literatureterm paper

Dark Academia: A case study in internet aesthetics as performatism and memetic populism

1. introduction

Since its inception, the internet has continuously transformed people’s lives at an unprecedented speed. This transformation is not only of a technical and economic nature: the Internet connects, permeates and shapes cultures. The digital world dominates everyday life in an almost totalitarian way like no other medium before it, forming an omnipresent aesthetic framework and at the same time enabling new forms of decentralised cultural production through the mimetic dissemination and collective shaping of ideas and cultural artefacts.

The outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic two years ago, which is still ongoing (EDIT: or as it was in spring 2022, when i finished writing this paper), represents one of the biggest global upheavals in recent history, which also accelerated the digitalisation of cultural life and brought many digital trends from niches into the cultural mainstream. In the northern hemisphere in particular, cultural production, consumption and discussion shifted almost completely to the digital realm. The boundaries between the virtual and analogue worlds became increasingly blurred, while the internet became the main medium of communication and culture. Analogue theatres, cinemas and concerts were cancelled, schools and universities shifted to screens at home for long periods of time. Young people of Generation Z[1] such as pupils and students, whose identity formation, character and persona development depends heavily on interaction with cultures and peer groups, threw themselves even more than before into digital cultural spaces, such as those that exist on social media platforms of Instagram, Pinterest, reddit, tumblr and TikTok in particular, in order to express themselves and define their identities.

One of the trends that rapidly intensified with the rise of digitalisation during the pandemic and entered the mainstream was the formation, popularisation and consolidation of a certain form of digital subculture, so-called internet aesthetics. Especially among students, who were now deprived of campus life, a lasting popularity for Dark Academia and related aesthetics emerged.

The aim of this paper is to analyse Internet aesthetics as memeplexes using the example of the digital subculture Dark Academia with the help of Raoul Eshelman’s theoretical framework of performatism with some meme-theory added and to show how these phenomena can be understood as part of a larger cultural paradigm shift after postmodernism, one of an emerging global memetic populism, driving a cultural revolution which necessitate change in many of the established ways of thinking about media and culture.

2. mimetic subcultures and internet aesthetics

2.1 Memes

In order to understand what Internet aesthetics are and how they function, one must first understand at least roughly how culture in general functions on the Internet. The special thing about the Internet is that, at an elementary level, it enables the dissemination of memes, the emergence of cultural mutations and the formation of so-called memeplexes as well as their institutionalisation in collective acts of spontaneous order in an unprecedented quantity, freedom and speed. One could also say that while earlier media such as oral traditions and the printing press were still a kind of primordial soup in which the first memeplexes were formed, we are experiencing a Cambrian explosion with the memetics on and of the Internet.

But what are memes? The biologist Sir Richard Dawkins first established the concept of the meme[2] as the elementary cultural replicator in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene”, thereby laying the foundation for memetics. According to this theory of memetics, culture can generally be described as an accumulation, production, dissemination, evolution and reception of memes. Memes are the smallest, conceptual units of information, such as an idea or a thought, which first arise as conscious content in an individual’s sensory and mental faculties and spread to other individuals through communication and imitation (cf. Bionity, 2022). Interrelated and interdependent memes form complex clusters, so-called memplexes, such as religions, subcultures and ideologies.

Memes thus function – similar to genes in biological evolution – as the fundamental replicators in cultural evolution. Like genes, they “mutate”: individual modifications, reflections or misunderstandings as well as interactions with other memes lead to changes, of which the “fitter” ones survive. Following Darwinian principles, those memes and memeplexes that are particularly adapted to the selection pressure spread in the long term. Since memes spread through communication and not through biological reproduction, they are not necessarily subject to the same selection pressure as genes.

Dawkins illustrates this with the example of celibacy in religions: The meme of celibacy reinforces the fitness of the entire memeplex of a religion in a Darwinian sense because, for example, the representatives of the Catholic Church can spend so much more time and energy on spreading associated memes such as faith and God, so while celibacy may be harmful to the genes of an individual, it gives a fitness advantage to the memeplex and therefore spreads and survives (cf. Dawkins, 2007, p. 330ff)

According to Dawkins, the concept of the meme can be used to describe the dynamics of cultural evolution as a whole: “Examples of memes are melodies, thoughts, catchphrases, clothing fashions, the way to make pots or build bows. Just as genes reproduce in the gene pool by travelling from body to body with the help of sperm or eggs, memes spread in the meme pool by jumping from brain to brain, mediated by a process that can be broadly described as imitation. When a scientist hears or reads a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his publications and lectures. If the idea finds new followers, it can be said to multiply by spreading from one brain to another. […] Memes [should] be understood as living structures […] in the technical sense. If someone implants a fertile meme in my mind, they are literally planting a parasite in my brain and making it a vehicle for the spread of the meme in exactly the same way that a virus does with the genetic mechanism of a host cell.” (Dawkins, 2007, p. 321)

As described above, the internet is the perfect medium for an unprecedented explosion of memes and therefore also their manifestation in cultural artefacts. This is due to the fact that memes can propagate and change in the cultural ecosystem of the internet in a completely different way and much faster than in previous media.

2.2 The two-step flow of decentralised cultural production on the Internet

In classic models of how communication works in modern mass media, such as F.A. Hayek’s Social Change Theory or Lazarsfeld’s Two-Step Flow, the spread of information or memes works relatively hierarchically: there are opinion leaders such as intellectuals, journalists, leading media and celebrities who spread memes to the masses from above, with different groups – such as followers of a certain subculture – each following different opinion leaders. The memes flow from those who have the means and influence to spread them to a mass of recipients. This model describes the media and therefore largely cultural situation up to the end of the 20th century relatively well:

The broad mass of people got their memes from newspapers, books, television programmes and other institutionally produced media, the production of which was costly, so that strong gate-keeper effects favoured elites in particular and contributing to their power gave memes a selection advantage, creating what Antonio Gramsci described as a cultural hegemony of high culture. Not just anyone could enter an editorial office and distribute their ideas throughout the country the next day with the newspaper. The editorial offices were reserved for specialised journalists. Before the 20th century, opinion leadership was also dominated by elitist specialists such as heralds, aristocrats and clergymen. The same applied to the production of cultural artefacts: Books, sculptures, and later lavish Hollywood films, were so resource-intensive to produce and distribute that they were often only made possible by wealthy individuals or wealthy institutions such as states, churches and corporations. The barriers to entry and thus gatekeeper effects for participation in culture production only fell over the centuries as a result of technological change. Even subcultures in the 20th century were largely dependent on memes for their formation, which were distributed by resource-rich publishing houses, television stations or at least one small student newspaper. Then came the internet, and with the introduction of smartphones, it changed everything: anyone with internet access can participate in cultural production at virtually zero cost, create and post images, share their own thoughts through videos or texts. Anyone can also use hashtags and search engines to search cyberspace for like-minded people and network with them, even if they live on the other side of the world. The memes of even the smallest fringe groups can thus form huge memeplexes through global communication – an unpleasant side effect of this is that even outlandish views such as that the earth is a disc can form entire movements, as even if there are only one or two crazy people in every big city who believe this, they can form a community of thousands of like-minded people through the internet, whereas previously they would have been limited to monologues. This leads to a massive fragmentation of the public sphere and culture; the end of the dominance of leading and high cultures, as well as the emergence of numerous multipolar, increasingly democratically operating cultural bubbles.

