Christopher Johnson, who died on 17 May 2017, made an early mark on UK French studies through his doctoral research on Derrida and his central involvement in the Modern Critical Theory Group and its journal Paragraph. Yet alongside his conceptual brilliance, it is equally for his significance as an intellectual historian that he will be remembered. Chris’s enviable familiarity with the internal disciplinary configuration of the human sciences in post-war France, and his interest in the parallel emergence of the exact sciences of molecular biology, systems theory, information theory, and cybernetics, led to significantly recontextualized accounts of the philosophy of Derrida, the structural anthropology of Lévi-Strauss, and the ethnology of the pre-historian Leroi-Gourhan. Taken as a whole, System and Writing in the Philosophy of Jacques Derrida (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), Derrida: The Scene of Writing (London: Phoenix, 1997), Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Formative Years (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), and the unfinished Language, Technology, Aesthetics: The Work of André Leroi-Gourhan constitute a coherent and powerfully original body of scholarship. It is underpinned by Chris’s long-standing fascination with the role of technology in the historical development and material mediation of systems of meaning. Chris grew up in south London and in 1981 gained a first-class degree in French from King’s College London. It was in the course of three years spent in Paris, initially at the École normale supérieure with a French government scholarship (1981–82), then as a Lecteur at Nanterre (1982–84), that he attended Michel Serres’s public lectures at the Sorbonne and became interested in the history and philosophy of science. Once he began formulating his PhD topic on the way systems theory and cybernetics might throw light on Derrida’s structures of argument, he sought out the supervision of Marian Hobson, a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, with whose earliest work on Derrida he felt an affinity; it was a felicitous choice, with Marian remaining an admired mentor, as well as a close and supportive friend, throughout his life. On completion of his three years of British Academy doctoral funding (1984–87), Chris spent a year as a Teaching Fellow at Southampton University (1987–88); he then returned to a Junior Research Fellowship at Trinity (1988–92) that allowed him to transform his PhD thesis into a monograph for Cambridge University Press. The luxury of this long period of intellectual maturation, first in Paris and then in the scientifically inflected atmosphere of Trinity, gave Chris the opportunity to master the contexts, disciplinary structures, and conceptual complexities of post-war French thought, and to lay very firm foundations for a distinctive research trajectory. After a Visiting Fellowship in 1992 at the Humanities Research Centre at Irvine, California, Chris was appointed the same year to a permanent lectureship at Keele University. This return to the real world of UK higher education was one he relished, just as he had enjoyed his year at Southampton. It was a time at Keele when an expanding Department of French offered scope for new projects in teaching and research. Chris always made academic friends easily, and at Keele he was part of a tightly knit group of new appointees who together developed the curriculum, hosted conferences, and co-wrote an interdisciplinary study of stardom in post-war France (Chris’s contribution was ‘The Intellectual as Celebrity: Claude Lévi-Strauss’). In 1999 Chris was appointed Professor of French at the University of Nottingham. He appeared not to have the slightest desire for institutional power (he never aspired to be Head of School, Dean, or Pro-Vice-Chancellor, for example), but he visibly loved his leadership roles within French. He alternated between stints as Head of Department and Director of Research, and never begrudged the time, paperwork, preparation, and endless trouble-shooting involved in doing these jobs well. In both roles, he devoted enormous amounts of time to individuals; he forged unique relationships with academic and administrative staff alike, was especially supportive of postgraduates and early-career researchers, and put a lot of energy into welcoming new staff (with personal tours of Beeston designed to demonstrate that this university suburb, where he himself lived, was by far the best place to settle). Individual relationships were invariably cemented with coffee or lunch, the exchange of CDs of newly discovered music, informal office visits, and Chris’s moderately obsessive walks around the university lake. At the same time, the entertainment of academic visitors was always an excuse to bring the department together socially, often at the restaurant, French Living, in the centre of Nottingham. The energy and vision that Chris devoted to fostering the department’s research was extraordinary. He closely supported the Editor of Nottingham French Studies in negotiating the journal’s successful move to publication by Edinburgh University Press. He was centrally involved in attracting a succession of high-profile Special Professors in strategic areas of research, all of whom remained friends or collaborators with the department. He never missed a staff or postgraduate conference, work-in-progress seminar, or visiting speaker’s paper, his wide and eclectic intellectual interests allowing him to engage with any and every topic or argument, but always in the unassuming, genuinely curious way that was his unique (and very enabling) way of animating discussions. His own research on the mediation of thought spilled over into collaborative activities. In 2002 he co-organized with Alison Martin a conference on the role of the interview in post-war French thought (later published as a special issue of Nottingham French Studies) and in 2007, with Kathryn Batchelor, he co-founded the Translating Thought Research Group, which explored the difficulties of translating philosophical terms and concepts, as well as the role of translation in the development of philosophical thought itself. Chris never lost his enthusiasm for Translating Thought, which would become one of the signature research themes of the department. But Chris’s real passion at Nottingham was the Science Technology Culture Research Group, a small group of colleagues from across the university (specialists of science and society, architecture, critical theory, sociology, linguistics, and French), who met very regularly for ten years to discuss theories about technology. What started in 2003 as a deliberately low-key reading group, before progressing to seminars, workshops, conferences, podcasts, introductions to sci-fi film screenings, and so on, is described by Arthur Piper, Chris’s close friend and co-founder of the group, as ‘a real Johnson bricolage’ — modestly assembled, with funding cobbled together from all sorts of places. It was also a space of shared fun that allowed Chris to give a paper on trailers for 1950s sci-fi B-movies, or to introduce Robo-Sapien, his two-foot-high robot that could waddle about and say set phrases. Paraphrasing Lévi-Strauss, Chris would claim that technological toys are good to play with and good to think with, and it was always a short step to research publications such as ‘I-You-We, Robot’ (2006), or the especially fine ‘Analogue Apollo: Cybernetics and the Space Age’ (2008). At the time of Chris’s premature death at the age of fifty-eight, he was still in mid-flight, both intellectually and professionally. Bringing the annual Society for French Studies conference to Nottingham in 2013 had brought him real satisfaction. It came at the end of a six-year term on the Society’s Executive Committee; as ever, he took all of its aims and activities very seriously, cared about details, and served for four years on the jury for the R. H. Gapper Book Prize (when he took over as Co-ordinator and Chair in 2011, he brought his characteristic grace and quiet eloquence to the public award of the prize). He gave a plenary lecture at the Society’s 2014 Annual Conference in Aberdeen, and was delighted when, in 2015, he learned that the Executive Committee wished to nominate him as President-Elect of the Society (alas, due to health issues, he made the difficult decision to withdraw). He had been awarded a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship (2013–15) to complete his monograph on Leroi-Gourhan, and was nurturing a raft of more general projects, both individual and collaborative, on the post-war mediation of science and technology in France and elsewhere. He planned to work further on pre-history, on the reception of French cybernetics, and, as part of an increasing interest in science communication per se, on early science documentaries. Chris himself, of course, was a mediator par excellence. He mediated the life of ideas and the discipline of French, both within the University of Nottingham and nationally. Through the warm, friendly relations he forged with colleagues throughout his career, he mediated all of the departments and research networks through which he passed, both structurally and affectively. In the dedication of his Lévi-Strauss book to his sisters, he movingly describes them as his ‘elementary structure of kinship’. His family was very important to him, as he was to them. He is survived by his sisters Pat and Linda, by his nephew and nieces, and by his partner Ute Hirsekorn, whom he met at Nottingham in 1999. DK © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for French Studies. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
French Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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