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The “Dark Academia” Subculture Offers a Fantasy Alternative to the Neoliberal University

At the center of the “dark academia” aesthetic is the fantasy of uninterrupted personal time and deep scholarly concentration in an elite campus setting. It couldn’t differ more from the reality of the hyper-capitalist modern university.

Like another recent online aesthetic, “cottagecore,” dark academia depicts a retreat from modern life and from other people. What unites these pictures isn’t a shared visual language so much as a mood or vibe. (Javier Grixo / Unsplash)

There are over a million posts on the “dark academia” tag on Instagram. The images are quite disparate: cardigans, young women reading old books, photos of Oxbridge colleges, candles, and, more bizarrely, a black-and-white still of Ross from Friends. Autumn is a recurrent theme.

Like another recent online aesthetic, “cottagecore,” dark academia depicts a retreat from modern life and from other people. What unites these pictures isn’t a shared visual language — though features like colors and locations do overlap — so much as a mood or vibe. This mood is scholarly, romantic, and solitary. Most images show young people standing alone, often facing away from the camera.

While subcultures tend to bring their adherents together through shared practices, online aesthetics like dark academia and cottagecore are individual practices that bring people into an imagined community in which they never have to come into contact with any other adherent. Aesthetics are like something between a genre and an ordering principle for someone’s lifestyle. This particular ordering principle is structured around an idealized, romanticized version of learning. Learning in dark academia is an object of fantasy: the books are to be posed with rather than read; the photos of libraries rarely show them actually in use; the writing might come with difficulty, torn up paper scattered everywhere, but the end result is always flawless.

Aesthetics can function like a self-selected structure of feeling; the images shared and the clothes and decorations bought are intended to create particular emotional states. For dark academia, this is often something like a romanticized way of encouraging concentration and motivation. Images and signs, rich with compressed meaning, push those who engage with the aesthetic to feel and act in a particular way. A lot of the content is intended to bring about more directly a studious affective state: study playlists called things like “crying in an old library on a rainy day (dark academia),” consisting of movie soundtracks and gentle melancholic piano music set against shifting images of old libraries and steamy cups of tea, rack up millions of views on YouTube.

Youth trends and cultural phenomena tend to have multiple rather than singular causes. Exactly why so many young people are donning tweeds and writing wax-sealed letters, or at least imagining themselves doing so, is unlikely to have a simple explanation. Its second wave of trendiness — an initial crop of dark academia could be found on Tumblr in the early 2010s — has been linked variously to the pandemic, to neoliberal reforms to higher education, and to the return of preppy style generally.

The neoliberal assault on higher education is older than dark academia. While reforms to higher education transformed life on campus, they might not provide an exhaustive reason for the trend’s popularity. But the trend makes sense partly as a response to marketization, in particular to the temporal stresses of the neoliberal university, which are reflected back in the aesthetic’s central vibe: deep study, unfettered by time pressure.

Campuses Real and Imagined

The social atomization caused by the COVID-19 pandemic certainly seems to have played a role in dark academia’s popularity. The pandemic sent many students back to their family homes, often without their own spaces to study, some even Zooming into classes from inside cupboards. As has been argued elsewhere, dark academia offers a fantasy of the university experience that many students felt they were forced by the pandemic to forego.

Not that life on campus bears much similarity to the fantasy either.

At the center of dark academia is the fantasy of uninterrupted time and deep concentration, afforded by the quietude of elite campuses. But unlike the cocooned possibilities for specialness that the imaginary versions of elite educational institutions offer, in reality, a decade of neoliberal reforms to higher education in Britain has left profound scars. In Britain, where many dark academia fantasies play out, market reforms mean impossibly long hours for staff, often under poor contractual conditions (the University and College Union estimates that between 25 and 30 percent of teaching is carried out by casualized staff), and students juggle multiple jobs to cover rising costs of living.

Moreover, students don’t have the charmed rooms of their own imagined in dark academia. In growing numbers, they live in privately owned student halls, working more and more hours to cover high rents. Their misery is profitable: in Britain, the student accommodation market has been estimated to be worth £45 billion. In a particularly perverse gesture, a specialist lender for purpose-built student accommodation includes financial incentives for borrowers (i.e., property developers) to “deliver initiatives supporting the positive mental health and wellbeing of student residents.” The companies making money from the extraordinarily high costs of living, receiving guaranteed income from public money, are engaging in a disturbing act of well-being-washing — rentierism with a self-care workshop.