The old models of a hierarchical distribution of memes are therefore only applicable to the Internet to a limited extent. They still describe two main spaces on the internet well: On the one hand, news sites of established media and broadcasters (in Germany, for example, Bild, SZ, ARD, ZDF) and what I will describe in a moment as the personalised part of digital cultural spaces. In the emergence of culture and subcultures in particular, on the other hand, we can observe almost the opposite, namely a bottom-up process in which anonymous collectives create new memeplexes. The anonymous mass replaces the individual artist. And by feeding the training data of AIs, it will in the long run may even abolish the common artists completely.

In order to understand this reversal of the cultural production process from a hierarchical to a quasi-grassroots, decentralised structure, it is important to bear in mind that the creation and dissemination of memes on the Internet takes place in two different spheres:

On the one hand, there are personalised social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. Here, people usually present themselves with their real names and with their real faces. Companies and political organisations also operate here. In many ways, these social media platforms mirror the communication spheres of the old and analogue world: they offer a forum for social exchange, presentation of one’s own persona and also commercial or political advertising. The accumulation and defence of social status, the acquiring of followers and the monetisation of attention play a central role, similar to the old, analogue world. There are also hierarchical opinion leaders in the form of influencers, whose mode of operation still largely corresponds to Lazarsfeld’s two-step flow model. Although the structures on these platforms are significantly more decentralised and permeable than in the previous media landscape, they largely correlate strongly with the old, hierarchical structures, meaning that politicians, well-known actors and traditional media companies have the greatest influence in the production and dissemination of memes.

The interesting thing about the formation of new memeplexes in particular is that they are increasingly not being created by the opinion leaders of personalised social media platforms, especially when looking at digital subcultures such as Internet Aesthetics. They are increasingly finding their birthplace on anonymous, decentralised platforms such as reddit, 4chan, Pinterest and, to a certain extent, tumblr and various wikis. In contrast to the personalised sphere of the internet, users here are usually completely anonymous and it is often technically and structurally almost impossible to generate social status, followers or monetary remuneration through their activity on the platform. Memes spread here through a quasi grassroots democratic vote (e.g. down and up votes on reddit) and above all through imitation in the form of copying and redistribution. Due to the lack of external incentives, the focus of these anonymous platforms is not on status or money, but on genuine exchange or the pursuit of joint projects (especially with wikis). This depersonalisation leads to a dynamic that is often described as a kind of swarm intelligence or a kind of subconscious of the internet (cf. Mills 2011). The results of this are often impressive: in spring 2020, for example, tens of thousands of small investors from the subreddit r/wallstreetbets organised themselves relatively spontaneously to aggressively buy Gamestop shares, which had been massively sold short by hedge funds, thus provoking a short squeeze.

The calculation worked out. The mass buying forced hedge funds to close their put positions at a loss and the share price shot up from €15.50 to €277.00. The success of this populist revolt on the financial markets ultimately even concerned US financial regulators and politicians; further actions followed. Some economists – like the majority of the academic establishment – are still scratching their heads in confusion today (see FT, 2021).

A meme spreads on these anonymous platforms such as reddit regardless of its creator; only its own fitness counts. There has never before been a comparable ecosystem in which memes could spread so freely and uninfluenced by personal factors such as celebrity, morality or power. Sites like reddit are almost completely selfregulated, free marketplaces of ideas where political correctness, social position, conformity or reputation count for nothing, unlike in the old world. This extremely free flow of memes means that new memeplexes are constantly forming relatively spontaneously, which then have a particularly high level of fitness due to their configuration and spread virally in an explosive manner. Accordingly, these anonymous platforms are an almost endless source of cultural innovation. The cultural avant-garde is no longer to be found in the institutions of high culture or embodied in the genius of an individual artist; it can be found in the anonymous depths of these digital swarm intelligences. Countless new memeplexes emerge there for the first time as a result of the interaction of numerous anonymous individuals, before they are later adapted by the influencers of personalised platforms and fed into the mainstream.

Such spontaneous memeplexes include so-called Internet aesthetics, which could be described as a kind of digital subculture, even if most of them at the moment at least correspond much more to sentiments that are blueprints for a subculture. However, some of them, such as Dark Academia, have now developed into actual digital subcultures that are already diffusing into the analogue world through fashions and institutions.

2.3 Internet aesthetics as digital subcultures

But what are Internet aesthetics? They refer to a specific form of digital memeplexes, although the name aesthetics is somewhat misleading because it does not refer to the philosophical discipline of aesthetics. The word aesthetics as an aesthetic was first adapted by users of the millennial and Z generations in the early 2000s to describe their individual aesthetic preferences, which they presented online, for example through so-called mood boards, collages of digital images, sounds and videos, and which were intended to express their attitude to life. (see Elieson 2021)

The Aesthetis Wiki – a site created and moderated by an anonymous collective, a prime example of institution-building through spontaneous order on the Internet – therefore defines (Internet) Aesthetics as:

“A collection of visual schema that creates a mood. […] Aesthetics have now come to mean a collection of images, colours, objects, music, and writings that creates a specific emotion, purpose, and community. It is largely dependent on personal taste, cultural background, and exposure to different pieces of media. This definition is not official and can be debated. There is currently no dictionary definition that captures the complexity of this phenomenon, which arose in the Internet youth. Rather, people who participate in the community “know it when they see it.”.” (Aesthetics Wiki FAQ, 2022)

Initially, these aesthetics were primarily presentations of individual feelings, the dissemination of which was first popularised by the launch of the microblogging platform tumblr in 2007. Platforms focussing more on images, such as Pinterest, which was launched in 2010 and makes it a child’s play to create, share and collect collages from digital media, gave this self-expression a further boost by collecting media that expressed a coherent sentiment. Users began to imitate and reference each other under certain hashtags, forming denser meme clusters. The introduction of Instagram in 2010 and TikTok in 2016 made social media, and with it the creation, distribution and collection of digital media, mainstream. (cf. Elieson 2021) Over time, through constant imitation (mimesis), individual digital collages of this kind gained broader followings of imitators who saw their own identity reflected in the individual aesthetics and expanded them further. Over time, some, such as the Aesthetic Dark Academia, not only developed large collections of memes, but also linked up with other memes and formed ever larger memeplexes: Subcultures with their own values, morals, fashions and schisms. Some drew on old subcultures from the analogue world, while others developed into independent digital subcultures. The first major wave of Internet aesthetics and the subcultures based on them spilling over into mainstream discourse took place during the 2016 presidential elections in the USA. After several years of intense culture wars and camp formation in the digital space, particularly between the alt-right movement on 4chan and the social justice movement on tumblr, alt-right users began to feed their aesthetics into the mainstream of personalised social media and to attach their own memes to existing successful aesthetics – even with quite a lot of success, as the transgressive and extreme nature of far-right memes often generates high attention in a deregulated environment and thus experiences rapid replication. Quite a few commentators attributed a significant role in Trump’s victory to these digital culture wars fought by means of memetics. (At this point, reference should be made to the brilliant book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right by Angela Nagle from 2017, which analyses these digital culture wars).

