A Critique of Dark Academia: The Cultivation of Relentless Focus

November is prime dark academia time. The rain, the quickly deteriorating leaves, the sweaters and dark peacoats that the dropping temperature allows… Not to mention the end of midterm season and finals looming in the distance. Projects need their final revisions, essays need to be written, and somehow there are still readings to do on top of it all. It’s easy to get caught up in studying and forget the world. 

In the third and final installment of my critique of dark academia (please see the first part on beauty here and the second part on overwork here), I’ll discuss the dark academia community’s interest in what I’ll call “relentless focus.” What I mean by “relentless focus” is the glamourized and fetishized vision of obsession in media and online, whether that obsession be with beauty, knowledge, revenge, another person, or the self. I select this term because of a Donna Tartt quote, which exemplifies this romanticization of obsession. 

The cultivation of relentless focus is hardly specific to the dark academia community. Literature, where dark academia originated as a subcategory, is rife with depictions of obsession; look at Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, and Moby Dick, and others. Dark academia works speak to the idea that, if taken to the extreme, intense immersion in academia—not to mention the arts—could push people to do terrible things to one another and themselves. 

In other words, art and literature tend to glamourize the experiences of those who suffer from mental illness. Regardless of the tragedy of dark academic works, or perhaps because of it, people are intensely invested in the characters and their ability to focus relentlessly on a goal. As a result, the dark academia community oversimplifies characters who suffer and transforms them into role models who demonstrate relentless focus.

Despite the devastating effects of obsession, including within literature, members of the dark academia community still discuss it as though it’s a positive skill to be learned, especially relentless focus on school. Bragging about studying for 12, 13, 14 hours a day is common within the dark academia community, creating a toxic, competitive environment. 

Relentless focus in the real world—which might be medicalized as hyperfixation, obsessive behaviour, or a lack of social skills—is rarely as useful or beautiful as the dark academia community and literature would have us believe. It’s alienating and isolating and exhausting. It’s not something to be lauded, as it is in Henry from Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, whom the narrator celebrates for his intense focus on Greek and Roman studies. (Henry claims he didn’t know that humans landed on the moon because he’s so focussed on the past.) It’s unhealthy, uncontrollable behaviour. 

The greatest irony of the dark academia community’s cultivation of relentless focus is that it ignores other forms of mental illness, including obsession that isn’t school or art-related. If worth comes from the ability to study all the time, where does that leave those of us who simply can’t sustain that level of energy? When I’m in a depressive period, I can barely read a tweet, let alone study for 12 hours straight. Similarly, the interests that take over my life without warning or logic are rarely school-related or “useful.” Binge-watching Julie and the Phantoms three times in four days because my brain demands that I do so? Hardly helpful with passing a class. 

Mental illnesses are not cute or quirky or helpful. They’re often painful and hard and not in a beautiful way. They can make rational responses to everyday situations impossible (please see skipping class because “everyone hates me”) and can make even the most basic of tasks near insurmountable. Even when mental illness turns into an obsession with schoolwork, the results are generally isolating and upsetting. 

Instability is not something to strive for. Dark academia should not and cannot be turned into a lifestyle. Its whole existence stems from depictions of extreme behaviour. Wear tweed and sweaters, take pictures of Gothic architecture, and fall in love with Oscar Wilde all you want, but don’t imagine that dark academia presents a viable way to live. 

School isn’t everything in life, even if the insular bubble of university would have you believe otherwise. The Centre for Accessible Learning and other University of Victoria resources are here to help you if you struggle with mental illness. If you’re not a UVic student, your university likely has similar resources. Seek them out.

Take it from someone who should’ve asked for help back in first year: you don’t have to suffer through your university years just because Tumblr tells you that you should. Trust me. It’s not worth it.


Part one of this series: "A Critique of Dark Academia: The Hunt for Beauty"

Part two of this series: "A Critique of Dark Academia: The Romanticization of Overwork"