The package of reforms that tripled student fees baked in a new market model in which universities compete for student fees, replacing a model directed from the center. With almost every university committed to expanding the size of its student body (and fee income), competition for students is fierce. A demographic dip makes the competition even fiercer. Universities are in a constant recruitment mode: collect more students (and their fees) or face the prospect of “market exit.” More elite universities gobble up more and more of the student fee pie: in the 2020 admissions cycle, the London School of Economics and Imperial College London saw an increase of more than 30 percent. Meanwhile, several universities saw their recruitment rate drop by 10 percent or more, of which many were post-1992 universities, which tend to serve working-class communities.

This clustering of students means resources are incredibly overstretched both in universities that do recruit students and in universities that are less able to. Many departments, particularly in the arts and humanities, are aggressively threatened with closure or directly shut down. Overwork and casual contracts are rife. It’s not surprising that against such an obliteration of possibility, some imagine themselves into an entirely different university, one that never really existed.

Tweeds Over Teslas

In addition to the pandemic and the neoliberalization of higher ed, an important context for dark academia is that posh is back.

This isn’t the first preppy revival. After the relatively egalitarian 1970s — the decade in which union density peaked in Britain and the United States — ended and the Thatcherite-Reaganite Right emerged triumphant, posh came back with a bang. In the 1980s, old money and romanticized views of a bucolic English heritage landscape in period dramas asserted themselves alongside a resurgent right ripping up the social democratic status quo. The 1981 Granada Television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (introduced on American TV by William F. Buckley) prompted a spate of bright young things dressing up as the show’s characters, throwing on white linens, hamming up their accents, even carrying around teddy bears like the doomed and troubled Sebastian Flyte.

We’re not quite there yet, but Business Insider reports that in the penultimate week of September, searches on the fashion outlet Lyst for leather loafers were up by 28 percent, pleated skirts by 16 percent, Peter Pan collar shirts by 23 percent, and pearl necklaces by 29 percent. Old money looks are on track to overtake Silicon Valley metallic smoothness, tweeds over Teslas.

Meanwhile, back on campus, neoliberal reforms have given students a hollow form of consumer power. Student unions are encouraged to become miniature consumer leagues, and students’ desire for change is funneled into the ritual completion of endless “satisfaction” surveys. Management’s attempts to constrain student activism are not always successful, and after a period of relative lull, eddies of student protest are forming again. Generally speaking, though, it is not a surprise that, against such a lonely and bureaucratic half existence, some students might want to imagine themselves as seeking something more profound. Romanticization is a predictable but limited response to the crisis in higher education.

Ersatz Romanticism

It has been argued that dark academia is a response to the gradual devaluing of the humanities in the wake of the marketization of higher education. This is not implausible, but what kind of revaluation have the humanities been given in dark academia?

The aesthetic offers the promise of a fantasy of control, of mastery of the canon, and most importantly, of already being special. Education, at its best, can transform you. Dark academia offers the illusion of already having been transformed.

A taxonomy developed by Raymond Williams, the Welsh socialist and theorist, in The Long Revolution is clarifying here. Williams argues that the development of schooling in Britain was partly a struggle between three different traditions: democratic educators, who wanted mass education as broadly and continuously available as possible; those who saw education as a way of ensuring the right mix of industrial training; and finally, old humanists committed to preserving and sustaining a traditional and hierarchical culture while preserving the legacy of humanistic study. Dark academia represents a particularly shallow version of the third group: an ersatz romanticism.

Education is at once a social good, currently subject to a cruel and unfair distribution, and a means through which class society is reproduced. This ambiguity makes it all the more important for socialists to fight for a democratic, public, free education.

Writing about youth trends tends to affirm or disaffirm whatever the kids are doing: Gen Z will either save us or doom us, dark academia for all or for nobody. But taking youth trends and culture seriously means more deeply engaging with the underlying assumptions in youth culture’s social practices.

Dark academia offers feelings of coziness and specialness, but learning relies on letting go of the idea of your own specialness, of being open to the possibility of being transformed, together.