A vivid example of the development and political adaptation of digital memeplexes into their own subcultures is the splintering of synthwave and vaporwave. Synthwave is an aesthetic that combines futuristic dystopian visual imagery in the style of 80’s western science fiction with energetic electronic music, while vaporwave is a very similar aesthetic, but one that primarily combines the imagery of 90’s Japanese sci-fi with UI designs of operating systems like Windows 95 and more laid back electro music.

Both aesthetics shared a retro-futurism that resonated with cypherpunk subcultures at the turn of the millennium, experienced huge popularity, intermingled in the early 2000s and splintered into countless microgenres and smaller subcultures in the 2010s, which then expanded the visual schemes and music to include political and moral values.

These waves included digital movements such as the Alt-Right’s Fashwave (neo-fascist politics), Labourwave (Marxist politics) and Sovietwave (Soviet nostalgia), as well as apolitical movements such as Simpsonwave (an aesthetic glorifying drug use in particular, using electronic psychedelic music and images or videos of Bart Simpson in a drugged-up or depressed state). Vaporwave memes then began to flow from the anonymous spheres of the internet into personalised social media such as Instagram, YouTube and TikTok, where they found followers among influencers such as young, online socialised artists like Yung Lean or Lil’Peep, who often mainstreamed them in combination with rap elements and drug use memes. At the same time, political artists such as the musician Akira The Don also capitalised on the rising popularity with their own productions, such as Meaning, which was inspired by the Canadian right-wing intellectual Jordan B. Peterson-inspired Meaning- or JBPWave.

Soon, the images of the various waves and the values associated with them could also be found in the feeds and YouTube recommendations of normal users who had otherwise had little to do with the impersonal spaces of the internet and the internet aesthetics and subcultures that emerged there. By the end of the 2010s, Internet aesthetics were already widespread, but most were limited to a memeplex of moods and aesthetic preferences, very few of which had consolidated into real subcultures with their own world views and conceptions of the world. The main exceptions were some explicitly political ones that had already existed on the internet for some time, such as the cryptoanarchists that emerged from the cypherpunks, or those that refer back to earlier political movements such as the memeplex around the alt-right, as well as quite clearly those that refer to a drug culture such as drugcore or simpsonwave.

However, this changed at breakneck speed around 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic swept across the world and pushed young people’s cultural lives and their search for identity and meaning even further into the digital world. In the absence of analogue events, digital culture  became the primary space for self-expression and finding meaning. More and more internet aesthetics consolidated into real subcultures and influencers began to adapt them and bring them into the mainstream. Not only that, but more and more internet aesthetics formed their own values, world views and fashions and then began to shape young people’s analogue lives, which slowly reawakened during the second year of the pandemic.

Collective projects emerged, such as the Aesthetics Wiki in May 2020, in which users map the ever denser and growing landscape of Internet aesthetics with collectively written articles.

Finding the aesthetics that correspond to one’s own attitude to life and curating one’s own digital persona according to this is now an increasingly relevant part of identity formation among adolescents. One of the most recognised and developed of these new subcultures is Dark Academia.

3. dark academia as a popular internet aesthetic

3.1 The popularity of Dark Academia

Of the Internet aesthetics that have developed into an independent subculture with mainstream appeal, Dark Academia, which originated in the English-speaking world, is probably the most popular as of spring 2022. It should be noted, however, that there are already signs that its (first) peak was in 2021, when even traditional German-language media such as Die Zeit and the FAZ began to report on it. However, an analysis of search queries on Google Trends indicates that interest in Dark Academia stabilised at a high level from the beginning of 2021 to the beginning of 2022. (There is no shortage of influencers who have dedicated their entire social media persona to the subculture, such as R.C. Waldun, iphilgoodyou or Ruby Granger, anonymous channels that spread matching playlists and quotes, as well as heated debates about splits into new subcultures such as Light Academia or about the inclusivity of the subculture in the form of video essays on YouTube and (mostly student) media. There are now even online shops such as TheDarkAcademic, which exclusively target fans of this subculture.

3.2 The origins of Dark Academia

Dark Academia has its origins in the depths of time, especially in 19th century literature. The first elements, the first memes, can already be found in ancient literature. However, the term #DarkAcademia first appeared as a hashtag on the microblogging platform tumblr in 2015, namely in connection with visual representations of and discussions about the novel “The Secret History” by American author Donna Tartt, which was published in 1992. Anonymous users created and posted collages of images that captured the characters’ attitude to life, the themes and moods of the novel and labelled them #darkacademia. Other users began to use the hashtag for images and quotes with similar sentiments, even if they had nothing to do with the novel, so that the hashtag slowly emancipated itself from the novel and became a micro-genre in its own right. As a result, an Internet Aesthetics of its own grew out of these quasi-digital book clubs, which also integrated elements from similar fictional works such as the films Dead Poet Society and Kill your Darlings and the novel The Hidden Game by M.L. Rio as well as the Harry Potter book series and its films in particular. (see Aesthetics Wiki, 2022)

Initially, especially around 2017, blogs dealing with art history and classical architecture adapted the visual styles associated with the hashtag #DarkAcademia. These were mostly photos of old buildings, especially universities such as Oxford and Harvard, intermingled with quotes from classic literature and films about life at elite boarding schools and universities. With the growing lists of film and book recommendations on various blogs aimed at fans of this style, a whole canon of films and books soon grew up, forming a memeplex that expresses a Dark Academia attitude to life that is only vaguely linked to the novel. It didn’t take long for #DarkAcademia to spread to other social media platforms – the subreddit r/DarkAcademia was founded on 26 December 2018, and Dark Academia[3] also began to spread to YouTube, Instagram and TikTok in 2018 and 2019, where it experienced a strong upswing around New Year 2020, which accelerated into hype with the start of the first lockdowns in February and March 2020.

