One of my favorite posts on Tumblr, now a halfway defunct social blogging platform, restages with gorgeous brevity and absurdity one of the most dreaded parental conversations. It reads, in its entirety: “mum, dad… im……. im revisiting brideshead”.
This piece of silly-but-brilliant internet ephemera is part of a larger cultural trend that reveals how Gen Z views higher education, especially in the humanities. Online communities dominated by Gen Z, especially TikTok and Tumblr, increasingly churn out meditations on academic life. Many, like this one, can be catalogued under the massively popular tag “dark academia.”
I love this particular joke partly because I’m in its target audience — gay people who like Brideshead Revisited — but also because, in six words of badly punctuated prose, it shows how dark academia entangles queer literature, Oxbridge aesthtics, and experiences like coming out. It’s a shitpost, but a very impressive one, and it wields literary knowledge with both flippancy and vulnerability. It captures something about what humanities knowledge offers to life online: something between a catchphrase and a life-affirming vocabulary.
With its eclectic reading lists and aspirational images of pleated plaid skirts, dark academia demonstrates how online communities collaboratively build aesthetic categories. More soberingly, this particular aesthetic category offers a kind of grassroots postmortem on the pursuit of humanistic study, reduced by the ever-economizing university to a professionalization tool, that students then repurpose as a fashion trend.
To me, dark academia matters because it puts collapse and collaboration together. It’s clear sighted about the state of the humanities without, as in many other conversations, letting that clear sightedness morph into overwhelming despair.
Dark academia has existed in internet communities for half a decade, but recently has grown in visibility, enough to garner a New York Times Style Section feature in June 2020. The rise of TikTok, an addictive app where users make looping short videos set to music, may have helped to increase its prominence through its viral appeal. Many young people, who hold few fantasies of escaping the pervasive reach of social media economies, are turning their attention to inhabiting those networks with more aesthetic flair. Dark academia prizes the aesthetics of Oxbridge and New England boarding schools, with plaid, sweater vests, penny loafers, and leather-bound books featuring prominently. The “dark” component derives from shared snapshots of dimly lit libraries, in addition to a Shakespearian flair for the morbid. Yorick’s skull makes a great accessory.
However, the world that dark academia imagines is not out of reach only when restricted to Oxbridge greens. I think the real power of dark academia is the way it compresses—and thus preserves—humanistic study at a time when the humanities are under constant threat. As departments are underfunded, tenure lines cut, and adjunctification rages, students are increasingly encouraged to pursue STEM and business degrees in the hopes of finding a lucrative career. A degree in English or history is, for many prospective students, a luxury item. Studying the classics doesn’t have to take place at Yale to be a fantasy. Creating and emulating dark academia content offers students a way to fantasize about a world in which higher education isn’t instrumentalized, but rather self-sustaining and inherently valuable.
This fantasy arrives in the form of a highly structured and derivative style. Dark academia is merely one example of what users of these platforms refer to as “aesthetics.” They deploy the term quite differently, but no less coherently, than academic practitioners of aesthetic theory. Dark academia is “an aesthetic,” a set of tropes, clothing styles, media properties, and visual themes collected by mass consensus and continually revised. It overlaps with other trendy aesthetics such as “light academia,” which features fewer skulls and more buttery yellow cardigans, and “cottagecore,” for those interested in tea parties and thatched roofs. The “List of Aesthetics” wiki gives hundreds of variations, from well-known styles like goth to the quirky and hyper-specific. Angelcore, goblincore, and cryptidcore are not for the faint at heart.
But in online worlds, “aesthetic” also functions as an adjective. For a blog, person, or image to be “aesthetic” means that it cultivates attention to the sublime in everyday moments. Examples of the online sublime vary, but certain themes emerge: grainy film photographs are aesthetic. So are string lights and gloomy weather. Houseplants, folded sweaters, and cream swirling into coffee also qualify. These visuals appear within any number of specifically codified aesthetic categories.
Dark academia, in essence, gives an aesthetic gloss on the work of going to school itself. Its internet community attributes historical glamor and emotional intensity to homework sessions or a saggy armchair. For many users growing up in environments that fall short of scenic, aesthetics transform the ordinary into cozy fantasy.
While the emergence of a fashion subculture among teens is nothing new, the aggregating and organizing capabilities of social media change how these aesthetics are built and codified. On TikTok, top users on the dark academia hashtag offer fashion tips: how to style a thrifted white button-up with corduroy pants or how to make a prim ponytail with satin ribbon work with kinky hair. Just as often, they simply string a series of cribbed photos of Irish libraries and New England ivy to instrumental music. For the viewer, it’s a 15 second glimpse of another world, pre-curated to evoke the sensations described more slowly by the novels of Tartt or Evelyn Waugh.
On Tumblr, users give reading suggestions, share snapshots of homework in progress, and collect images in grids called “moodboards.” This form, technically an electronic version of the magazine collage of a teen girl’s bedroom wall, also serves as a visual theory of the aesthetic. Images gain legibility as dark academia by their proximity to the others.
These curated images are notable for the way their concatenation orchestrates an extremely detailed sensibility. But there’s another factor at play too.
Roughly half of the images are strictly aspirational, comprising professional photography of elite art and architecture, primarily in Europe and the United States. The other half, however, are more achievable: “aesthetic” images easily attained in everyday life. These moodboards thus inspire the viewer to find the darkly academic in her own life, however far from the Bodleian she lives. If she can shrug on a tweed blazer or pick up a copy of Ovid from the library, she can participate in a community that fantasizes about access to elite and storied spaces.
