Arts Muse

A Critique of 'Dark Academia'

Camila Hernandez looks at the need for Dark Academia to become more diverse.

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Image Credit: Jorge Royan, 2009

When I first found out about Dark Academia (DA), I felt I had found a collective that didn't shame me for my keenness for studying, for dressing a certain way, appreciating beautiful architecture, for thinking there was a point to learning any Koine, and for my complete inability to keep to any minimalist aesthetic. Yet, there came a point in which I began to think more critically, as a good English student does, about the community I was so profoundly invested in. I began to read the 'classics' and became committed to dethroning these big texts from their elitist statuses. Yet, then I realised no one else (on the internet) seemed to be finding the same problems as me.

I found constant snippets of these texts and quotes distributed around social platforms due to a significant resurgence of interest. At the same time, it seemed as if people were treating these works as things to tick off a list; dates memorised, writing fan-fictions made of deeply immoral yet alluring characters - definitely not the right way to pay tribute to these texts, I thought to myself. But this isn't the first time these attitudes to literature have sprung to the bubbling surface of society. This leads me to a slightly risky analogy, but bear with me: is Dark Academia perhaps the new Renaissance?

The historical period deemed as the Renaissance is one of the typical stops on any tour through the history of Western culture which encompasses the years 1300-1600. Within this period, poets, craftsmen, and other prominent aesthetes marvelled at the style and ambition of Ancient Greek and Roman civilisation. 19th-century art and culture historian Jacob Burckhardt wrote that "the word Renaissance really means [...] new birth to liberty—the spirit of mankind recovering consciousness and the power of self-determination, recognizing the beauty of the outer world and of the body through art." (The History of the Renaissance).

Hence, it is a  universally acknowledged  truth that the gatekeepers of philosophy and overall knowledge have been highly praised, Eurocentric figures. They ignited a spark, a motive of ideas revolving around the resurgence of 'recovering consciousness' through art and knowledge. Sound familiar?

Like the Renaissance, Dark Academia enthusiasts heavily lean on their own constructed 'canons' , their own manifestations of Ancient Greece and Rome, which have been replaced by Wilde, Nietzsche, and the like. Both movements, in this respect, appear to detract from the individualistic journey that is discovering knowledge through literature. I believe it is often not until we look back at books we've read in retrospect that we truly derive meaning from them. This is more impactful and enduring than simply looking at the world through the eyes of others. As Kafka once said: “Don't bend; don't water it down; don't try to make it logical; don't edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.”

Don't get me wrong, there are definitely benefits of diving into the 'classics' , and they are by no means the most accessible texts, so props to you if you make it through the lengthy afterwords. Yet, that might just be their appeal; they are not just disposable works one reads and then forgets. The ancients have always known that true philosophy comes with intuition and emotional clarity, for instance, Plato's work, had been revised and improved throughout the philosopher's own realisations. Plato's hypotheses led him to conclude that the question of being is beyond any substance, and the 'highest Truth' in our contemporary moment can still be sought through this analogy.

Fast-forward to the present day, and the humanities don't seem to have the same support and praise in our current educational climate. In The Decline of the Humanities, Ikpe places the humanities in contemporary society as "being consigned [...] to the rubbish heap of history." Ikpe continues to explain that "the reason for this sorry state of affairs is not far-fetched; the humanities are said to have failed to evolve with society and has therefore lost its relevance." In light of this argument, I have found this to be incredibly prominent in the appreciation and condonation of the oppressive, outdated structures in canonised pieces of literature that constantly circulate around dark academia forums.

An article from The Guardian similarly reported that trend forecaster Giuliana Ceriani noted , “(It’s) turned to past times. [...] (the) 1930s, 1940s, 1950s. It’s an expression of the will of conservation, resistant to the progressive.” Hence, 'aesthetics,' or 'genres' like DA seem to be stunting the growth and availability of the humanities in education for all even though it appears to be doing the very opposite in its nature.

That being said, it is likely, like most Tumblr-born subcultures, that DA will diversify with academia itself - if we allow it to, of course. Since DA is first and foremost fictional, we as a community and the contemporary creators of novels/movies/etc. have the responsibility to change how the genre operates. It does not need to simply be a mirror of reality; we can make those changes in the literature, aesthetics, and art of the genre now, rather than sit statically with our fingers crossed. Further, let's promote academic interests outside of the experiences of only white men. Let's learn beautiful, melodic languages like Arabic and Chinese, let's read Lao Tzu, Haruki Murakami, Kahlil Gibran, Langston Hughes, and keep the dark, the beautiful, and even the pretentious yet with a touch of inclusivity. The change begins with us.

Additionally, the unhealthy habits being promoted is perhaps a grey area in the 'aesthetic' that is not necessarily how individuals live out dark academia but remains in the literary texts and figures being consumed. The literature of Dark Academia can be divorced from how people actually live it out; i.e. let's take all the cool buildings and maximalism, old clothes, dark palettes, and intense interests and make them ours. These themes of elitism are pertinent to the stories that have been told but not to our own stories. The problem lies in the generalisation of art into life, since, at least not anymore with people voicing their opinions on social platforms, art cannot just be "for art's sake." Unfortunately, nowadays there is always a voice, a source, an artist attached to the baggage which their art or their words carry.

The main take-away from this is: if you really want to adopt a vintage look, become more learned, educated, and open-minded, avoid adopting vintage values.

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