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Institutions of Reading

As Laura Heffernan has recently limned in her piece on the “New Disciplinary History,” literary studies has determinedly taken to retrack its epistemologies and reconfigure the discipline in terms of reading itself. While recent work on the disciplinary history of literary studies has further expounded the political investments—investments that almost always support white, patriarchal, and imperialist ends—undergirding the foundational practices of the profession, this scholarship tends to only reach as far back as I. A. Richards.[1] This mini-Renaissance of Richards has produced newer, more complex narratives concerning the early years of academic literary study; however, Richards’s ascension as a major figure in the Cambridge English School occurred over a decade after its inception during the First World War by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, first substantial holder of the King Edward VII (KEVII) Professorship of English Literature and the institutional architect behind the Cambridge English School and its reading practices.[2] To date, Quiller-Couch remains a key and under-studied figure in the mediation between academic reading practices and institution. While this recent work on Richards, especially that of Joseph North, has decoupled his methodological investments from that of the New Critics, I aim to show how Quiller-Couch advocated a sort of antimethod wherein he prescribed certain texts but not reading practices—opposite Richards’s practical criticism that was touted as a strong method applicable to all texts.[3]

Appointed to his professorship in 1912, and foundational to the founding of an English Tripos at Cambridge in 1917, Quiller-Couch promoted what I am calling an “ambulatory” approach to literary studies in which students were left to their own devices in determining literary archives and reading methods (or lack thereof). Despite this sort of anti-method of Quiller-Couch’s School of English, the development of English literary studies at Cambridge remained deeply wedded to a very particular kind of English identity. Even with these shortcomings, I argue that a selective recuperation of Quiller-Couch’s ambulatory approach offers a less teleological and thus more capacious way to engage with texts. Instead of letting methodology dictate the reading of texts, readings should create methodologies. Ambling through texts (shifting course as needed) promotes what some have taken to calling a “weak theory” of reading that values provisionality over totality and accepts its own politicized and therefore problematic nature—even if Quiller-Couch’s instantiation of this approach remained blind to its own political motivations.[4] In thinking through the institutional history of literary studies, scholars have deftly shown how new critical methods are, inevitably, institutionalized before being jettisoned for new modes of reading that, in turn, become institutionalized themselves, leaving us in a recursive loop. Oftentimes, these new critical practices position themselves as the methodological salve to the damages done by the methodological past, but I wonder: can method really save us from method?[5]

To me, the answer seems to be a resounding “No.” Instead of awaiting some sort of methodological messiah, I suggest we consider how to best manage the inextricable relationship between method and academic institutions. It seems to me that method is always already an institutional practice precisely because it almost always depends on reading in some form or fashion and reading itself is a kind of an institution. In looking at reading as an institution, I turn to Roland Barthes to elaborate what I am calling “Reading Degree Zero” which, like its titular forebear in Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero, readily accepts the impossibility of an apolitical practice of reading while it, nonetheless, teases out what a zero-degree reading might look like and, ultimately, shows how identitarian and political forces inevitably dictate the development of reading methods.

In putting Quiller-Couch and Barthes into conversation with one another, I want to demonstrate how, by maintaining a metric of value for reading practices, literary studies implicitly situates reading as a neutral activity wherein one method is better than another regardless of object. I propose, instead, we continually stew in the uneasy tensions between method and identity, the individual and the institution, and the implications of those relationships, to understand fully their imbricated nature in the establishment of academic reading practices. Long gone is the myth that an apolitical and ahistorical reading practice can exist, and yet in demonizing old methods these new reading practices are simply playing the same sort of institutional game by doubling down on method as the means to sociopolitical activism while remaining myopic about their own methodological shortcomings. By recognizing the potential of Quiller-Couch’s ambulatory approach, while also acknowledging its flaws, I am not offering yet another new (if also quite old) method but rather trying to undo this false assumption that there exists, in any sense, a “correct” way to read.

The Ambling English(ness) Tripos

Louis Paul, “Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch,” London, 1920
Fig. 1. Louis Paul, “Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch,” London, 1920. Licensed by the British National Portrait Gallery.Fig. 1. Louis Paul, “Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch,” London, 1920. Licensed by the British National Portrait Gallery.

