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Remembering Franson in Celebration

Ayesha Kidwai
CL/SLL&CS
I would like to begin this remembrance of my dear colleague Franson Manjali, with a thought sourced from someone whose mind he knew well and found interesting—the philosopher Nietzsche, whom Franson edited a volume about in 2006. This is a fragment from ‘Thus spake Zarathustra’:

 

Many die too late, and some die too early. Yet strange soundeth the precept: "Die at the right time!

Die at the right time: so teacheth Zarathustra.

To be sure, he who never liveth at the right time, how could he ever die at the right time? Would that he might never be born!

…The consummating death I show unto you, which becometh a stimulus and promise to the living. His death, dieth the consummating one triumphantly, surrounded by hoping and promising ones. Thus should one learn to die; and there should be no festival at which such a dying one doth not consecrate the oaths of the living!

 

In these lines, Nietzsche emphasises the importance of “dying at the right time,” while one’s life still calls for celebration, while one has a rich legacy that those who have been left behind can still profit from. So even as we are overcome with grief at how Franson left us too early—and for many of us that association goes back three to four decades—I would like to celebrate Franson on his triumphant, consummate death, and to remind ourselves of the depth and richness of his legacy.

 

A conventional homage to the astounding body of work that Franson has left behind could list his wide-ranging publications in several areas: cognitive linguistics, ethics, aesthetics, philosophies of discourse and image, metaphor, and the several translations and critical readings of Continental, and particularly French, philosophy. Such a homage would appropriately dip into his remarkable CV and pluck out no less than five book length volumes individually authored by him —Labyrinths of Language: Philosophical and Cultural Investigations (2014), Language, Discourse and Culture: Contemporary Philosophical Perspectives (2008), Literature and Infinity (2001), Meaning, Culture and Cognition (2000), Nuclear Semantics (1991), four edited collections: Philosophy, Language and the Political: Poststructuralism in Perspective (2018) (co-edited with Marc Crépon), Poststructuralism and Cultural Theory: The Linguistic Turn and Beyond (2006), Nietzsche: Philologist, Philosopher and Cultural Critic (2006), Language, Society and Discourse (1992); and two very important translations from French, Philosophical Chronicles by Jean-Luc Nancy, 2008, and the Morphogenesis of Meaning by Jean Petitot (2004). And this impressive list would far from exhaust the enumeration of his accomplishments, as we wouldn’t yet have spoken of the much longer list of his journal articles, book chapters, and, most importantly, the considered and lively interventions he made in seminars and scholarly discussions.

 

This is neither the time or the place to attempt to distill the essence of this work of a lifetime into a handful of themes that run through them—more importantly, I thoroughly lack the competence and the scholarship to do so. Instead, all I can do is to direct our attention to some aspects of Franson’s engagement with questions about the practice of linguistics, which I think demonstrate how vital his presence was for research at the Centre for Linguistics. These questions were often the subject of his courses and lectures in the Centre and his interaction with students and colleagues, and it is mainly his intervention that made the work in CLE, and then CL, distinctive and relevant to both a global scholarship as well as students’s lived experience of life and language and meaning.

 

The questions that Franson asked about linguistics were deceptively simple ones, but ones that demanded an internal critique of what linguists do, and located it as a discipline of the humanities. They were some of the most difficult to even formulate, let alone answer. A sampler is some of his favourite ones:

  • What exactly is the study of language? Is understanding the morphology, phonology, syntax, lexicon, etc of a language truly the goal of studying language? Is that the true study of language, specially if we think of it as a universally available, egalitarian, uniquely human resource that we consider to be the source of our shared cognitive faculties, the compacts that make up societies and cultures, and which constitutes the inquiring scholars window into the human mind?

  • What exactly is the relationship of language to meaning? And actually, what is meaning? Do the gradations and typologies grammarians create of meaning—lexical meaning, metaphorical meaning, speaker-meaning, social meaning discursive meaning—even begin to describe what meaning truly is for a speaking/listening mind at all?

  • What is modern linguistics exactly and where does it come from? Does it spring, sui generis as it were, as an immutable truth or does it have a history that is not about language at all? Is its history and its contemporary turn imbricated in exclusions that are sourced from less savoury concerns? In fact, should linguistics be a discipline at all?

 

As all my colleagues and the students who have had the good fortune to attend to his work and lectures for 31 years will testify, Franson’s relentless repetition of these questions, in different forms and from the vantage point of a multitude of philosophical positions, brought minds alive, caused tempers to be raised, authorities to be flung about, and drove all concerned to heightened states of exasperation—both with the topic and each other. But in each of these enlivening conversations, everyone was entitled to speak— whether you could find a common language or not, or whether your thoughts were appropriate or not, as long as you thought before you did so. No thought was unsayable to Franson—which is perhaps the greatest compliment any teacher can have. It should therefore be no surprise that he was a much-loved supervisor—he supervised at least 19 MPhil dissertations and 13 PhD theses until he retired in 2020. For most of us, these debates and discussions remain with every single student who ever witnessed or participated in them.

 

With Franson’s retirement in November 2020, my colleagues and I felt a deep sense of personal loss that the most distinctive personality in our Centre in the last three decades, was no more to be seen in its corridors. In the semesters that have passed, we have come to feel the loss even more acutely, given the critical role he played in the intellectual life of the Centre, the School, and the University. Franson’s courses and conference enabled linguists to have conversations with the humanities and the social sciences. And now he has sadly left us forever.

 

As someone who was in Franson’s first batch of students in 1989, I have always known that I have learnt from him throughout my life. He was the first teacher that I called by name, and the first one who demonstrated to me how answers are only important if they deepen the questions we must ask. I learnt from him that the only gift a genuine academic can give to younger colleagues is a generous and hospitable platform to express themselves, irrespective of whether you agreed with them or not. And most of all, it is from Franson, that I first learnt that the university, and particularly this one, is a place where ideas can dream of having legacies, and that to be an academic is to be their custodian who aims to foster an environment where they can be aired freely. To the legacy of ideas that he safeguarded in his four decade long association with JNU are today added Franson’s own.

It’s on us now—to strive to keep Franson’s ideas a stimulus and promise to the living and to consecrate the paths that he, and this University, live by.

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