Although Donna Tartt’s novel “The Secret History” is only of limited relevance to Dark Academia at this point, it is still relatively helpful for understanding Dark Academia as a movement, as it already contains many of the essential aesthetic and ideological elements of the subculture like a seed. Some commentators also say that “The Secret History” is a kind of bible for Dark Academia. This is quite an apt comparison, considering that very few Dark Academics have actually read the novel, let alone understood it. (cf. Elieson, 2021)

The plot of the novel “The Secret History” is told from the point of view of the character Richard Papen, who comes from a poor family, drops out of his pre-medical studies in California and transfers to Hampden College in Vermont, New England, in 1983 to study Ancient Greek on a scholarship. The eccentric Professor of Classics Julian Morrow teaches his hand-picked five students in isolation from the rest of the university. He initially refuses to admit Richard to this elite circle. However, this only increases Papen’s fascination with this anything but ordinary group. Its five members – Henry Winter, Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran, Francis Abernathy and the twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay – all come from wealthy families, wear clothes that tend to date from the first half of the 20th century and stand out on campus: expensive tweed jackets, leather shoes, luxurious Mont Blanc masterpiece fountain pens, waistcoats and ties. They seem to lead completely aestheticised lives, devoted to the fine arts, fond of drug and alcohol excesses and classical works such as the writings of Plato and Homer, and with little interest in the contemporary world. Some of them react with astonishment to one of Papen’s remarks that there have already been men on the moon. Henry Winter takes the reactionary lifestyle so far that he lives largely without electricity and lights his book-filled flat with candles and paraffin lamps. Despite the warnings of other lecturers, Papen, driven by an obsession to belong to this esoteric clique, manages to be accepted as Morrow’s sixth student by demonstrating his philological skills and lying about his origins. Little by little, Papen integrates himself into the clique, spending weekends with them at a country house belonging to Francis’ family and immersing himself with them in their passions for an aesthetic life and the study of classical philology, always having to lead a double life, as he constantly pretends to come from a rich family as well. Over time, however, he realises that the clique itself is also plagued by a secret: Henry, Charles, Camila and Francis tried to experience the Dionysian mysteries from ancient accounts for themselves by staging a bacchanal in the woods near the campus one night. In the ensuing mania, they murdered a farmer. Bunny, who had been excluded from the bacchanal due to his chaotic personality, found out about them and has been blackmailing the group ever since. The clique eventually conspires to murder Bunny, which they succeed in doing by Henry pushing him off a cliff while the rest, including the initiated Papen, look on.

Bunny’s death is classed as an accident by the authorities, but Professor Morrow learns the truth through a letter left by Bunny and disappears virtually overnight. The psychological consequences disintegrate the group: they fall into alcoholism and psychotic states, Charles rapes his sister Camilla, who seeks refuge with Henry. Charles finally tries to murder Henry with a pistol, but Henry disarms him. In order to cover up Charles’ attempted murder and thus the group’s secret, Henry commits suicide in front of his friends after kissing Camilla goodbye. The group disintegrates, traumatised. Although they are never prosecuted for their murders, they are scarred for life. Charles goes to a rehab clinic and breaks off contact with his sister and friends. Francis tries to commit suicide, fails and marries a woman – although he is homosexual – to avoid being disinherited by his grandfather. Richard Papen, plagued by an unrequited love for Camilla, ends up as a depressed academic in English studies. In many ways, the novel follows the pattern of one of the classical Greek tragedies that the characters deal with in their studies at Morrow.

Ironically, one of the obvious interpretations of this novel, given its tragic form, is to read it as a stark warning against obsessions with aesthetics, elitist arrogance and academic hubris. This is even made clear in several places through foreshadowing, including in a dialogue between Henry and Morrow: “‘Death is the mother of beauty,’ said Henry. “And what is beauty?” “Horror.”” (Tartt 2017, p.58)

Dark Academia glorifies this horror: the thoroughly aestheticised, elitist, reactionary and decadent lifestyle of wealthy young intellectuals who devote themselves to humanistic passions and Faustian obsessions for Dionysian and macabre states of mind, regardless of the consequences. This is also what is dark about this Internet Aesthetic.

However, it is not only the lifestyles of the characters in “The Secret History” that are prototypical of Dark Academia, but also their habitus. Dark Academia is an amalgam of preferences for classical literature, the lifestyle of 19th-century Romanticism, the elitist education of a bygone era with its focus on ancient Greek and Latin. “All of these historical periods were reflected in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. The sublime, picturesque and beautiful are concepts frequently repeated by the narrator, Richard Papen; the main characters vacation in a remote mansion and get drunk, discuss intellectually stimulating topics and lived decadently, like the Romantic poets did in their famed Geneva trip; and the ritual for Bacchanal is a representation of the same fascination with the irrational.” (Aesthetics Wiki, 2022)

However, it should be noted here that over the years and in the course of mainstreaming, Dark Academia has emancipated itself strongly from the radically elitist and macabre elements of “The Secret History”. Similarly, unlike many of the canonical novels, the excessive consumption of drugs and alcohol plays no visible role in the subculture. Most Dark Academics, as written above, never read “The Secret History”, but joined the subculture out of a fascination for the academic lifestyle and its aesthetic imagery. Young female students in particular, who make up the largest group within the movement, often seem to identify more with Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter books than with Henry Winter. Accordingly, most of them tend to live out a tame version, which consists of dressing old-fashioned, reading books by candlelight, glorifying diligent study and listening to classical music.

For quite a few people, Dark Academia is less about actual values – like any subculture, it attracts a flock of people who copy its fashion for popularity without being heavily involved with the culture itself. Even if the movement’s clothing fashion is modelled on the clothing styles of the Anglo-Saxon upper classes of the late 19th century and the 1940s and 1950s, Dark Academia as a subculture is quite democratic. The right clothes are often easy to find in second-hand shops and many of the classicist elements that can still be found in Tartt’s novel have disappeared in the course of mainstreaming.

3.3 The elements of Dark Academia

3.3.1 Overview

The Aesthetics Wiki describes Dark Academia as of 03/03/2022 as follows: “Dark Academia is a popular (and the original) academic aesthetic that revolves around classic literature, the pursuit of self-discovery, and a general passion for knowledge and learning. […] Dark Academia’s visuals stem primarily from upper-class European cultures of the 19th century, Gothicism, and American Prep. The upper class of this time period emphasised a liberal education in which Latin, rhetoric and classics were taught subjects. These are now seen as unusual and slightly esoteric, creating an allure that presents schooling as not dreary or boring, but one that cultivates mystery, curiosity, and diligence that isn’t commonly seen in contemporary schooling. Pretentiousness is celebrated within the Dark Academia community. Romanticising education and moments in life is the core appeal of the aesthetic. […] Dark Academia includes motifs of criminality, danger and mystery. Secret societies, cults and murder are common subjects within the aesthetic. Characters within the works of fiction associated with Dark Academia, specifically The Secret History and Kill Your Darlings, live decadent and self-destructive lifestyles involving drugs, moments of intense violence and secrets.” (Aesthetics Wiki, 2022)

3.3.2 Style and fashion

Dark Academics share their attitude to life online, particularly in the form of short videos on TikTok and YouTube, as well as images and texts on reddit and tumblr. A compilation of Dark Academia clips from TikTok that capture the essential elements of their aesthetic can be found here, for example: The images are often dark, dimly lit or bathed in autumn colours such as beige, which gives them an old, mysterious aura; the music is either classical (e.g. Chopin) or plays with dramatic lyrics such as the popular song Achilles come down by the band Gangs of Youth. Video clips and pictures often show the paraphernalia of humanistic studies in the past: old, worn books with leather bindings, pen and ink, candlelight. In general, everything to do with learning, books and writing is romanticised and glorified.

