I feel a bit behind the curve, since only like yesterday did I discover I have a great affinity with that social-media aesthetic called “dark academia”. Maybe the fact I follow and love the @_DarkAcademia Twitter account and have for a long time should have clued me in, but no matter. Reading up on it, it really is all quite interesting.
As the Aesthetics Wiki puts it, and this is a description backed up in the other sources I could find, the style “revolves around classic literature, the pursuit of self-discovery and a general passion for knowledge and learning”, having heavy overlap with “preppy” looks that have been popular for over a century, the lifestyle projected being that of scholarly leisure.
The dark part seems to come from themes of mystery, danger, secrets, and a violent intensity that are emphasized within the aesthetic, plus perhaps from the dark and foreboding Gothic architecture. Building off this, I would assume that depictions of all this at twilight, in moonlight, or at night, and in low-key noir-ish or even German-Expressionist lighting would go well with it.
All the different Academias
Dark Academia is joined by other “XYZ Academia” variants. Darkest Academia is an intensified version of Dark Academia, whereas Light Academia is brighter and focuses on feel-good emotions like happiness and the joys of friendship, elevating classical rather than Gothic architecture to the forefront. Romantic Academia is probably the closest match of these styles to me: “Philosophically, both [light and romantic academia] aesthetics value education, curiosity, compassion, and optimism, but Romantic Academia differs from Light Academia in its focus on individualism, appreciation of nature, and aesthetic expression of intense and sometimes negative emotions.”
Yep, that’s it, though my own aesthetic isn’t exactly that either, nor any of the other variants I won’t go into detail about here. I also have some affection for Ballet Academia (not too surprising, considering I’m a ballroom dancer), but all these subgenres overlap a lot anyway. One thing they all have in common is a vibe that lends itself toward the autumn season, since it’s beautiful, filled with rusty vivid warm colors, and it’s a time when the nights lengthen and the days shorten, where cool breezes caress the body for the first time in what feels like forever. Autumn of course is also associated with going back to school, college or university.
Dark Academia as Reaction
And it’s here where Academia, Dark and otherwise, starts to get interesting. Dark Academia in particular has skyrocketed in popularity since the late 2010s. A core component of the Dark Academia lifestyle is study of the arts, classic literature, and the classics proper as in a classical education; in other words, a pursuit of knowledge for its own sake rather than as an instrument to get ahead in a career, train for some mundane crummy job, or get a degree just because you have to check off a box.
Which is interesting considering that since the crash in 2008 humanities enrollment has noticeably declined, as all the breathless talk of “the crisis of the humanities” attests to. Perhaps the rise of Dark Academia is a reaction to the loss of possibility in the higher education system, a desire to (dare I use the phrase?) retvrn to tradition, to a world where studying something in a university (preferably an elite one filled with the best minds in the field) purely because you enjoy it was a justifiable financial investment for normal people.
Interestingly, in light of 2008, it seems to me the last time the zeigeist was that college was a viable institution that could still work was the 2000s, that time before the crash; those were the last years before the zeigeist turned to “the skills gap” and humanities graduates were told you had to “pick the right major” to make college a viable choice for your future. The new hotness by the mid 2010s of course was “trade schools”, which are very overrated; sure, some professional-class kids who would like the skilled trades are steered away from them, but the fact is they’re not going to be the ticket to success on a mass scale that colleges were once promised to be.
Yearning for a bygone World
Even more interestingly, the “preppy” aesthetic of Dark Academia draws heavily upon the fashions of the 1930s and 40s. Those just so happen to be the years immediately before the Second World War, before the zeitgeist and even government policy (most famously the G.I. Bill, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg) decided that college should be for the masses, not only for rich people wanting to network with each other and people of all wealth brackets wanting to expand their minds.
Until surprisingly recently the universities were primarily the preserve of social elites and intellectuals; few other people went to them, despite admissions to places like Harvard being no more competitive than low-ranked big state universities are today, and also despite full-price tuition being affordable by the median family. College was for the rich not because they were the only ones who could afford it, but rather because nobody else particularly wanted to go.
Is that correlation a coincidence? I suspect not. With the entry of the masses, who are incurious about anything other than earning a piece of paper they can use for their careers, into higher education the culture changed for the worse, leaving those desiring a life of the mind with no prestigious social institution to call their own. Worse yet, the universities have been steadily bureaucratized and corporatized, and in addition there has been a secular trend upward in the competitiveness of PhD programs, meaning even becoming a graduate student, let alone a tenured professor, is now the domain of professional self-marketers rather than curious eccentric intellectuals.
The romantic idea of academia, a life of the mind, a life where you can learn and teach in a position that grants you some guaranteed social status, the romantic idea of college itself, was of course always better than the actual reality, but in our modern world it stands as little better than a charred husk of what it once was, and that inspires those who would have fit right in with yesteryear’s college culture to wistfully dream and yearn for a different reality.
Aside from the odd “anti-college” or two, social media mood boards and the odd fashion garment, independent learning project, side hustle, or blog is all the means today’s young people have left to make that dream a reality, hence the online subculture.
Dark Academia versus Lockdown World
It’s also obviously not a coincidence that Dark Academia has particularly skyrocketed in popularity during and after the lockdown, when the college experience, or rather what was left of it, took a turn for the worse, arguably no longer being college in any meaningful sense. Not only an imagined reality of pre-WWII-vintage life of the mind but also the lived reality of college life as it existed as recently as 2019 has turbocharged the appeal of Dark Academia.
The experience of schools and every bureaucratic social institution turning against even the most elementary youthful aspiration has it seems led to the salutary romanticization of scholarship taking place anywhere, being done by anybody with the will to throw on a preppy outfit, put his or her feet up by a window filled with the colors of autumn leaves blurred by the pitter-patter of a rainstorm, grab a cup of steaming hot coffee, and crack open a classic book.
Dark Academia: a quiet inchoate Radicalism?
Although Dark Academia has been criticized for being “Eurocentric”, idealizing a colonialist time when wealthy white men ruled the world (kinda like now? Hmm…), and being exclusive to intellectual elites, it also has a radically emancipatory and democratic character to it, the idea that anyone can become a Dark Academic no matter where you came from if you have the will and the brainpower to embrace its aesthetics, understand the classics and the fine arts, and put in good original work.
Indeed, across the entirety of the aesthetic and the mood there is a striking and quite countercultural lack of care for formal credentials of any kind or even approval by any actual college or official bureaucracy; in Dark Academia world it’s as if the silos and the barriers to entry we have built up in the professionalization of human knowledge-keeping and knowledge-making never existed. Whether you study and research in the bush or in the hallowed halls of Cambridge, all are equals in the ultimate meritocracy: the latter-day Republic of Letters.
Unlike an academic proper, to become a Dark Academic no credential, imprimatur, or official seal of approval is required or desired, only aesthetic and intellectual merit. At last the dark matter of the intellectual universe, the legions of bright, curious, and eccentric citizens of the world too long excluded from walking the Collegiate Gothic corridors with the prestigious, have a place where they belong, a rallying cry to recognize fellows of their own kind.
The West will rise again?
Charmingly oblivious to the bureaucratic diktats of Wokeness, yearning for timeless beauty (notice the aesthetics of guilt, including but not limited to modern art and architecture, don’t exist in Dark Academia world), and prizing a radically inclusive form of intellectualism behind the aspirational preppy elite image, the rise of the aesthetic in the early 2020s may ironically tell us that the age of the school is over; the time of Dark Academia has come.