Dark Academia: Aesthetics and Belonging in an Age of Social Media | Arts

As the cold crept in during the bleak end of 2020 and students emerged from online school to the release of a winter break, a trend befitting the climate and attitude of the season surfaced. The search term “dark academia aesthetic” peaked on Google as one year turned to the next, gaining traction on platforms such as TikTok, Instagram, and Tumblr. Videos informing viewers how to dress in line with the trend and blog posts listing clutter items associated with the dark academic — like old books, cigarettes, coffee, and moth-eaten cashmere sweaters — abounded. Influencers had established an online space for lovers of all things erudite, donnish, and elite.

The dark academia trend draws on the aesthetics of mid-20th century and prewar college life, with a particular focus on the conflict between academic refinement and the debauchery supplying the dark edge to the style. Although the phrase rose to prominence online as an aesthetic descriptor, dark academia has its roots in a literary genre dating back to the early 20th century. Novels such as E.M. Forster’s “Maurice” and Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” form the aesthetic’s literary canon, texts from which its followers draw soundbites and quotes to foreground videos of dark oak libraries and photos of messy desks. By whittling these works down to just the bare bones of well-written dialogue in a quaint setting, however, many online dark academia enthusiasts are ignoring the thematic messages that underlie the genre.

In an history-and-what-it-means-for-classics-in-the-21st-century/”>April 2023 article for Ekklesia Magazine about “The Secret History,” writer Tom Hilless calls aestheticization “inherently un-critical.” His point rings especially true in the case of dark academia: The aesthetic most embraces the aspects of scholastic life that the literary genre strives to rebuke. Straight-cut clothing and haughty mannerisms form motifs in Tartt’s “The Secret History” to showcase the dangerous allure of pretentious and exclusive academic circles. The novel’s main character even admits at one point that the crux of his attraction to the classics was “a morbid longing for the picturesque” — a phrase Hilless borrows for the title of his article. “Morbid” is key here and should draw the reader’s attention to the dark underbelly of academia as a discriminative history, conflict between college campuses and surrounding towns, and the role of universities as institutions upholding structural problems — all themes that the novel explores in depth and the aesthetic conveniently skirts.

Many expressions of dark academia on social media are, as Hilless puts it, “un-critical,” but dark academia-inspired media which has repurposed its defining imagery to reclaim a space with a history of exclusion and discrimination does exist. TikTok videos riffing on the aesthetic often stress the importance of diversifying it by supporting representation of non-white, non-straight people in academic settings. R. F. Kuang’s 2022 novel “Babel,” likewise, scrutinizes the intersection of academia, racism, and colonialism through the eyes of young students of color studying at a fictionalized version of Oxford. Yet when taken at face value, the aesthetic can sideline arguments critiquing academia by romanticizing its milieu. In a talk at Brown University about the art of pastiche in “Babel,” R.F. Kuang voiced worries that the novel had “camouflaged itself too effectively.” Kuang writes on class struggles and race to make readers feel uncomfortable, and yet “Babel” makes frequent appearances on lists of “cozy books for fall.”

It seems that the effects of the genre’s aestheticization are pervasive. Anyone who has read Kuang’s manifesto should think twice before dubbing it cozy, and the fact that anyone has is indicative of the treacherous magnetism of trends in a cultural age defined by social media. At a time when Instagram and TikTok posts have pushed an enhanced focus on appearances even further to the forefront, it seems more important now than ever to grapple with the influence of aesthetic culture on academia. Trends curate certain items and articles of clothing in order to engender in their followers a sense of belonging. It is exactly this same sentiment that shapes the tension at the center of many novels in the genre. How can one stand up against an institution when it is the only place they have ever felt at home?

Wearing a peacoat or living in turtlenecks will not stymie a student’s critical potential, but engaging in a veneration of academic aesthetics without considering their origin might. One must make sure that in embracing dark academia, they remain aware of the dark side of the educational institutions from which they profit or to which they contribute. Anything less than awareness and they begin to resemble characters from the canon, upholding institutions of privilege and exclusivity. Don’t throw out your Moleskine notebook — use it to draft your critiques.

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