Orientation reversal

The argumentative orientation of an utterance can be reversed by the substitution of one morpheme for another, for example, by substituting little for a little, S. Orientation; Orienting words. The adverb precisely, in one of its uses, can also operate a reversal of argumentative orientation:

S1: — Peter does not want to go out, he’s depressed.
S2: — Well, precisely, he would breathe the clean country air, it would clear his head.

He is depressed” justifies the decision not to go out; precisely accepts the fact that Peter is depressed, but re-orients it towards the opposite conclusion: Peter should go out (Ducrot 1982), by applying to it the different rule: “When one is depressed, one wants to stay home” vs. “Going out is good for depression”.

The orientation reversal is based on the letter of what the S1 says; S2 replies to S1Your argument does not support your claim, it even points to the contrary; you give arguments against your position”. S2 opposes to S1 his or her own saying, and thus affects his conversational face. This can be considered to be a typical reply “to the letter” (ad litteram), a strategy of discourse destruction, S. Matter; Destruction; Objection; Refutation.

Classical rhetoric has identified many phenomena of reversal of the same order, such as irony:

Everything is possible with the SNCF (French Railway Company), that is the best slogan you ever found!
Said by a traveler to a train conductor when the train had been held between two stations for two hours.

The slogan is oriented towards “the SNCF is capable of being incredibly positive and pleasant for you”; the circumstances show that “the SNCF is capable of being incredibly negative”, S. Irony.


Some of these strategies have been identified and named in rhetoric:

— Exploiting the various acceptances of a term to reverse its argumentative orientation: antanaclasis.
— Turning over an expression, to the same effect: antimetabole.
— Reversing the qualification of an act: antiparastasis.
— Reversing the orientation of a term by substituting another quasi-synonymous term or description: paradiastole.

1. Antanaclasis

Antanaclasis is a phenomenon of repetition of a polysemous or homonymous term or expression. In its second occurrence, the term has a meaning and a direction different from that which it had in the first occurrence. In other words, the signifier S0 has the meanings Sa and Sb. In its first occurrence S0 has the meaning Sa with the orientation Oa and, in the second occurrence the meaning Sb with the orientation Ob.

The resumption of the signifier S0 must take place in the same discursive unit, whether a statement, a paragraph, a turn or pair of turns. It can be performed either by the same speaker in the same speech unit or by a second speaker in a second turn.

Within the same-speaker intervention, the antanaclasis introduces an ambiguity, since the same word is used to designate different things. In a syllogism, the antanaclasis introduces in fact two terms under the cover of the same signifier S0, and thus produces a syllogism not of three but of four terms, that is, to a paralogism.

In interaction, the two meanings of the term are used in two consecutive turns of speech, the second invalidating the first. The antanaclasis is a kind of ironic echoing and aggressive retaliation. The word tolerance refers to a virtue; the French expression maison de tolérance, “house of tolerance”, refers to a legal, licensed… tolerated brothel:

S1: — A little tolerance please! (tolerance is a virtue)
S2: — Tolerance, there are houses for that (tolerance allows vice).

In French une foire refers to “a fair”, a commercial exhibition; or “a mess”, a state of general noise and confusion.

S1: — We could not book you a hotel, all are fully booked, there is a foire (“a fair”) downtown
S2: — It seems that it is often la foire downtown. Fr. foire = “mess”

In the second example, the second term reorients what was said as an excuse to a reproach: “you cannot get organized”; this word-for-word resumption undermines S1’s speech. The use of derivative words authorizes maneuvers of this type. The one who finds his work aliénant (F), that is “alienating” (as in “assembly line work alienates workers”), is accused of being an aliéné (F), that is an insane person:

The ideological policeman of collectivism can say almost the same to the opponent: “For those who come to protest against alienation, in our society we have lunatic asylums (F. asiles d’aliénés)”. (Thierry Maulnier, [The Meaning of Words], 1976[1])

The antanaclasis reorientation differs from that operated by precisely. This adverb takes a statement oriented towards a given conclusion, grants the statement (accepts the information), and transforms it in order to make it back the opposite conclusion. In the preceding case, it could be “Well, precisely, the fair was announced a long time ago, you should have taken precautions.” The antanaclasis does not take the excuse seriously, it disorients the discourse.

