and deep dissimilarities between what is expected and what is real, chiasmus can pack a powerful ironic punch. Yet, though it offers a convenient vehicle for packing ironic insights into a structurally pleasing form, chiasmus can often be too convenient, allowing one to fake the presence of cutting insight with little more than cut-and-paste. Consider the following exchange from the 1999 comedy Mystery Men, which concerns the misadventures of a group of wannabe superheroes with underwhelming powers. Mr. Furious has anger management issues, while the Sphinx’s only power is an ability to torture syntax until it yields an apparent profundity:

Ext. [Outside tents.] (Everyone is sitting around sewing. Sphinx is supervising.)

Spleen: Who was looking for the pinking shears?

Invisible Boy: Oh, that was me.

Sphinx: Ah, yes. Work well on your new costumes, my friends. For when you care for what is outside, what is inside cares for you!

Furious: You know, the clock is ticking here. Are we gonna sew dresses all day or are we gonna rescue Amazing? … I need a thimble, does anybody—

Sphinx: Patience, my son. To summon your power for the conflict to come, you must first have power over that which conflicts you.

Furious: Okay, am I the only one who finds these sayings just a little bit formulaic?

"If you want to push something down, you have to pull it up." "If you want to go left, you have to go right." It's—

Sphinx: Your temper is very quick, my friend. But until you learn to master your rage—

Furious: Your rage will become your master? That's what you were gonna say, right? Right?

Sphinx: ...Not necessarily.

That wonderful last line says it all: the Sphinx has hit on a successful formula for mere generation, to turn casual utterances into guru-like prognostications. His utterances appear deep, yet they are little more than superficial repetitions with crossover. One can imbue them with real meaning, of course, but it is clear that meaning takes a back seat to surface form in the Sphinx’s need to appear wise and all-knowing. It is as though he has internalized his own reduced version of Searle’s Chinese room, in which the goal is to transform mundane inputs into nuggets of disposable wisdom using nothing more than syntactic manipulation. We laugh at the Sphinx because his formulaic use of rhetorical devices has made him necessarily predictable. This is the essence of a deterministic formula: it always produces the same outputs for the same inputs, making a weak demurral such as “Not necessarily” all the more laughable.

Yet all rhetorical devices are formulas of a sort. It is their repeated utility in different contexts that makes them worthy of study by those who want to give their arguments a form that most effectively reflects their meaning. As an orator, the Sphinx is a one-trick pony; he is predictable not because chiasmus is always predictable, but because he is always predictable in his choice of chiasmus. As a device for inverting an opponent’s argument, chiasmus has few equals, yet we tire quickly of any device that is used too often and with too little variety. Were the Sphinx to up his game, and use a wider variety of rhetorical forms to better convey an impression of mental agility, we might pay more attention to what he has to say. For the syntactic manipulation of surface forms is actually a reasonable strategy for exploring the world of ideas. Words are often our only handle on subtle feelings and half-formed ideas, and the systematic manipulation of words can be an effective means of navigating the corresponding conceptual spaces. By searching for opportunities for chiasmus, the Sphinx is actually employing a simple form of dialectical reasoning. Given a thesis, he fabricates its structural antithesis, and then uses chiasmus to forge a synthesis of the two. The Sphinx is no Hegel, and he is certainly no Kant, but we must assume that he applies some aesthetic and semantic filters to his formulations. For he does not invert everything, but chooses to selectively invert theses whose antitheses appear structurally and semantically sound. A computer that modeled the generative abilities of the Sphinx would almost certainly be accused of mere generation. Yet its creator might validly reply, Sphinx-like, “Not necessarily.”

So what might distinguish a computer’s best efforts at chiasmus from those of the Sphinx? Well, it would certainly help if it could display an appreciation of the different shades of meaning carried by related forms of the same word-concept. Consider Mae West’s chiastic innuendo “It’s not the men in your life that counts, but the life in your men.” Mae uses deliberate equivocation here, by employing the word “life” in two different senses – “life” as in personal life, and “life” as in zest and vigor. Between these two senses, Mae stakes out a third, her sex “life”. Equivocation like this is a form of trickery than often produces humor. Consider another humorous example of chiastic equivocation: “Children in the back seats of cars sometimes cause accidents. Accidents in the back seats of cars sometimes cause children.” This is more than syntactic manipulation for its own sake. The repeated use of “accidents” in two different senses – car accidents and accidental pregnancies – produces a pithy commentary on life’s surprises, and gives the impression that the speaker has peeked behind the curtain of everyday language to glimpse a universal truth. Each of these examples relies on word play, but each also evokes an unspoken meaning that chimes with our experience of the world.

A computer can easily be programmed to scour a large text corpus for reversible chunks of language such as “hardly working” and “working hard”, so as to generate countless examples of chiasmus in the egregious vein of “working hard or hardly working?”. Yet this would surely be a poor investment of anyone’s time. Even a more semantics-savvy generator, one capable of producing the political aphorism “for society to prosper, prosperity should be socialized” from the independent text chunks “society to prosper” and “be socialized”, is hardly worth the effort if all it can do is generate one instance of chiasmus after another. As Truman Capote once said of Jack Kerouac on hearing of the latter’s frenetic stream-of-consciousness writing method, “that’s not writing, that’s typing”. Even if such a system could generate instances of chiasmus of a quality deemed usable by a professional comedian, no professional would ever craft a whole act around a single rhetorical device. Chiasmus, like other conduits for linguistic creativity, should not be viewed as a party-trick. It should not be generated in bulk, nor sold by the yard. Party tricks are the province of chumps like the Sphinx, in whose hands they are glib generators of fakes rather than vehicles of self expression.

Computer scientists are trained to embrace modularity, so it’s tempting to think of how a standalone chiasmus generator might later unite with generators of other creative forms to yield a comprehensively well-rounded system, such as one for generating poetry on a specific topic. But it is wishful thinking to imagine that a useful standalone generator might come first, rather like believing that five standalone fingers might later glom together to form a working hand. Any act of specific creativity, such as the generation of an apt chiastic form, must serve a larger creative goal that makes it apt – such as the creation of a poem with a specific purpose – and do so within a larger architecture for creativity that harnesses a diversity of knowledge sources. This architecture must coordinate the actions of many different components as they contribute to the same result, and provide a contextual focus for salient feelings, emotions and expectations.


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