Chiasmus: a phenomenon of language, body and perception
Grausso, Christine Marie
The term chiasmus and all its many variants describe a phenomenon of language, body and perception. As a syntactic-rhetorical device, the usage of which is culturally diffuse, chiasmus involves a re-ordering of elements in a sentence to produce an A-B-B-A pattern. An example of this is the well-known saying falsely attributed to Hippocrates: “Let thy food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” As a symbol, chiasmus describes a pattern with intersecting lines, the most simplistic form of which is the X. Chiasm, in the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, refers to a phenomenon of body and mind. Insofar as it is used in the latter part of this work, chiasm refers to how the body and brain negotiate motor function, touch and perception: the right hemisphere of the brain corresponds with movement and function in the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere of the brain corresponds to movement and function in the right side of the body. All chiastic forms involve an intersection or crossing of the elements—whether syntactical or anatomical. The first chapter of the thesis is a literature review entitled, “Chiastic Studies and Typology,” which gives an overview of a few in-depth studies on chiasmus and of chiastic types that have been identified in semiotics and at the syntactical level. The second chapter of the thesis, “Chiastic Forms and Figures: Truths, Logic and Cross-Linguistic Usage” examines chiasmus as a semiotic and syntactic phenomenon. Part of the discussion considers whether and how chiasmus as a semiotic phenomenon is not only a symbol of self, but also a symbol of the person’s truthfulness or trustworthiness. Proceeding on, this section transitions into a broader reflection on how chiasmus overlaps with truth-functional logic and is an aspect of systematicity in language. Focusing specifically on a sub-type of chiasmus, antimetabole, this section highlights 80 different examples, in 28 different languages and family groups. Antimetabole is characterized by precise reversals of the sentence elements: “Let thy food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” entails a repetition and reversal of the elements medicine and food. This phrase would still be chiastic if a synonym for food was used, but it would not be an example of antimetabole. The identified examples of antimetabole fit into eight types: 1) Equalization: AB equates to or is the same as BA 2) Part-whole: A is part of B, and B is part of A 3) Exclusion: A excludes B, and B excludes A 4) Dissociation: A dissociates from B, B dissociates from A 5) Combination: A and B, B and A; the elements are grouped together 6) Comparison: A and B are better than B and A; or A and B are worse than B and A 7) One Way Effects: A affects B, but B does not affect A; or A does not affect B, but B affects A 8) Multiple Effects: A affects B, and B affects A; or A affects B and B affects A; can also include more elaborate reversals with repeating C, D, E elements The third chapter of the work, “Merleau-Ponty’s Chiasm: a Theory of Perception” concerns Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s text The Visible and the Invisible, in which he develops chiasm as a concept. This is an interpretation of his text that argues that the chiasm is a five-fold bodily relation, referring to: 1) Its role in connecting the visible with the invisible – or the perceptual with mental phenomena 2) The way the two eyes work together to produce one perceptual experience 3) The experience of touch other things and touching oneself 4) A linguistic and meaning-making process, in which meaning is constantly in flux 5) The social dynamic, or interactivity between One and Other The fourth chapter, “Models of the Brain: Metaphors, Architectures and Chiastic Applications” argues that the chiasm has usefulness in describing perception and activities of the brain. Beginning with a criticism of metaphors of the brain which have been influential in defining approaches to artificial intelligence, this chapter reveals the shortcomings of calling the brain a hierarchy, and the related notion that the brain is either a top-down or bottom-up architecture. It also challenges presently held views on how information is stored in a brain. Each sub-section accomplishes this by examining a different approach, including: 1) Representational Theory of Mind and its corresponding logic-based efforts to produce an artificially intelligent computer 2) Connectionism and one of its promising descendants in deep learning, specifically the convolutional neural network underlying SPAUN (Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network); and 3) Bayesian approaches to mind, which found momentum alongside linear predictive coding, and Hidden Markov models. To complete this analysis is a more intensive argument that the architecture of the biological human brain is chiastic, rather than strictly top-down or bottom-up. The final part of this chapter draws on the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, along with a body of research on the brain and bodily hemispheres. It demonstrates why scholars and engineers in artificial intelligence would be remiss to overlook the chiasm—both in developing theories of perception, and when it comes to making practical design choices in building more humanlike artificial intelligence. The last chapter in the thesis “Embodied X Figures and Forms of Thought” is intended to be a companion piece or footnote to the first. It is a review of Pelkey’s 2017 book, The Semiotics of X: Chiasmus, Cognition, and Extreme Body Memory. This review was previously published in Semiotica and is included here to provide further useful background.