Parallel Computing and Surrealist Syntax – Alex MacGregor

I had first encountered the idea of “parallel architecture” in a computer science environment. As the amount of data we’re collecting continues to grow exponentially, the traditional method of linear computing has become ineffective. We simply could not build processors big enough to handle the sheer size of data we’re now dealing with. Parallel computing, also sometimes referred to as “distributed computing” has provided a solution to this problem by distributing the data load across multiple processors and thereby divvying up the workload. Linguistics, with its ability to produce an infinite number of possible sentences, can be seen as the ultimate workload, so using parallel architecture in a cognitive setting makes sense.

Visualization of Parallel Computing from WikipediaTripartite Parallel Architecture from Jackendoff’s Foundations of Language

I’ve previously touched upon it in my older posts, but the convergence of semiotic/linguistic concepts and computational concepts continues to excite me.

As for analyzing symbolic genres through the lens of a sign system, surrealist art provides an excellent avenue to do so. If we take a look at Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory, we can see iconic resemblances, albeit distorted, throughout.

Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) by Salvador Dalí

The head smiling in the clouds, the hand grasping a breast, the leg, the man in the bottom of the picture, and the town in the background are all recognizably connected to their respective signified, and as such are operating within the iconic mode. But when looking at this painting in a more abstract, meta sense, we can see how it is also operating in the symbolic mode. The scene is obviously one that does not, and cannot, exist in reality, so in order to analyze and derive meaning, we must utilize learned references. For example, Dali meant this painting to be a symbolic critique of the Spanish Civil War. The beans in the foreground were meant to augment the mass of flesh in the painting and represent war as a devourer of life. The skyline was meant to evoke that of Catalonia, which was a major revolutionary hub during the war. The signifier (painting) does not resemble that signified (Spanish Civil War), except when we utilize these agreed upon heuristics and abstractions. As such, the painting can be viewed as icons within a symbol.

What makes Surrealism interesting is by distorting the image on the iconic level and “playing” with the visual syntax, you can derive an interesting semantic result. Just like with linguistic grammar, we notice an awkwardness when the various elements, be they word classes or visual features, are out of their order. We call the former bad grammar, but the latter has been made into an art form.


Jackendoff, Ray. Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar. Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007.