2. Antimetabole

Like antanaclasis, the antimetabole is a language ploy used to dismantle the opponent’s speech. The discourse is resumed and restructured syntactically so as to make it lose its orientation, or even to give it an opposite orientation. Dupriez quotes the determined / determining permutation mechanisms, by which a discourse on “the life of words” can be ironically destroyed by the affirmation of a preference for “the words of life” (Dupriez 1984: 53-54 ):

We do not live in a time of change, we live in a change of time.
These announcements effects (F. effets d’annonce) will quickly reduce to ineffective announcements (F. annonces sans effets)

S. Refutation; Prolepsis; Destruction; Converse.

3. Antiparastasis

This word refers to the stasis theory. A charge is laid against somebody; the accused acknowledges the fact for which he or she is blamed, but does not accept the blame:

L:     — You killed him!
L:     — Upon his request, I have ended his suffering.

The first statement is an accusation, “Shame on you, you deserve a condemnation!”; the second introduces an argument that cancels this orientation “what I have done is an act of courage”, or even reverses the accusation: “what I have done deserves every respect”, S. Motives.

This form of counter-argumentation gives the same fact two opposite orientations. The antanaclasis is a pseudo-acceptance and an implicit reversal, whereas the antiparastasis explicitly reverses the negative orientation given to the fact by the opponent.

This choice of defense gives the speaker a militant or rebellious ethos. Such situations based on radically opposite values have a high dramatic potential, for example, the confrontation between Antigone and Creon in Sophocles’ play Antigone enacts such a situation of antiparastasis.

4. Paradiastole

The term paradiastole originates from a Greek word expressing a movement of expansion and distinction. In a monologue, the paradiastole “establishes a system of nuancing and precision, generally developed upon parallel statements” (Molinié 1992, Paradiastole). The Latin term distinguo refers to a similar operation. The paradiastole refines the definition of a concept or establishes a distinction between two close concepts that, from the point of view of the speaker, should not be confused: “sadness is not depression”. In a dialogue, paradiastole rejects a partner’s word as inadequate, and substitutes for it another word, considered to be contextually more adequate, which reorients the discourse. Depression and sadness may be semantically close, but they can nevertheless be opposed as in:

L1:   — I’m depressed, I have to see a shrink.
L2:   — No, you’re not depressed, you’re sad, and sadness is not a medical condition.

Discourse constantly builds up such anti-oriented pairs, S. Orienting words.

All lovers, as we know, boast of their choice; […] The chatterer [is] good humored; the silent one maintains her virtuous modesty (Molière, [The Misanthrope], 1666[2])

(What is presented as) the true strongly negative description of a person as a chatterbox or a stupid person is opposed to how she appears in her lover’s eyes, as good humored or maintaining her virtuous modesty. The following example shows that this situation is generalized to discourse, where paradiastole no longer operates strictly between two terms, but between two discourses, opposing two points of view:

L1:   — He’s brave.
L2:   — I would not say that. He knows how to face danger, okay, but it seems to me that to be truly brave you also need a system of values, a clear sense of what you are fighting for​​… may be he is more of a hothead?

Starting from a mere nuancing, paradiastole can evolve into a term-to-term opposition:

L1:        — This is just ignorance
L2:        — No, it is simply bad faith.

[1] Thierry Maulnier, Le sens des mots, Paris: Flammarion, 1976, p. 9-10.
[2] Molière, Le Misanthrope, II, 4. Quoted from Moliere, The Misanthrope. Ed. by, Girard KS: E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, p. 26-27. https://archive.org/details/misanthropecomed00molirich (11-04-2017).