Even before he took up his appointment as Professor, both Quiller-Couch and the field of English literary studies were decried as illegitimate and unworthy of those hallowed halls at Cambridge (fig. 1). Instead of defending the rights of English literary studies to exist within the auspices of the university, Quiller-Couch instead went on the offensive and publicly castigated the university as an antiquated institution, noting the Nietzschean bush game inherent in legitimizing academic fields.[6] In his first few years as Professor, Quiller-Couch rigorously resisted academic formalization, which he felt not only stifled the “living art” that was English literature but also signaled the death knell of a field’s vitality as it ossified within the academy. But once the Great War began, Quiller-Couch, splitting his time between Cambridge and his hometown of Fowey where he served as a training officer, took the first major steps in formalizing English literary studies at Cambridge by calling for the formation of an English Tripos—a standalone track of academic study for undergraduates. For a country devastated by the ravages of trench warfare, Quiller-Couch saw literary studies as a literal means towards national rejuvenation. Delivered during the final stages of the Third Battle of Ypres, which saw British casualties in excess of 200,000, Quiller-Couch emphatically ends his lecture, “On a School of English,” explaining how England will redevelop its own language such that her “sons, now fighting in France, [will] have a language ready for the land they shall recreate and repeople.”[7] But in order to keep English literary studies vibrant, Quiller-Couch maintained that the English Tripos must resist the stultifying pratfalls of academic formalization. Thus, he developed his ambulatory approach to literary studies, which offered a way to formalize the study of literature without necessarily deadening its objects of study by affording students the opportunity to develop their own literary archives; or, in other words, to amble through literature among their own footpaths. Thus, in this shift towards formalization, Quiller-Couch maintained his critique of that formalization and its role in English social stratification but likewise began to more fully consider the benefits afforded by formalizing literary studies in order to create a more collectivized (if also national) sense of Englishness following the bloody battles of the Great War.

Quiller-Couch’s ambulatory approach to literary studies at Cambridge can be first glimpsed in a private letter he sent to his Cambridge confidante Hugh Fraser Stewart on 14 January 1916 (fig. 2).[8] When questioned by Stewart about the potential problems inherent with the examining of literature, Quiller-Couch casually remarked that they will solve them “ambulando.” Quiller-Couch’s invocation of the Latin solvitur ambulando—translated as “to solve by walking” but commonly understood to mean to solve problems only as they arise—highlights Quiller-Couch’s desire for methods to emerge rather than be imposed.[9] Quiller-Couch continues by explaining that any potential difficulties could be mitigated if he and Stewart “take pains [in] specifying the books;” however, the Professor seemed to realize shortly after that reading lists themselves represent a sort of institutional imposition and decided to instead encourage the students of the Cambridge English School to study “on the broadest possible lines” and to craft their own personalized reading lists. Undergraduates, argued Quiller-Couch, should be allowed to read what interests them most. This belief was reaffirmed in the “Course of Study” section for the English School in the Student Handbook, wherein undergraduates were advised that they “need not attend many lectures, for the preparation for [the study of English Literature] depends less on teaching and more on the student’s private reading than that required for any other Honours Examination.”[10] Exam questions, then, could be much more fluid and less sutured to particular texts. The goal, ostensibly, was to eschew lengthy reading lists and instead encourage students to create their own archives with a few select interlocutors. Thus, exams would not test prescribed and compartmentalize knowledge but rather ask broader questions that students could answer based on their own reading lists. Students could amble through texts as certain threads caught their interests.

Michael Patrick Hart, photograph of January 14, 1916 letter from Quiller-Couch to Hugh Fraser Stewart, Cambridge, 2017.
Fig. 2. Michael Patrick Hart, photograph of January 14, 1916 letter from Quiller-Couch to Hugh Fraser Stewart, Cambridge, 2017. Licensed by the Jesus College Archives.

