Sam Pink, Sean Thor Conroe, and Institutional Rot – Scott Litts

The controversy around Sean Thor Conroe and Sam Pink raises interesting questions about authenticity, and how the comparatively well-off have a tendency (which is maybe a particularly American tendency) to grasp at low-culture and reject their relative status.

It’s often the case that American high-culture produces dissatisfaction with itself, and in the occasional case of someone like Sean Thor Conroe, this sometimes results in a total rejection of its pretensions and value system (but of course not so completely that they sacrifice institutional connections). 

Sean was granted entry and access to such institutions and their resources (education and what the institutions deem expertise, but perhaps most importantly their associated credibility/cultural and social capital), yet came out having written and ostensibly internalized something that does not immediately register as belonging to that world. In fact, it seems to be a direct refutation of what one would consider “high-culture.”

If one has access to time and resources that allow for the cultivation of a craft, what does it say when such a pursuit is rejected?

On one hand, this can be seen as a failure of the institutions that are intended to otherwise uphold cultural values of expertise, but it more so brings to light the current paradox of high-level American institutions: that they are replete with such dissatisfaction, guilt, and shame over their own prestige and supposed expertise, and have even to a large degree problematized such concepts in the first place.

Is it inherently bad to attend a high-level institution such as an Ivy League university or an MFA program? Of course not. But such institutions exist to provide a service. And in the cases of prestigious institutions, they maintain their high-level position because they are ostensibly creating or passing down significant value in the form of expertise, something that is supposedly intrinsically valuable as a cultural good.

But if these institutions and their prestige are denigrated by those affiliated with them, or exist as a source of shame for them, this then begs the question: are these institutions positing any kind of aspirational values that have intrinsic worth and are recognizable as good? It sounds rhetorical— even stupid— but it’s unfortunately at this point a legitimate question.

If not— if they do not put forth valuable expertise that contributes to an implicitly desirable mode of cultural production and advancement— then we’re left asking what their actual function even is, and whether they are deserving of continued or remaining (and waning) prestige. To quote SG Phillips: Imagine going to an ivy league school, everything expedited in a manner that lets you focus on the craft of writing, surrounded by professional and expert tutors, huge library, near limitless resources for developing something new, ambitious, original, and then writing fuckboy [sic].

If, on the other hand, yes— if they do posit aspirational, tangible values of a high-culture that one can and should internalize and be proud of— then are they effectively expressing these values, putting them forth in such a way and that makes them sufficiently appealing and inspires students to pursue them? In the case of Sean, and other common instances that resemble the case of Sean, it would seem that no: these values are not recognized as desirable and are therefore rejected in favor of appeals to the lower classes, the lower culture, and all the “authenticity” that these institutions seem to lack.

But this begs the question of why these institutions lack authenticity? That, of course, is a massive question (I personally don’t think there is some inherent inauthenticity to high-level institutions, so long as they’re honest about the reasons for their existence and prestige). But the fact that this question must be asked is indicative of what is at best stagnancy and internal confusion, and at worst institutional rot.

(Do they lack authenticity because they no longer have a coherent, positive, value-creating function? Because they’ve been reduced to a means of laundering the wealth, status and various forms of capital of those who pass through, signing off on them as upright members of society who, now brutally aware of their status and privilege, can less guiltily wield it?)

It seems to me that these institutions’ moralizing function can’t be ignored— these institutions increasingly exist to direct the focus of subject matter and the affectation of how one deals with, or is supposed to think about, said subject matter. This is the most apparent service currently being offered at such institutions— not necessarily honing expertise in a craft, but expertise in the sociopolitical sentiment that is broadly considered acceptable, and largely necessary, in high-culture-adjacent occupations and spheres (otherwise known as ‘polite society’). 

To me, such a thing is akin to, if not near-synonymous with, rot. And, rather than merely having rejected the posited moral/sociopolitical values asserted by his institutions (as his style and content might at first imply), Sean Thor Conroe has arguably internalized them entirely, leading to this highly-affected sort of low-culture fetishization that we see in his style and subject matter (which is, as I’ve said, abrasive to most anyone who isn’t a product of those kind of bubbles). In this line of thinking, Sean is enacting literal self-debasement in his literary style because the concept of quality has been so problematized.

It isn’t even ironic then, that Sean’s book would be plucked up by a Big 5 publisher, when the style registers as hamfisted and bizarre to all but the out of touch professional, creative, and professional-creative class types to whom low- and working-class people are effectively cartoons, quaint entertainment or a social project to be managed or solved. It makes perfect sense that this absurd— as Sam Pink fittingly describes it— soundcloud rapper-esque affectation would be appealing to their target audience: the normie ‘literary’ masses (upper-middle class liberals) to whom Sean seems perfectly, quaintly authentic and adorable. 

This is not to apologize for Sean. But it is an effort to recognize the institutions that likely failed him, and more importantly fail us all.  Even still, regardless of any institutional failures, given the time and tools and resources you would think one would have the capacity for subtlety, nuance, originality, contemporary slang— or at the very least have developed the generalized competency to recognize the sheer corniness of the whole thing.

These are necessary discussions that elaborate on the position of independent writers and the function of the institutions that they negatively define themselves by. Regarding the eminent Big Bruiser Dope Boy’s timely (I started this essay at least an hour prior) anticipatory commentary— “Also, expect people to write essays about the essay, as a way of riding a wave they could never make themselves”: these controversies should of course be publicized (isn’t that Sam’s point in writing his essay?), and long-form engagement with a pretty serious feud is, I think, a productive approach to exploring the tensions that underlie and give rise to these kinds of conflicts.

But more so, these flashpoints are important for inquiry into the production— or non-production— of literary styles, and the pathologies, ideologies and neuroses behind them. We can view Sean purely as someone who aped Sam Pink’s style in an inept way, or we can also consider him as the product of deeper cultural anxieties and insecurities that ferment and fester within high-level institutions— an inadvertent expression of the hypocrisy and shame that’s come to define these places and continues to be irreconcilable (and therefore largely incoherent) within the minds and work of many who pass through them. Either way, it’s obvious who comes out on top.