Dark Academia & the Longing for Identity
On Slytherins and Sonnenrads
Universities once provided identities as well as educations. These identities were deeply rooted in particular places, layered with centuries of history, aesthetics, traditions, and the stable elites of particular peoples. As Gladstone said of Oxford: “It inculcated a reverence for what was ancient, and free, and great.”
There is a latent longing for the return of this elite world; a desire hidden below the surface of the consciousness of even the deeply progressive. Suppressed by liberal conditioning, it is being revealed in strange and spontaneous aesthetic movements, new identities, and collective dreams.
Here I turn to the emergent phenomenon of Dark Academia.
Dark Academia is an aesthetic subculture that presents an idealized, romantic vision of Collegiate Gothic architecture and pale, English Rose students. It is nostalgic, autumnal, dark, seductive, shadowy; purged of technology, it implies a pessimistic and melancholic grieving for a forgotten society.
Its cultural reference points are the English romantic poets, the impressionist composers, and, more darkly, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History - a tale of Classics students who become possessed with a Dionysian spirit and commit murder at an elite New England college.
It’s essential narrative is a longing for the return of pre-modern Oxbridge life.
Videos from the genre have millions of views on YouTube and TikTok, and tens of thousands of Dark Academia images have been posted to Tumblr and Pinterest.
“I wonder anybody does anything at Oxford but dream and remember, the place is so beautiful. One almost expects the people to sing instead of speaking.”
– W. B. Yeats, Letter to Katharine Tynan (1888)
One suspects that the Dark Academia movement derives from the maturation of the cultural tastes of a generation for whom Harry Potter was a formative influence. Indeed, the parallels with the dreamlike creations of those artists who consider themselves to be Slytherins, and produce visions that are the female equivalent of sonnenrad edits are clear:
But the question is why? What is so seductive about this vision that it has possessed millions of young that have never known the life that it portrays? From where does it derive its power to overcome the modern conditioning that insists that such unashamedly elite spaces are exclusionary and detestable?
The modern university, with its glass-fronted buildings, whitewashed lecture halls, and sterile seminar rooms is a deeply unattractive environment. It feels like what it is; an extractive system used to efficiently move along a conveyer belt of the indebted young and international students with deep pockets. No matter that few students truly have the intellectual talent to justify higher education; intellectual excellence is not really the goal, and if achieved would only serve to deepen societal inequalities. The correlation between those with the potential for intellectual excellence and those who already come from elite backgrounds and privileged identities is unacceptable.
Any liberal arts education is necessarily thinly spread and rushed; it cannot be assumed that a multicultural student body have any unified and pre-existing knowledge of the great Western cultural works, so everything must be superficially covered at once, with a random handful of diverse works thrown in for good measure.
There is no room for dress codes (elitist), beautiful architecture (expensive), tradition (racist), or cubby holes (inefficient). What identities are on offer in the modern university - sexual and other minorities - are resentful and ugly.
Everything is surface level, devoid of mystery, depth, refinement, richness, and challenge. It is transparent, efficient, rapid, and tasteless.
Compulsive transparency annihilates the fragrance of things, the fragrance of time. Transparency has no fragrance… The momentary gleam of the spectacle, immediate stimulation, is not beautiful, but rather the quiet afterglow, the phosphorescence of time. A quick succession of events or stimuli does not constitute the temporality of the beautiful.
— Byung-Chul Han, The Transparency Society
In contrast, the engine of desire that sits unacknowledged at the center of the world of J.K. Rowling is the seductive notion that elite spaces still exist in secret, and one can be invited into them.
The message of Hogwarts is clear and quintessentially aristocratic: there must be an elevated class, set apart from the hoi polloi and from middle class drudgery, free to pursue intellectual endeavors, ritual, beauty, and to explore the mysteries of reality and history. Don’t you wish that you could join them?
Hogwarts is beautiful because - behind a facade of fantasy that allows us to pretend that we’re not attracted by what is actually attracting us - it is absolutely classist, elitist, exclusionary, traditional, and certain of its identity.
Attending Hogwarts allows access to mysteries and hidden truths, and the existence of these mysteries in turn implies that there are absolute truths that can be discovered - but you must pursue them. The wizarding world is not post-modern or relativistic; because its metaphysics are instantiated as magic - which either works or it doesn’t - it allows no room for conceptual ambiguity.
Rowling’s school does not cater to your identity, whatever modern contrivance you may have adopted, or whatever Muggle background you come from. You must lose yourself in the school and its being. It stands, unapologetic and unmoving in its eternal identity - its Otherness - inviting students into a world that is undeniably superior.
There is no need to rush one’s Hogwarts education, and little requirement to cram, for there is no corporate rat race in the world of Harry Potter. Wealth is assumed - Harry’s spontaneously appears, a giant pile of gold in the vault of a private bank - and careers are chosen entirely based on one’s interests, not on the basis of need or prudence. The parallels with the aristocracy are clear.
The genius of Dark Academia is that it exploits the same fantasy structure in less obvious form. By removing a definite narrative, a definite place, and a definite people from the abstract visions it presents, it is able to circumvent any specific criticism of historical injustices or prejudice. Naturally, its implicit ‘Eurocentrism’ and traditional beauty standards are called out by the resentful, but the image endures. Its advocates that stop and think about what they are enjoying quickly realize the sin that they are committing:
With the nostalgia, the omniscience, and the prestige, this genre seems to say, “universities were better before we modernized them” which is an incredibly dangerous train of thought.
— From a blog which celebrates “diverse books and authors”
We must take from this a renewed confidence that our ideas and the way of life that we desire are of such power that they can enter into the dreams of even the most progressive and influenceable cohorts of our society; they just need to be presented correctly.
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Sic transit imperium,