In addition, images are often posted or incorporated into collages of white marble statues and shots of prestigious buildings of educational institutions such as Oxford or Trinity College, libraries and castles, as well as generally gothic, neoclassical or beaux-arts architecture. Paintings posted on Dark Academia accounts are often from the European Baroque, Renaissance, Romantic and Neoclassical periods or are new works in the styles of these ancient eras.

In general, a strong Eurocentrism dominates the images, sounds and literary canon of Dark Academia, which is sharply criticised by some commentators on the movement – and in some cases also softened, as many Dark Academia influencers are ethnic non-Europeans and more and more suitable memes from Islamic and Asian cultures are currently being introduced.

The fashion in Dark Academic‘s clothing is largely based on a mixture of school uniforms from the upper education system in the Anglo-Saxon world of the 1940s; burgundy cashmere jumpers, white shirts, suits and ties, but also coats and dresses from the Victorian era, Romanticism and French Existentialism. The stereotypical clothing styles of humanities professors are also imitated: the mostly beige tweed jacket with elbow patches and the black turtleneck jumper can be found in virtually every Dark Academia wardrobe. Brown leather shoes with laces are a favourite, although black Doc Martens are also frequently adopted as a more cost-effective and practical solution. The biros and laptop often disappear – at least when posing for social media – in favour of classy fountain pens or even typewriters, with a cup of coffee in the background. Reading 19th century classics and Greek antiquity, learning Latin, ancient Greek and French, as well as posing with books in general and often discussing content, are at the centre of the fashion-framed self-portrayal as a young, traditional intellectual still living in a world full of humanist and romantic ideals.

At first glance, dark academics often seem to outsiders like amateur actors who have dressed up to look like people from the 19th century or boarding school students from Harry Potter films. Similarly, it seems like a strange, reactionary move at first glance when nineteen-year-old women in 2022 film themselves writing letters to friends with a pen and sealing them with wax. But this aesthetic, this visual style and the fashions, are an essential framework that makes it possible to convey a belief in the Dark Academia philosophy.

3.3.3 Philosophy of life

As in style, so in philosophy, the romanticisation of a humanistic education is at the heart of the thinking of the dark academics. This attitude is most evident in what is probably the most widely shared quote in Dark Academia circles. It comes from the  – not so dissimilar to Julian Morrow – teacher John Keatings in the 1989 film Dead Poet Society:

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?” (Dead Poet Society, 1989) And again: Dead Poet Society is a tragedy. The characters who believe Keating’s words and live them out are ultimately shattered by reality at the end of the film and one even commits suicide. At its core, Dead Poet Society, like The Secret History, is a postmodern deconstruction of a romantic outlook on life that first constructs the romantic worldview and then shatters it – but Dark Academics skilfully ignores this part. Dark Academia uses these two works, but takes them not as a warning and deconstruction, but as a guide to constructing an attitude to life and a system of aesthetic and ethical values that are worth believing in, even if postmodern books warn against it.

The fascinating thing about Dark Academia as an aesthetic is that, despite its origins in the digital world enabled by technology, it is so thoroughly anti-technological. Like Henry Winter in “The Secret History”, it seems to live in the wrong century. In her images and music, she orientates herself more towards Romanticism and the Victorian age of the 19th century than towards the neurotic images of our present. She expressed a longing for an analogue world, a world in which classical education and esoteric knowledge, decelerated academic work by candlelight with a fountain pen, take centre stage; a longing for a transcendence, a higher world, beyond the pragmatism and rationalism of the contemporary world driven by capitalism and technology. Dark Academia is a digitised escape from our technocentric world, mediated by technology; it is a rejection of a world in which the humanities are decaying in favour of STEM subjects, and expresses this rejection through the platforms created by STEM subjects. In many ways, Dark Academia is full of contradictions and irrationalities – but what subculture is “sane”? Culture in general seems to be supra-rational, overriding our individual rationality to facilitate cooperation, to escape destructive nash-equilibria, and glue minds together.

The two memes at the heart of Dark Academia are romanticism at its most passionate, an idealisation of the traditional, of lofty goals, of Dionysian forces; and on the other hand, an Apollonian obsession with expanding one’s educational horizons on a humanities level. The Dark Academia influencer R.C. Waldun even got carried away in a video to describe Dark Academia as a second renaissance and a return of their studia humanitatis; expressing the hope that the followers of the subculture could generate a new, discourse-wide popularity for classical literature and education in the long term. (cf. Waldun, 2021)

All of this is held together and framed in an aesthetic, audio-visual style that mimics the imagery of a time when such romanticised attitudes and humanistic beliefs still seemed realistic. Indeed, the recourse to late modernist imagery, dress and habitus in the aesthetic of Dark Academia acts as an aesthetic framework that makes a belief in the values of Dark Academia plausible. It is difficult in the 21st century not to be disillusioned with the humanist ideals of late modernism and romanticism; but if you dress as if the 20th and 21st centuries hadn’t even happened yet, it is much easier to imagine yourself back in time and believe in these values. Wearing old-fashioned clothes and sharing pictures of old buildings and posing with literary classics is therefore not a strange fad of the Dark Academics that was later simply loaded with romantic and humanistic values – this aesthetic style makes it possible to believe in these values in the first place.

Dark Academia is performance, a cultural garment woven from the shreds of deconstructed ghosts of the past that were thought to be dead. It is the longing for a humanistic world, like the one last believed in before postmodernism. And this leads us to the question of how Dark Academia, as a phenomenon of aesthetically mediated belief in a humanistic education and tradition, actually fits into our post-postmodern world. For this phenomenon cannot be grasped through technological development and changes in material conditions alone; one must also see the great cultural paradigm shift after postmodernism, of which Dark Academia is undoubtedly a part. This is where Raoul Eshelman’s formatism comes into play.

4. the theory of performatism as post-postmodernism

4.1 Postmodernism and its end

How does a collective phenomenon like the Internet Aesthetic Dark Academia fit into our zeitgeist and by what means – beyond the purely technical level of memes – does it unfold its effect? To understand this, we need to understand where we are today: In the ruins of postmodernism. But what was postmodernism?

