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This article is taken from PN Review 267, Volume 49 Number 1, September - October 2022.

A Proxy for Submission
The Problem with Tastefulness in Contemporary Poetry
Alex Wylie
Earlier this year, I happened upon Nathalie Olah’s Steal as Much as You Can: How to Win the Culture Wars in an Age of Austerity (Repeater Books, 2019). Olah’s impassioned and, in its way, necessary book can be epitomised by its statement early on, a statement of its own general view but also one becoming increasingly prevalent, that ‘PC culture and aspects of identity politics [have] been used selectively by the liberal media to distract from its own structural biases and inequalities’. Enough said; but it cannot be said enough. Olah’s critique in this book is part of a growing body of (leftist) critique of liberal – that is, neoliberal – pseudo-progressivism, its cultural­political manifestations and manifestos. Patrolling the round of cultural politics as it does, Olah’s critique comes naturally to that most hotly-contested moral high ground of the moment – namely, taste and tastefulness. In the chapter ‘The Problem with Tastefulness’, Olah makes this operative statement:
In Britain, in spite of a mild flirtation in previous decades with something more representative, taste has become increasingly judged by its proximity to the middle-class status quo, and by default remains antithetical to anything culturally divergent. It is also a means of ensuring that the status quo is never challenged. … As a result, we begin to see how taste serves as a proxy for submission; an external indicator of how far an individual is willing to be subsumed by the pervasive modes of power, and play the game of incremental class ascension.

There is certainly a cultural neurosis around taste and tastefulness; ...

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