:: Article

The Trapdoor of Dark Academia

By Elroy Rosenberg.

Photo courtesy of Diliff.

There came a point when I realised that aesthetics had gone too far, and it was when I discovered dark academia. It was a warm summer day, and I was lying shirtless in bed. The air was heavy with that languid lyricism that accompanies dry heat. I was scrolling through the YouTube homepage, looking for something to listen to while I laid back into the mattress when my eye was drawn: ‘a dark academia playlist to read to.’ For the next hour, I was serenaded by the melancholia of inoffensive piano and solo violins, and I thought to myself, yes, this would be good music to read to. But that, I suppose, was missing the point.

Dark academia’s presence on YouTube, though, is only ancillary to its community on Instagram and TikTok, the primary watering holes for the aesthetic’s young acolytes. I tentatively asked Mary, a friend who’s much more online than I, whether she’d ever come across the hashtag. Mary stared at me, incredulous, and after a long pause responded caustically: “Are you kidding?” Turns out that D.A. has been around for nearly a decade now, and though exact dates are hard to find, it is broadly accepted that, after bubbling away nascently on Tumblr and Pinterest for six or so years, 2017 was when dark academia finally transcended its roots—roots to which purists in the movement still cling—and broke through into Instagram popularity. But 2017 feels a long time ago now and given not only the pandemic but the grander sweep of an increasing aestheticisation of culture and politics since then, it was inevitable that TikTok would become its new bastion.

The image is one thing: houndstooth blazers in navy, pale-brown turtlenecks, argyle sweaters. Flowing black coats and worn leather satchels. Dim hallways, dusty libraries, and gargoyle-adorned arches at Oxford. A forlorn gaze out the window on an autumn’s day. Reading The Secret History or Ovid or Lord Byron by candlelight. But there’s also another layer to it, one of lived reality. Mary told me, after recovering from my blasphemous question, that for her, dark academia is one of the few aesthetics where she likes “the look as well as the lifestyle.”

Indeed, dark academia is primarily an “aesthetic,” though what significance that holds in contemporary life I’m hesitant to say. Maybe, once upon a time, “aesthetic” actually meant something, but as it now stands the term is so ubiquitous that it escapes any and all utility. To be a dark academic is merely to do as we’re all encouraged to nowadays: to imitate. To aestheticise, to perform, to flaunt our lifestyles with increased viewerships and growing revenue in mind. It’s what makes Caroline Calloway so thoroughly of-our-time. It’s what Jia Tolentino means when she writes that “capitalism has no land left to cultivate but the self.” And it’s another reason why TikTok is such a fitting spiritual home for D.A., a platform uniquely effective at enabling and then monetising imitation. Every video invariably assumes a distinct, consistent sheen of unreality.

“Dark academia is a celebration and romanticisation of literature and a deep thirst for learning,” writes Caroline Edwards in i-D. The lifestyle that accompanies the aesthetic revolves in some way or another around autodidactic behaviour, especially as it relates to books and language. Its adherents are encouraged to read the classics, to develop a taste for literature, to become an academic of the old world and flaunt it in the new. This is reflected in the various subgenres of dark academic listed on one of its Tumblr community pages: “The 1940s Academic,” “The Gothic Poet,” “The Mad Writer,” “The Victorian Explorer,” “The Inquisitive Mycologist (Cottagecore x Dark Academia).” Where the Victorian Explorer scribbles field notes in a sun-drenched park, the Mad Writer drinks cup after cup of black coffee while fastidiously typing out their masterpiece by lamplight, each persona equated to a filmable clip. Not all activities, though, are so entrenched in fantasy. Scrolling further down the Tumblr page we find broadly applicable lifestyle tips. For example: “Reach your daily goal on Duolingo—while you’re doing it, it may not seem very DA, HOWEVER, when you’re done you feel accomplished & smart, which is perfectly on brand.”

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I am no stranger to the attraction of bibliophilic imagery. Every writer loves the thought of him or herself as a writer, as erudite, as someone who sits and contemplates in the quiet seclusion of their study, books towering around them. Or it can be less trite than that. I remember, years ago, spending an afternoon at a friend’s place, a gaudy Victorian house extended in the modern style. Her parents were either barristers or dentists and still at work for the afternoon. A group of us were lounging in front of the TV until someone suggested we move to my friend’s room upstairs. On the way we passed by her parents’ room and, enflamed by a certain sense of grandeur, I decided to take a quick peek at what must surely be the most exorbitant room of all. It wasn’t—at least, not in the way I’d anticipated—because all I could see, encircling all sides of the bed and lining every wall, was stack after tilted stack of books. Old, new, literary, genre fiction, self-help, history, psychology, art—books on everything, arranged with an arbitrariness which spoke of a deep affection for the simple joy of having books around. I instantly felt an affinity for the excess of it, for the learnedness, for the beauty of the stacks, for the knowledge they contained. Riding some sort of mysterious high, the next day I stopped by my local thrift shop and bought six or seven books, including Wuthering Heights. I was 14; I wouldn’t read Wuthering Heights for another six years.

I suppose I saw something of myself in those stacks, something I’d like to be; affinities can be hard to explain, and sometimes it isn’t worth spoiling a beautiful effect for the sake of knowing its cause. But it left a mark on me, that room—a mark which remains imprinted on me all these years later. Even if, at first, my inclination was mysterious and maybe a little superficial, it eventually led to something genuine.