Postmodernism itself grew out of rubble, out of the ruins of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, out of the ruins of the lives and worlds destroyed in the Holocaust, Holodomor and the Gulag Archipelago. When the tsunami of horror and destruction of two world wars finally ended at the end of the 1940s, it left behind not only destroyed landscapes, bombed-out cities and extinguished lives. The utopian visions of the ideologies and the aesthetic ideals of modernity were also little more than ruins. They all seemed to be complicit in the catastrophes and none were credible anymore. As Eshelman writes: “[…]. The counter-reaction, which is called postmodernism, results less from consciously designed programmatic considerations […] than from the diffuse endeavour to never again allow the catastrophic mistakes of modernity to arise. On this basis, they turned away from utopianism and clearly marked ideological positions, rejected the search for authentic individual experience as illusory self-deception and refused to declare their own works as completely new […].” (Eshelman, 2016, p.18)

Modernity had imploded in catastrophes. Fearing new implosions, the cultural creators of postmodernism refused to accept any old or new beliefs. Absurdly, this leads to the assumption of anti-convictions that aimed to ironise and deconstruct all belief: “Almost throughout, one finds a fundamentally disillusioning attitude that undermines, reduces to absurdity or makes impossible in principle authentic inner experience, the uncovering of a deeper, hidden meaning or the abrupt synthesis of the new from the old.” (Eshelman, 2016, p.20)

Postmodernism also turned away from beauty and aesthetics in its art – after all, the aestheticisation of politics was the basis of fascism according to Walter Benjamin, and the politicalising of aesthetics a pillar of stalinism. Beauty always seduces us to believe in something higher, from which the utopian is not far away. The result was a kind of anti-art: abstract paintings, insubstantial marketing as anti-art like Andy Warhol’s work, photos of ugly industrial areas by Bernd and Hilla Becher and emotionless faces by Thomas Ruff (cf. Eshelman 2016, p.24).

Basically, the essence of the general cultural movement from 1945 to 1990 in postmodernism was that of disillusionment, anti-aesthetics and irony, of distancing oneself from all convictions, but also a constant victim ethic that sees all individuals as externally determined and critically attacks all centres of power, regardless of their actual effects, in the course of discourse theories. However, the postmodern worldview is not only one of complete disillusionment and denial when it comes to political visions and aesthetics: two-way relationships, especially the romantic ideal of monogamous love and intact families, are regularly portrayed as impossible in postmodern works.  Metaphysically, postmodernism was even more nihilistic and empty: there is no transcendent way out, no hope of God or salvation. Postmodernism was a nihilistic behemoth, born in the horrors of Auschwitz, thriving under the horror of the nuclear sword of Damocles in the Cold War; a monster of a zeitgeist that, like Nietzsche’s last man, cynically mocks and deconstructs everything that strives for something higher and more beautiful.

However, with the crumbling of the Iron Curtain and the nuclear threat, postmodernism soon began to crumble. In the 1990s – when Donna Tartt’s novel was published – cultural studies and humanities scholars began to recognise a paradigmatic change in culture and increasingly began to theorise it. The debates on whether and in which new cultural epoch we find ourselves today – more than thirty years after the beginning of this turning point – are far from over, and countless theories on new, post-postmodern or even metamodern paradigms and structures are competing with each other in academic discourse, constantly evolving, while in the mainstream the debates about the heritage of postmodernism, of its cynical theories, are still not over but rather peaking.

However, the theoretical framework that has the strongest explanatory power for phenomena such as Dark Academia is Raoul Eshelman’s theory of performatism.

4.2 Performatism as post-postmodernism

According to Eshelman, counter-positions to postmodernism began to emerge in the mid-1990s that “not only criticise [it], but above all offer aesthetically appealing narrative or stylistic strategies. […] The unspoken focus of this shift in direction against postmodernism is an aesthetic that uses formal means to put viewers or readers – whether they want to or not – in a believing position.” (Eshelman 2016, p.30) Eshelman recognises this as the beginning of a new epoch, the characteristics of which he systematically elaborates in his work and which he calls performatism, as its essential element is the seduction to faith through formal means – per forma. However, this belief is not to be understood in religious or ideological terms, nor does it have any “content that can be named in advance […] Rather, it is generated through aesthetic processes […] This aesthetic is, mind you, not a naïve mediator of bliss or hope. The reason for this is our thoroughly secular state of mind, which encounters all cultural phenomena with fundamental scepticism […].” (Eshelman 2016, p.42) This scepticism, a legacy of postmodernism, is not completely discarded in performatism, but it does prevent us from simply adopting a believing attitude. “Rather, we have to be “tricked”, so to speak, into a believing attitude. This can happen through formal, aesthetically mediated “tricks”, i.e. by means of artistic devices that leave us little choice but to believe in a certain something in a work.” (Eshelman 2016, p.42)

“Why this turn towards aesthetically mediated faith?” (Eshelman, 2016, p.47) Well, for one thing, enough generations have now been born without a memory of the Second World War and some have already been born without a memory of the existence of the Soviet Union and its nuclear threat. Over time, people grew weary of the irony and anti-aesthetics of postmodern cultural artefacts and longed for more positive and optimistic outlook on life; especially because after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the march of global capitalism brought unprecedented prosperity and technological wonders such as the Internet, which hardly fit in with the postmodern pessimism. The corrosive critique of knowledge and sacrificial ethics of postmodernism is something we have grown weary of over time (even if it has been able to expand its prevalence in popular discourse in recent years, particularly around issues such as gender and racism); more than that, the deconstruction of all faith in postmodernism means that people are spiritually starved in the long term and crave faith all the more – even if it is just a game in the course of cultural consumption. “[The] development [of performatism] becomes more understandable if one understands faith not institutionally or metaphysically, but rather culturally and anthropologically, as a basic characteristic anchored in human beings that makes it possible for social life to come about at all. Faith is therefore not just a matter for the individual or the church, but is necessary for a society to function at all. Incidentally, this also applies to secular societies such as ours, in which religion no longer plays a decisive role.” (Eshelman, 2016, p.48)

Thus, in Performatism, culture is slowly approachinge faith again, without which it cannot function for long, but only cautiously, only aesthetically through the creation of formal frameworks within the context of an artwork – even if a certain re-ideologisation of recent years indicates that the formal frameworks are also increasingly offering themselves as gateways for new content fillings.