In his public lectures as KEVII Professor, Quiller-Couch further elaborated this ambulatory approach to literary studies by describing the study of literature as a “living art,” whose liveliness is threatened by the staid traditionalism of the university protocols that could potentially ossify the dynamism of literature. Quiller-Couch’s lectures, then, promoted a seminal sort of anti-institutionalism that actively disrupted the very notion that the study of literature, especially English literature, could be formalized and institutionalized within the academy in any meaningful way. Instead, Quiller-Couch informs his listeners that he will approach building a School of English much like the artist in Don Quixote, who, when asked what he was painting, replied, “That as it may turn out” (Art of Writing, 9). Instead of trying to force English Literature into preexisting epistemological organizations, Quiller-Couch—in letting things run “as it may turn out”—was not necessarily rejecting formalization wholesale but rather seeking, again, to let formalizing practices grow organically in process rather than be enforced from the fore.

These processes emerged most prevalently during the formation of the English Tripos, which resulted in Quiller-Couch ultimately prescribing a particular reading list that valorized the so-called English masterpiece, particularly in the work of Shakespeare, Milton, and the Romantic poets. The English masterpiece, Quiller-Couch argued, was the proper artefact to study because it was both impersonal and universal. As Brian Doyle cogently explains, this promotion of impersonality and universality allowed certain literary works to be “removed from the context of abstract generalized exchange [and] fitted to affirm the existence of intrinsic value prior and external to exchange,” even when these claims of universality were obviously localized such that “authority invested in English literature was not simply ‘eternal,’ it was also resolutely national.”[11] By marking the English masterpiece as universal and impersonal, Quiller-Couch was marking Englishness itself as the same. And while he promoted a so-called methodless approach to reading, it is clear that these practices were endemically tied to national identity through these selective reading lists. From its beginning, the institutionalized academic study of literature was a nationalist project. It was the institutionalization of English literature by English academics for English education as a way to make Englishness a universalized norm. That is to say, the efforts to formalize the study of English literature into an academic field simultaneously entailed an effort to codify “Englishness” itself.

Reading Degree Zero

Given these inherently identitarian politics that guided the early formalization of academic English Literature, recent years have seen efforts to decolonize literary studies—starting with the creation of more diverse and representative reading lists. Additionally, many more lately have begun to question the very methodological foundations of the profession, hence the turns towards surface reading, distant reading, and postcritique that—bypassing Quiller-Couch’s ambulando attitude entirely—take aim at close reading as method. Much in the vein of Doyle, these new reading practices reveal how close reading’s self-proclamations of ahistoricism and apoliticism are themselves deeply undergirded by political investments that usually support white, patriarchal, and imperialist ends. But to move past the inherently exclusionary and prejudiced facets of close reading seems impossible without moving beyond reading itself. In accordance to Dipesh Chakrabarty’s assertions on European intellectual thought, I would argue that close reading is “both indispensable and inadequate in helping us to think through” texts.[12] As Angus Connell Brown argues in his reading of Joseph North and Gauri Viswanathan, literary studies and close reading offer a means of political resistance on the one hand; on the other, they operate in a way to “enforce the economic, political, and cultural systems of state rule.”[13] And Audre Lorde said it first and said it best: the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.[14] But perhaps there is a way to make renovations.

As other pieces in this cluster have shown, particularly the works from Emma West, Robert Higney, and Matthew Chambers, the projects of colonialism, white supremacy, and the patriarchy were and still are incredibly complex, imbricated, and intersectional. Institutions are crucial to maintaining these projects if also crucial to their undoing. Barthes held on deeply to this thought throughout his career as a critic and writer:

Discourse reflecting upon discourse is the object of a special vigilance on the part of institutions, which normally contain it within the limits of a strict code: in the literary State, criticism must be controlled as much as a police force is: to free the one would be quite as “dangerous” as democraticizing the other: it would be to threaten the power of power, the language of language.[15]

Barthes bookends his critical career with similar reappraisals: “Literature could not be vanquished by its own weapons” in Writing Degree Zero and “as if anything that came out of language could make language tremble” in his meta-autobiography Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes. Readings of readings must be aware of how these institutional structures of power are simply reiterating themselves under the veil of these newly “democratizing” methodologies.