Another way this aesthetic makes itself accessible is through reading lists. Dark academia has constructed a canon of favored texts, frequently recommended to acolytes or featured in snapshots of hardbacks on mahogany desks. Like other images, these lists too range across (and thus collapse the difference between) genres and levels of access: they include Young Adult novels about secretive sets at elite boarding schools, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a 1992 work of “literary fiction” about a group of classics students whose private rituals turn murderous, and Euripedes’ The Bacchae. The archive of dark academia combines Great Books with contemporary novels in way that reflects the sinister implications the classic curriculum. The pairing exemplifies dark academia’s tendency to celebrate the inherent appeal of the Western canon while simultaneously deconstructing it. These impulses, to online communities, aren’t mutually exclusive.
The doubled impulse to indulge in and critique the Western canon reflects the dual social function that an aesthetic like dark academia can serve. It idealizes narrow and Eurocentric standards of education. At the same time, it democratizes their trappings and texts by making them available as fashion. Though you might not be able to attend private boarding school, you can listen to Chopin, read Waugh, and buy scuffed black brogues from the thrift store.
This translation shifts, and diminishes, the claim whiteness makes to elite academic spaces. Because its aesthetics are always subject to revision, dark academia fans can recombine their favorite styles with other cultural markers in order to build a more inclusive community. So for instance one of TikTok’s top dark academia accounts, @cosyfaerie, is run by a young Black woman, Asiya, who wears her hijab with ruffled sleeves, pearls, and leather briefcases. Some blogs feature nonwestern reading lists in order to combat the eurocentrism of the trend.
Others trade tips about how to wear the style, which tends to emphasize turtlenecks and trench coats, in equatorial climates. (Blousy linen plays a large part.) An aesthetic that evokes the academy is more flexible, more malleable, than the academy itself. When creators expand the aesthetic beyond Oxbridge, they make inroads toward, as one TikToker put it, decolonizing dark academia. It’s a satisfying gesture, not least because the young people wearing blousy linen have no power to decide whether Cambridge University pursues reparative justice for its involvement in the slave trade, as it has promised to do. Adapting fashion for different climates isn’t reparative justice, by any stretch, but it does detach aesthetic pleasures from the institutions we love to hate. Or is it hate to love?
@sjsinduWe need to decolonize #darkacademia #fyp #authortok #writertok #tamil #bipoc #bipoctiktok #darkacademiaaesthetic #professor #queer #greyacademia♬ Wake Up – Rage Against The Machine
Media attention to dark academia has put forth a series of hypotheses about its popularity with young people. In the immediate context of the pandemic, commentators posit, we are more attuned to the privilege of going to a physical school than ever. So too are we inundated with images of death and morbidity.
But I think these explanations can’t account for the longer arc of the trend’s popularity, nor its near neighbors in cottagecore et al, which also tend toward the Anglophilic and historical. Instead, it’s dark academia’s mix of aspirational and achievable that seems the most appealing to me. An online community gives you the instructions and access to participate in an aesthetic and intellectual world otherwise out of reach.
I think it’s possible to say that dark academia de-exceptionalizes elite scholastic environments as much as it romanticizes them. Aesthetic blogs pair autodidacticism with a diverse and elegantly curated online community.
You don’t need the Ivy League to read Ovid. In fact, reading The Metamorphoses with your online friends might be better, more joyful, than reading it at a top-notch school. The trend is, in effect, a hack: a shortcut to the trappings of a prestigious education with none of the expense, gatekeeping, or pressure from parents.
A cynical response to this community would conclude that it encourages young people to photograph books rather than read them. It reduces a four-year education and the expertise conveyed therein to a fashion trend deprived of context — and without this context, formal and historical gaps fall away, and the Brontës, the Greeks, and Donna Tartt all become part of the same literary category, simply because they manage to convey similar “vibes.”
But I think the theorists and participants of dark academia deserve more credit than that. For one, they are merely replicating, with more panache, the way the corporate university has treated the humanities for decades now. Literary and historical study are rarely framed as real research, and many students can avoid taking a single humanities class during college. At the same time, the corporate university aims to instrumentalize humanities departments as pre-professional, requiring us to highlight the applications of the skills we teach for business.
Dark academia resists this instrumentalization, returning to a romanticizing view of art for art’s sake. Doing so works a strange kind of magic, alchemically generating a feeling simultaneously old-fashioned and subversive, resistant to late capitalist productivity logics. Favoring decadence over austerity in higher education can become its own political stance, one that mirrors trends in literary study like postcritique and New Formalism. It’s true that we can accuse dark academia of fetishizing art objects to shallow, uncritical ends, imagining scholarship as something you can buy from an Etsy store. But if dark academia commodifies education, they learned how from the corporate university itself. Their commodification as style has far less insidious ends than the university’s spreadsheets of departmental deliverables.
There’s also my favorite shitpost. Its anonymous author leverages the trappings of academia, namely Brideshead Revisited, to convey something personal and irreverent about queerness. The analysis of the novel may be minimal, but its allusive presence on the internet is part of a valuable patchwork vocabulary, often wielded by marginalized weird kids.
It’s bleak to think that the humanities may soon be available to pursue only as a hobby, rather than a career or intellectual home. Gen Z already knows this. Through their hyper-specific online worlds, they make that hobby as rigorous as possible. In fact, they imagine a life of book-loving that far exceeds the capitalist university, focused instead on pleasure, shared interest, and amateur expertise. For those of us who pursue the humanities inside institutions, there’s a lesson to learn from the often-derided smartphone generation.
Ana Quiring is a PhD candidate in English at Washington University in St. Louis. She’s writing a dissertation about feminist recovery and modernism, and she revisits Brideshead all the time. She tweets @AnaQuiring. Deborah Thurman also contributed ideas and insights to this essay.