4.3 The characteristics of performatist cultural artefacts

Raoul Eshelman’s “thesis is that in works of culture [in performatism], the techniques of faith act on us again without us always realising it.” (Eshleman, 2016, p.11) This is a necessary twist, since – based on Eric Gans’ generative anthropology – “many social behaviours [have] an originally sacred function and vice versa: sacred functions still play a central, if not always visible, role in the secular goings-on of our society.” (Eshelman, 2016, p. 14) The sacred is essential for the existence of civilisation, as it binds resentment and makes peaceful coexistence possible in the first place, so that postmodern disillusionment could not be a permanent solution and we are now formally turning back to faith. Based on this, Eshelman emphasises three moments that are essential to the development of culture in performatism: “(1) unity thinking (monism), (2) performatively or aesthetically mediated faith (as opposed to religious dogma), and (3) the return of beauty.” (Eshelman, 2016, p.14) These moments manifest themselves in many different ways in the characteristics and inherent world views of artefacts of performatist culture. In the following, some central ones are outlined that will be relevant for the subsequent analysis of Dark Academia from a theoretical perspective.

4.3.1 Aesthetics instead of anti-aesthetics

In reformatism, aesthetics returns to the forefront of culture, after postmodernism was dominated by an anti-aesthetic and a critical attitude towards beauty. Beauty is once again something inherently good. “Performatism develops fundamentally positive projections. Beauty is initially produced formally, through the creation of a closed (narrative or architectural) space to which one can distance oneself and which has a holistic effect on one.” (Eshelman 2016, p.176)

4.3.2 Theory of signs – mimesis instead of discourse

Postmodernism is dominated by the interpretation of signs and discourses, which leads to a radical critique of knowledge, relativism and a conviction that human beings are determined by others. In contrast, “mimesis (imitation) and intuition […] are decisive in performatism. Language and signs are often simple or clearly understandable and can be successfully repeated or applied through imitation or gut feeling.” (Eshelman, 2016, p.174)

4.3.3 Ontology of transcendence instead of the prison of immanence

In fundamentally pessimistic postmodernism, an ontology dominates that recognises neither transcendence nor metaphysics, only the imprisonment of man in an endless immanence from which there is no way out. In performatism, at least the hope of a way out returns. “Transcendence is promised (but not always achieved). The basic attitude is (cautiously) optimistic.” (Eshelman 2016, p.175)

4.3.4 Subjectivity and overcoming separation

In postmodernism, “The basic state of protagonists […] is that of a discursive heteronomy that does not allow any inner unity to emerge. […] Attempts to overcome these conditions end in failure.” (Eshelman 2016, p.177) In narratives in performatism, especially in novels and films, the discursive heteronomy disappears and people once again become actors who reclaim their autonomy – usually starting from a position of postmodern separation and successfully overcoming it.

4.3.5 Seriousness instead of irony

In postmodernism, the basic attitude was ironic, human goals and intentions were sketched as absurd in a defeatist and cynical way. In reformatism, people are turning away from this. A new seriousness is introduced: “The basic attitude is serious, in the sense that human goals and intentions – no matter how nonsensical or strange they may be – still have a chance of being realised. Those who believe in this are best able to cope with the world.” (Eshelman 2016, p.176)

4.3.6 Narratives – formal belief through double framing

Postmodernism is dominated by the endeavour to deconstruct narratives and beliefs through endless recourse and disillusionment strategies. In formatism, on the other hand, the “double framing” emerges as a narrative technique. Formatist works combine an outer work level with an inner scene that makes us believe in something in a binding way.” (Eshelman 2016, p. 174) A principled secular restraint remains from postmodernism, but the belief and importance of narratives, of convincing stories both in fiction and in society, return, and somewhat as in the progressive universal poetry of Romanticism, the separation of aesthetic and content levels is dissolved by a closer interlocking and framing.

5. dark academia as a phenomenon of performatism

5.1 The return of aesthetics and mimesis

In Performatism, aesthetics and beauty return to culture – and nowhere else is this probably as explicit and radical as in Dark Academia, which centres on an obsession with aesthetics.

Eshelman writes that in performatism, beauty is first produced in a narrative or architectural space (see Eshelman 2016, p-176). Internet aesthetics such as Dark Academia expand the concept even further, because on the internet all kinds of media – images, videos, music, video games, virtual realities, narratives – intertwine to create digital, multidimensional spaces that merge several memeplexes into larger ones and, through a strong inter- and paratextuality, create a matrix whose effect goes far beyond the simple moment of reception. Dark Academia, with its roots in Romanticism, goes even further and, following the example of progressive universal poetry, strives for a complete aestheticisation of the whole of life and habitus. Those who step through the aesthetic frameworks that Dark Academia forms are not only made to admire beauty and aesthetics per forma; the subculture actively encourages people to aestheticise themselves, to become a part of the collective artwork that calls itself Dark Academia through mimesis, by adapting their own social media feed, wardrobe and ultimately their lifestyle to the aesthetic framework.

5.2 Formal aesthetic trick and belief

The whole of Dark Academia can be described as one big, collectively created trick that uses aesthetic, formal means such as music and fashion to put followers in a believable position in the face of romantic and humanistic values. Rationally, many of the romantic values in Dark Academia, like the traditionalist actions, are no longer convincing, no longer believable; but the memeplex, through the visual images, the web of associations from which Dark Academia is woven, places users in a framework in which they cannot help but believe, at least formally, in the transcendence of the underlying forces of Apollo and Dionysus.

Dark Academia functions like a large walk-in artwork, a collective artwork that endeavours to expand its framework across the entire experience of its recipients. Like a performative artwork, Dark Academia does not convince with logical or pragmatic reasons – it creates an aesthetic framework within which faith and transcendence are possible.

5.3 Promise of transcendence

Postmodern subcultures were mostly empty at their core, i.e. nihilistic and relativistic. Due to the lack of a concrete belief, they filled this empty core to a greater or lesser extent with pretended values masked either with non-conformist hedonism (beatniks, hippies, punks), escapism (goths) or systematic greed (yuppies) or completely unmasked despair (emos). Performatist internet aesthetics are completely different: their form invites people to believe and some even explicitly formulate ideological longings (e.g. fash wave, Soviet wave). In contrast to a religion or a political subculture, Dark Academia does not formulate an explicit utopia or belief in the existence of a god, but similar to Romanticism before it, it hints at a transcendence as a liberation from the immanence of our world. Dark Academia, on the one hand, incorporated a series of memes that serve as simple, unifying (ostensive) signs; on the other hand, its aesthetics promise a transcendence of the relativistic, technologised, multipolar and capitalist society of the present. The aesthetics and values of Dark Academia all point in their attitude to the existence of higher, imperishable, transcendent values that transcend the rational and thus the physical world, such as beauty, humanism, romanticism, esoteric, Faustian knowledge and Dionysian creative powers.

