A Semiological Exploration of Dali’s Paranoiac-Critical Method

by Aaron Ross

Introduction to Semiotics
Instructor: Gary Kibbins

According to post-structuralist semiology, a sign is a thing which stands for something else. The sign may refer to the specific content intended to be communicated (the signified), or it may simply point to a formal device devoid of meaning (the signifier). In either case, there is a potential infinitude of interpretations of a given sign. This is a result of the incessant and tyrannical generation of meaning which takes place in the human psyche, wherein mental constructs are freely associated with one another. Signs, signifiers, and signifieds interact as if they were particles suspended in a turbulent medium, connecting with one another in a chaotic order determined by the matrix of the individual's personality and experiences. Theoretically, this leads to an infinite chain of semiosis, in which each concept is related to all others through the process of association.

In practice, however, the chain always breaks. If it didn't, the infinite connectedness of all concepts would destroy any form of relativity. We would be left with an immobile solid rather than a free-flowing liquid. So, the psyche must deliberately sever certain links in the chain, and establish some form of interpretation of the sign. Of course, this interpretation need not be singular nor final; in fact, it is often highly volatile and subject to sudden catalytic change.

In the artworks of Salvador Dali, representational images often have more than one dominant interpretation. In contrast to the multiple images often visualized in Rorschach tests and abstract works of art, Dali's paintings do not rely on the viewer's unconscious projection. Rather, they are generated by the artist's willful submission to the associative power of the psyche. This process resembles the interpretive disorder of paranoia, and therefore Dali called it the "paranoiac-critical method." In his famous essay, "The Conquest of the Irrational," 1935, he made a detailed exposition of the paranoiac-critical method, discovered six years earlier:

It was in 1929 that Salvador Dali brought his attention to bear on the internal mechanism of paranoiac phenomena and envisaged the possibility of an experimental method based on the sudden power of the systematic associations proper to paranoia; this method afterwards became the delirio-critical synthesis which bears the name "paranoiac-critical activity." Paranoia: delirium of interpretive association bearing a systematic structure. Paranoiac-critical activity: spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the interpretive critical association of delirious phenomena. (1)

The primary function of the paranoiac-critical method is to produce images of a startling and authentically unknown nature. The paranoiac mind perceives alternate meanings of individual signs, and interpretations displace one another almost instantaneously. Whether these new relationships are created or merely noticed by the paranoiac is irrelevant. As Dali explained, "It is enough that the delirium of interpretation should have linked together the implications of the images of the different pictures covering a wall for the real existence of this link to be no longer deniable."(2)

These links can be of the order signifier-signified, or signifier-signifier, or, strangely enough, both simultaneously. The clearest and most celebrated example of this phenomenon can be seen in Dali's painting of 1940, Slave Market with the Invisible Bust of Voltaire. Dali, seeing Houdon's Bust of Voltaire, instantaneously envisioned a pair of Catholic nuns hidden within the features of the philosopher. The formal pretext of Houdon's sculpture (the signifier) gave way to a vision of the nuns (another signifier). Yet, at the same time, there exists a conceptual relationship. Dali had been struggling with his repudiation of his Catholic heritage, so his spontaneous visualization of nuns within the visage of the atheist Voltaire had a signifier-signified connection. It is possible that the two forms of association operated at different levels in the artist's psyche.

In any event, the paranoiac-critical method is a clear example of the unpredictable energy of semiotic association harnessed to create works with a multiplicity of meanings. This is an immensely valuable discovery, not only for artists, but for all who seek to understand the creation of meaning. As Dali wrote, "The paranoiac mechanism whereby the multiple image is released is what supplies the understanding with the key to the birth and origin of all images, the intensity of these dominating the aspect which hides the many appearances of the concrete."(3)

It seems ridiculous in light of all of this that post-structuralist theorists persist in proclaiming "the death of the author." How could any object or any event which we perceive as "art" come to being without the initiative of its creator? Surely Slave Market with the Invisible Bust of Voltaire did not spontaneously generate itself ex nihilo. Granted, the ultimate meaning of each perception is created by its reader. However, no amount of theoretical discourse is going to annihilate the role of the author, the originator of the work to which the discourse refers!


(1) Dali, Salvador, "The Conquest of the Irrational," 1936. Reprinted in Salvador Dali: A Panorama of His Art, edited by A. Reynolds Morse. Salvador Dali Museum, Cleveland, Ohio, 1974, p. 49.

(2) Dali, "The Stinking Ass," 1930. Excerpted from his book La Femme Visible, and reprinted in Surrealists on Art, edited by Lucy Lippard. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1970, p. 97.

(3) Ibid., p. 99.

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