Culture Decoder


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The DECODER series — to which SEMIOVOX has invited our semiotician colleagues from around the world to contribute — explores fictional semiotician-esque action as depicted in books, movies, TV shows, etc.

Our first decoding activity is the learning of our parents’ language, and we do it many times. Most attempts take place when know that their meaning-webs are specific, different to those found elsewhere. But the first attempt is made when their language is the same thing as language itself, when every word they say is ‘gospel.’

When the patriarch of your family is a priest, it can be difficult to tell what is church and what is not.


Patricia Lockwood’s first attempts to decode the world had the extra complication of a priestdaddy. That is, a deeply eccentric father, Greg, whose late conversion to Catholic priesthood had before her birth transmuted his voice — for those inside one of the world’s most powerful myth systems — into the word of God. This memoir (the poet writer’s first prose publication) narrates an adult, unemployment-driven era spent in her parents’ home, re-immersed in the language of her childhood and finding meaning, again, in the process of understanding it. 

Being brought up in Catholicism (or as I was, in one of the Church of England churches which has retained incense, Confession etc.), means living in awe of the Word. The holy messages untangling themselves out of two-thousand-year-old metaphors. The calls and responses whose cadence you learn by heart before you know the words. The great ear in your head, listening to your thoughts.

Lockwood’s memoir stretches across the tension between her father’s role as channel for holy utterance with hers as a poet, simultaneously a teller of truths and creator of myth. His priest’s mind is shown to turn symbolic texts or artefacts into deeply resonant myths and back again in the blink of the eye (‘he is obsessed with the Transformers movies, because the greatest Transformer of all… is Jesus Christ.’) And like his voice, and like the Church’s, Priestdaddy is compulsively symbolic, so thick with images and meanings that the reader’s experience is one of the mind’s eye and the reasoning faculty hovering dually at all times, neither ever subdued or subduing. 

Long ago Greg, serving in a military submarine, watched The Exorcist and saw a simple message: the absolute rightness of the Catholic faith, which he shows no sign of ever having doubted. His poet daughter, in this memoir, displays this instinct of his world: to occupy epiphanies of meaning which feel golden and true. Agreeing with Yuval Noah Harari that to be human is to be myth-making, she reminds us that, ‘If you sneer at religion as the opiate of the masses, you must sneer also at the brain, because the receptors are there.’ 

But unlike her father — and perhaps like a semiotician — Lockwood no longer believes her search will conclude in any single, ultimate, universal truth. Instead, the lapsed faith-follower’s occupation lies in the intense, lifelong decoding and recoding of the millions-and-more myths surrounding us: ‘still participating in the language I was raised inside, which despite all renunciation will always be mine.’ 

DECODER: Adelina Vaca (Mexico) on ARRIVAL | William Liu (China) on A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE | Tim Spencer (England) on VURT | Ramona Lyons (USA) on BABEL-17 | Rachel Lawes (England) on NICE WORK | Alfredo Troncoso (Mexico) on THE ODYSSEY | Gabriela Pedranti (Spain) on MUSIC BOX | Charles Leech (Canada) on PATTERN RECOGNITION | Lucia Laurent-Neva (England) on LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY | Whitney Dunlap-Fowler (USA) on THE GIVER | Colette Sensier (England / Portugal) on PRIESTDADDY | Jamin Pelkey (Canada) on THE WONDER | Maciej Biedziński (Poland) on KOSMOS | Josh Glenn (USA) on LE GARAGE HERMÉTIQUE | Antje Weißenborn (Germany) on BABYLON BERLIN | Ximena Tobi (Argentina) on SIX FEET UNDER | Mariane Cara (Brazil) on ROPE | Maria Papanthymou (Greece) on MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS | Chirag Mediratta (India) on BLEACH | Dimitar Trendafilov (Bulgaria) on THE MATRIX | Martha Arango (Sweden) on ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE | Becks Collins (England) on THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY | Gemma Jones (Netherlands) on EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE | Ivan Islas (Mexico) on THE NAME OF THE ROSE | Paulina Goch-Kenawy (Poland) on THE SENSE OF AN ENDING.

Also see these international semio series: COVID CODES | SEMIO OBJECTS | MAKING SENSE WITH… | COLOR CODEX | DECODER

Tags: Books, Decoder