I am not advocating Quiller-Couch’s ambulatory approach as the answer to these problems. What I am proposing is that we selectively recuperate this adversarial stance of early Cambridge English Studies as a model for critical reflection on our own formalizing processes, pedagogical practices, and systems of value within today’s evermore neoliberal and corporatized university; however, in this recuperation we must actively avoid seeing literary studies as the way towards some sort of egalitarianism. That is to say, we need to recognize the importance of method as a means of political resistance against and within the academy while also acknowledging its sharply limited purview of equality. Arguments that prop up reading (and the Humanities writ large) as a means to creating “better” citizens to produce a public capable of critical-thinking and informed decision-making position the Humanities as the always-ready-and-forever panacea for contemporary political woes without acknowledging its potential place as cause rather than cure, as indispensable as it is inadequate, as emancipatory as it is inescapable. This, then, is the task of reading. To resist from within knowing full well academic work cannot help but reconstitute the very institutions it seeks to destroy—including reading itself.


[1] In particular, I am thinking of the recent scholarship from Angus Connell Brown, Helen Thaventhiran’s Radical Empiricists (London: Oxford, 2015), and Joseph North’s “What’s ‘New Critical’ about ‘Close Reading’?: I. A. Richards and his New Critical Reception,” New Literary History 44, no. 1 (2013): 141–57.

[2] Substantial in the sense that the Chair’s first holder, Arthur Woollgar Verrall, died eighteen months after his appointment in 1910, and Quiller-Couch held the professorship from 1912 until his death in 1945.

[3] See North’s “What’s ‘New Critical’ about ‘Close Reading’?” as well as his monograph Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).

[4] Ellen Rooney deftly explains the value of a reading practice that “anticipates its undoing, undoing itself, again and again; its transformations of form work its surprising openings to the future. Provisional—but what is not provisional?—it is not concerned to last” (“Symptomatic Reading is a Problem of Form” Critique and Postcritique, ed. Elizabeth S. Anker and Rita Felski, [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017], 127–52, 147). Likewise, this provisionality is touted as the strength of weakness in the Modernism/Modernity special issue on weak theory. See Paul K. Saint-Amour’s introduction as well as the first, second, third, and fourth set of responses it elicited.

[5] Here, I am thinking primarily about a variety of reading practices developed over the past decade, including surface reading, distant reading, and postcritique. What I find peculiar about these methods is how they often rely on the very methodological tools they cast aside as insufficient in justifying their need in our current political clime. Best and Marcus symptomatically read symptomatic reading. Moretti close reads his close-reading critics. Anker and Felski critique critique. These are not performative gestures but rather legitimate attempts to try to show methodological shortcomings only to prove precisely why those methods remain important to literary studies today.

[6] These lectures, delivered between January 29, 1913 and January 28, 1914, were later collected and published as On the Art of Writing (London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1916). I elaborate on Quiller-Couch’s anti-institutionalism in my current book project, The Glass Canon.

[7] Arthur Quiller-Couch, On the Art of Reading (London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1920), 119.

[8] I found these letters, uncatalogued, during a research trip to the archives of Jesus College, Cambridge.

[9] Alice Woods has described this practice as a study of literature in “pragmatic, lived terms [with] a capacity for negotiation” (“Secularity and the Uses of Literature: English at Cambridge, 1890–1920,” Modern Language Quarterly 75, no. 2 [2019], 259–77, 273).

[10] The Student Handbook of the University and Colleges of Cambridge, 20th edition, revised to June 20, 1921, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1921), 382.

[11] Brian Doyle, English and Englishness (New York: Routledge, 1989), 14, 36.

[12] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 6.

[13] Angus Connell Brown. “The World of Close Reading,” Modernism/modernity Print Plus, Vol. 3, Cycle 2 (3 October 2018).

[14] See Lorde’s essay of the same name in Sister Outsider (New York: Penguin, 2007), 110–113.

[15] Roland Barthes. Criticism and Truth, trans. Katrine Pilcher Keuneman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 33; emphasis mine.