Decolonizing Dark Academia
By Liliana Navelgas, Staff Contributor
Anyone who knows me knows I have a thing for British and trans-Atlantic accents; it’s pretty much canon. I like old books, too. Worn stone buildings with spires stretched to heaven, Greek mythology, Baroque music: the list goes on and on. On social media platforms with a large Gen-Z population, such as Tumblr and TikTok, those preferences would beyond qualify me for typology according to a given archetype (an “aesthetic”, to use the more popular term). This aesthetic goes by the name of dark academia: a brooding, romantic construction based on Collegiate Gothic architecture, the literature of Western antiquity, and a palette of earth tones that color each visual of this aesthetic. Dark academia is also often identified with New England liberal arts colleges, an association that came about primarily because of Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel, The Secret History.
The Secret History was widely acclaimed even upon initial release, but it has more recently gained a cult following in the previously mentioned spaces of Tumblr and Tiktok. It is relevant to consider why this has become the case, and why The Secret History has been so influential in shaping the dark academia aesthetic. The condensed version is that it furnishes both the “dark” and the “academia” aspects, with a healthy dose of young adult angst throughout. As literary critic Michiko Kakutani observes, the characters of The Secret History recall the allure of the “bright young things of England… the willful esthetes, dedicated to the ideals of beauty and art,... in the 1920s.” European artistic movements in the 1920s are usually associated with the mindset of the Lost Generation. This mindset was, in one way, a reaction to the horrors of the previous decade. The 1910s were a decade wrought with global instability, the menace of a global pandemic, and the beginnings of corporate greed; all that without even considering World War I yet. That is a zeitgeist that may feel strikingly familiar to us, and perhaps even more palpable as the world has become more globalized. With quarantine, there might be a feeling of ephemeral yet precious solace that comes with situating ourselves in this dark academia aesthetic. It is relatively easily accessible (vintage clothes and old books are a dime a dozen here in New York City) and provides a sense of community through the online platforms. However, some express concern that romanticizing dark academia may be tantamount to perpetuating Eurocentrism in the public image of higher education.
In his 1904 commentary, architect Ralph Adams Cram (one of the most prolific exponents of Collegiate Gothic architecture in his time) declared that Collegiate Gothic architecture’s visual impact should be “scholastic in inspiration and effect, and scholastic of the type that is [British] by inheritance.” While it is a worthy point to raise that timeless visual appeal does not automatically equate to a perpetuation of Eurocentrism, dark academia’s total romanticization of these visuals is predisposed to exactly that possibility. The characters of The Secret History are charismatic and alluring because of Donna Tartt’s hypnotic prose; however, I wouldn’t exactly call them exemplary in terms of moral compass. I’ve heard from some of my friends and seen on TikToks that there is an increasing population of dark academia enthusiasts who say things like “I want to be a character from The Secret History.” That is a level of affinity that resides beyond simply looking at an old Gothic building and thinking “wow, that’s pretty.” Once we get to that degree of identification with the dark academia aesthetic, there arises a necessity to determine if we are unwittingly assenting to Eurocentric constructs and normalizing a myopic view of the Western classics. That requires serious intellectual rigor and deconstruction that reach beyond what I can work within one article, but here’s a possible start.
Dark academia, along with its foundational text The Secret History, draws from the rich literary tradition of Greek and Roman classics. I’ve been in love with Greek mythology since I was a kid (I even wrote my college essay on it), so I have a special investment in this subject. Revisiting the words of Michiko Kakutani, she compares The Secret History’s narrative use of Dionysian rites to that in Euripides’ Bacchae. For our purposes, let’s use Dionysus as a port of entry into decolonizing dark academia. Dionysus, the Greco-Roman god of wine, fertility, insanity, and theatre (among other things), has traditionally been regarded as a derivative of the god Sabazios, whose followers were the Phrygians and the Thracians, ancient peoples who inhabited the areas near the Balkan Peninsula and modern-day Turkey. More recent scholarship attests to Dionysus being endemic to Ancient Greece, as suggested by extant clay tablets. One thing, however, is clear: Dionysus predates any widespread pattern of colonization. These clay tablets were written during the late Bronze Age period of Mycenaean Greece, a largely self-sustaining matrix of palatial states with a priest-king called a wanax at the helm. Greek colonization, in fact, one of the earliest examples of colonization, did not occur until centuries after the collapse of Mycenaean Greece. Although cult worship of Dionysus did become more common in the era of Ancient Greek colonization, he was still considered distinct from the rest of the Greek gods who sponsored the wars of heroes and destroyed cities for amusement. One poignant account portrays Dionysus almost as a protector against violent seizure of land, this time perpetrated by Alexander the Great in his imperial conquest: the ancient city of Dionysopolis (also known as Nagara, located in present-day eastern Afghanistan), according to historian Arrian of Nicomedia, was spared from Alexander the Great’s destruction because of its special significance to Dionysus. From what we know, Dionysus remained unique in this regard because his worship did not demand any conquest or ritual sacrifice. He would not have been a colonialist figure (if anything, he would have been a commodity diffused through colonial migration patterns), and that needs to be emphasized.
Dark academia’s focus on Western classics, in general, deserves more critical analysis if the goal is to make sure that patterns of cultural erasure and colonialism are not further encouraged. Following the topic of Ancient Greek colonization introduced earlier, scientist Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein points out that the idea of Ancient Greece as a static provenance for what is now commonly considered Western antiquity is fallacious. As she says in her 2015 Medium article “Decolonising Science Reading List” “many of those “Greeks” were Egyptians and Mesopotamians under Greek rule.” Dr. Prescod-Weinstein likely refers to the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires, which were products of Alexander the Great’s territorial conquest. Alexander the Great was himself tutored by one of the legendary figures of Western classics, Aristotle. The acquisition and storage of knowledge in classical antiquity were inseparable from the pressures of imperialism and exploitation, and that remains bitterly true today. The only reason that Western Europe gained access to the texts of Greco-Roman antiquity (Aristotelian treatises among them) in the first place was because of the translations that Muslim scholars like Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) conducted from Arabic to Latin, or otherwise due to the translations of these Arabic texts by Jewish people in Italy during the early modern period (a largely ostracized group). Thus, it is quite ironic and, frankly, ridiculous to conceive of this knowledge as being passed through a straight line tunnel from Ancient Athens to Rome to Western Europe to the world at large. The reality is far more circuitous and far less easy to corroborate with the alleged inimitable complexity of Western European scholasticism. In appreciating dark academia, we must never lose sight of the ugly and incomplete histories behind Eurocentric revisionist narratives. Cultural development is facilitated most humanely through organic, gradual change, and not through theft as global powers bulldoze through everything enlightening and brilliant. How’s that for a secret history?