5.4 Subjectivity and overcoming separation

Globalisation, urbanisation, capitalism, postmodern culture and, most recently, the pandemic have triggered an epidemic of loneliness by destabilising and deterritorialising traditional social structures such as families. Dark Academia, like all internet movements, makes it possible to overcome this isolation. Users form communities, networking with like-minded people from all over the world. Localised families and friends are being replaced by global peer groups. Especially during the physical separation in times of lockdown, the popularity of Dark Academia increased because it enabled young students to experience the lost campus life, or a highly romanticised version of it, online and reclaim their autonomy. Even a global catastrophe like the pandemic could not stop Dark Academics from acting self-determinedly and socially This performatist overcoming of isolation is not only visible in the modus operandi of Dark Academia. It can also be found explicitly in the narratives that define the subculture: The prototypical protagonist is a young intellectual who, after a period of intensive, isolated learning, meets up with others and engages in roaring intellectual debates with them, recites his poems to them or shares works of art – whether online or analogue plays no role in practice. The digital often seems more real, even hyperreal.

5.5 The seriousness and lack of irony

Dark Academia arose from the fact that users on the Internet began to take seriously the romantic attitude to life that postmodern works such as The Secret History and Dead Poet Society deconstructed and, building on this, first collectively developed their own aesthetics and then a canon of literature and values. Irony, disillusionment strategies and cynical deconstruction, the cornerstones of postmodernism? Nothing could be further from Dark Academia’s mind; after all, it is about maximum aestheticisation and romanticisation, supported by a performatist belief. With an Apollonian seriousness and thoroughness, they devote themselves to languages, values and cultures believed to be dead, refuse many a technological convenience and argue passionately about values and facts perceived as objective. The signs are clear that human aspirations, goals and dreams should be taken seriously.

5.6 The formal return of the West

At the centre of many postmodern currents and narratives was the hypercritical, ironic subversion of the grand narratives of the West in favour of an anti-ideology. Dark Academia continues to be politically and ideologically passive to agnostic, but per forma it ties in with the symbols of modernity and the great narratives of the West that perished with it. More than that: its aesthetics as a framing device and the narratives and values on the content level are closely interlinked. And yet: no one in the Dark Academia scene expresses the wish to abolish the Internet and actually return to the era of colonialism and imperialism of the 19th century; on the contrary, self-criticism of Eurocentrism is now part and parcel of the scene. But the humanist ideals of the 19th century, its dreams and visions, the aesthetics of its imperial, soaring architecture and literature? The opulence of ornamentation and sacred works and buildings, the study of classical Aristotelian virtues and Platonic teachings, the Enlightenment and Romantic narratives of the self-determination of the individual and the possibility of beauty and wisdom? The Dark Academics welcome all these narratives – which postmodernism has declared dead and mocked – with open arms and subject them to a critical but optimistic examination and appropriation. Instead of breaking radically and uncompromisingly with modernity, as the cultural currents of postmodernism did, the Dark Academics revitalise what they consider valuable, digging into history to reconnect with the great intellectual traditions. History has emerged from its state of shock and is moving on – more reflective and critical and therefore aware of the dark dangers – but hopeful and optimistic again.

6. Some final thoughts

The theoretical framework of performatism, as developed by Raoul Eshelman, offers insights into how our culture is changing after postmodernism and how new cultural artefacts are having an impact. It offers a broadly adequate description of some of the key features of our era. It can even, as this paper has hopefully shown through the example of Dark Academia, describe and explain some of the key mechanisms of more complex cultural phenomena such as new, digital subcultures. However, the investigation of digital cultural spaces also reveals the biggest gaps in the theory of performativism, as the framework currently still neglects digitalisation – the most important factor in the cultural transformation of our time, in my opinion.

Eshelman writes that, in his view, it is “doubtful” whether digitalisation “can really change the fundamental mechanisms of high culture in the long term […] But [in Eshelman’s view] it is not the driving force behind the performatist turn. Culture is first and foremost made by people and not by media, which can be used in one way or another.” (Eshelman 2016, p. 46) Even if I agree with the last sentence in principle, I believe that digitalisation is fundamentally changing how and which people make culture. Content generated by (anonymous) users is now the main form of cultural consumption for most people, and so-called high culture has been running after the trends created by the digital, anonymous masses for years. When I read the novels or watch the films that have been created in recent years, I often see extractions and, even more often, a crude imitation of what I often saw years before in the vast memepools of collective creativity of the anonymous, digital worlds. And anyway, who cares about so called high culture anyway outside some intellectual bubbles? High culture doesn’t have the same influence over culture as a whole as it had in the past.

Digitalisation is probably not the triggering force behind the performatist turn, but it is the paraffin that is currently flowing into its engine room at immeasurable speed and transforming this turn. The emergence of entire new subcultures that know not that many gurus or leaders, but mainly collective masses as fathers and mothers, and which then shape the discourses and products of high culture, is something new. It follows the performatist pattern, but I believe there is more to it – and a look at memetics and the obvious formation of new communities in the neotribalism of the internet, which we have only touched on here, could give us an even deeper insight than simply looking at a supposed high culture, which is usually nothing more than the filtered extract of the entire, now largely digital culture, stripped of many essential elements.

What’s more. To understand our era, it is not enough to analyse the distillates from the flow of culture – the highly polished works of a supposedly high culture and pop culture. Rather, we need to pay attention to the new sources that have changed. The sources are increasingly the ever more powerful swarm intelligences of digital memepools, from which the flow is increasingly fed, while old sources such as centres of power are flooded by them. Whereas in the past the anonymous masses were culturally the mental slaves of ideas from intellectual elites and artists (or some defunct economist), of whose existence they were rarely aware; today the grey-haired men and women at the top of the old cultural institutions are increasingly the mental slaves of the memes of digital movements of anonymous masses, of whose existence they are only vaguely aware. A recent milestone in this expansion of digital culture, its incorporation and subjugation of the old world and its hierarchical structures, can be seen, for example, in the fact that even traditional auction houses like Sotheby’s are now dealing in digital art.

Internet aesthetics and digital subcultures such as Dark Academia are just the beginning. The Internet is casting a global net of infinitely wide and numerous aesthetic frames over humanity, and within these frames new possibilities are opening up that go far beyond new beliefs and formal promises of transcendence. Some call what is being born here cyberspace, virtual reality or metaverse – whatever you call it, it is more than the birth of a new epoch, it is rather a new leap in cultural evolution such as perhaps last took place when language was invented. Above all, it is a populist cultural revolution that – as already outlined in this work – shatters the dominance of a high culture, however determined, supported by elites, and fundamentally reverses the flows of cultural production and shifts the culture-shaping power, at least in the Western, uncensored Internet, into the darkness of the anonymous masses. A study of the humanities and of culture that neglects digitalisation and the populist cultural revolution it is driving and contents itself with the analysis of an increasingly irrelevant high culture can therefore not suffice in the long term when it comes to fully describing our epoch. The theory of performatism offers a solid and intelligent starting point, but there is still a lot of exciting work ahead of us.


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[1] born in the period 1997 – 2011 (cf. Dimock, 2019)

[2] from ancient Greek μίμημα / mīmēma “imitated things”

[3] Example of an early DarkAcademia YouTube video from 2019:

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