This is precisely the argument some in the literary community make about dark academia. “This is just the beginning,” argues literary YouTuber R.C. Waldun, a vlogger who, in his own words, “embodies” the D.A. lifestyle for his 185,000 subscribers, even if, for the sake of semantics, he refuses to define himself as an adherent. Waldun sees issues with the superficiality that D.A. might promote, but he believes the movement’s current obsession with aesthetics is only “the surface manifestation” of a deeper, more auspicious trend. Just as the rediscovery of the Greeks in the 16th century was initially prone to sophomoric misinterpretation, so now, according to Waldun, are we rediscovering old texts in our very own sophomoric way? And maybe a deep-seated culture of literature can be tended to flourish, “if we give this thing a few decades for it to trickle out.” Such is his justification for dark academia being, in his words, “the modern Renaissance.”

I am less sanguine than Waldun, if only because my frame of analysis perhaps isn’t quite so quixotic as his. Where the aesthetic of dark academia seems entirely plausible to someone like Waldun, or Mary, or Caroline Edwards, it strikes me as a little ominous. For me, it’s on the same plane as the push for “Instagram-worthy” building design on university campuses. Though we were once able to compartmentalise image, understand it, restrain it, and manipulate it to serve useful ends, the tripartite forces of modern image obsession—mass advertising, social media, and big tech overreach—loosened our grip on the handle. And now aesthetics is our master, and we are its slaves.

What does this portend? “We must be worried,” says Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa who, besides writing extensively on aesthetic theory, was an influential political and cultural presence in the 20th-century struggle for democracy in South America. “Images have been replacing ideas as the great protagonists of contemporary culture … The great vehicle of ideas, which is literature, is totally replaced by images, by impressionistic images which are very entertaining. But my impression is that images present a kind of description of the world which is banal and frivolous, a very superficial description of the real world.” The idea-image replacement is nowhere more pertinent than in the dark academia universe because it is the fundamental axiom around which the rest of the aesthetic is constructed: an image, it claims, is an appropriate substitute for an idea. The movement scorns genuine literary discussion—say, the stylistic lineage that connects the Romantic poets and the 20th-century modernists, both of which its adherents read—for a kind of meta-discussion about whether reading Romantic poetry or 20th-century modernists makes you a better or worse dark academic. “Just as long as people have a desire to read, curiosity to learn and an appreciation for art and history,” writes Edwards, “they can participate in the aesthetic and its welcoming community.” Yet there is something incongruous about living an honest life and “participating in an aesthetic” which seems to have escaped the author’s attention.

Waldun himself makes a similar qualification. “There’s nothing aesthetic about poring over a book and hating it,” he claims. And though I see what he means, this is where he really gives himself away, and his quixotry buckles under its own weight: because poring over a book despite hating it, for the sake of your TikTok followers, is as purely aesthetic an act as one can imagine.

The image-idea replacement matters because an image is not eternal: it is made by choice and perishes with time. Conversely, art is eternal, as are the ideas it propounds. Dark academia knows this about itself, knows it cannot endure as its sacred texts will, and has opted for the next best thing: affect and imitation. There are perhaps hints of such self-awareness to be found in the movement’s very essence; which is to say, its nostalgia, its lamentable wistfulness, its longing for a time well and truly dead. Camus made this point many years ago. “The most repulsive materialism,” he writes, “lies not where people think, but in the effort to pass off as living truths ideas which are dead, diverting on to sterile myths the stubborn and clear-sighted gaze which we should cast on what in us must die for ever.” Dark academia is therefore understandable. It is the logical consequence of an age where reality is completely formless and destitute, where societies are so bifurcated and people so alienated—by fear, by pandemic, by media—that their only refuge is in dead images of a better past, passed off as living ones.

And thus will dark academia become another collection of dead images, nothing remaining but the husks of its erstwhile influence. Its proponents will grow up, move on, and maybe find a book or two they genuinely enjoy. But the schism between Old World and New World will remain, a schism that art broadly, and literature in particular, is finding difficult to straddle. If it is true, as Vargas Llosa suggests, that images are replacing ideas, then literature has a new obstacle to surmount in its perpetual struggle to endure. Nearly 100 years ago, novelist E.M. Forster famously expounded on “flat” and “round” characters in fiction, not realising (so far as we know) that the dialectic would eventually extend to the precepts of the form itself. In an imagistic culture where the flatness and accessibility of images provide gratification and meaning on a scale we have never before seen, can literature survive without becoming flatter itself? And can a genuine literary interest—which is an interest in the roundness of ideas—develop organically in an age which repudiates the ideas of which, in Vargas Llosa’s words, literature is “the great vehicle”?

Yet art and society are indivisible, and to free one you must unshackle the other. If it were possible to instantly convince all TikTok and Instagram users to delete their accounts, this is the point in the essay where I would do it. Alas, the rabbit cannot be shoved back in its hat, no matter how forceful the arm. So, the next best thing, I suppose, is self-awareness. To adopt an image, to indulge in an aesthetic, to imitate dead ideas, is for many a built-in feature of our epoch; but when we understand the difference between images and ideas, we see that it is, after all, a choice. The proof is found squarely in the realm of dark academia, an aesthetic which, at its core, is presenting us the option of affecting life versus living it. In that sense, perhaps we all need to be dark academics for a time. Perhaps we all need to affect life, to fully understand the trapdoors inherent in an image-laden age, which will hopefully give way to a kind of rebellion. Fortunate, then, that as we all suffer through the growing pains of the image age, the books will remain waiting for us, stacked high—if only we’d go upstairs and find them.

Courtesy of Elroy Rosenberg.

Elroy Rosenberg is a writer and layabout living in Melbourne. He is a managing editor at Agora.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 8th, 2021.