A specter is haunting academia today the specter of capitalism. All the powers of the neoliberal university have entered into an unholy alliance to disclaim the specter's pernicious machinations: chairs and provosts, trustees and deans, even the most progressive of its representatives. Yet, despite the institution's insistence on its nobler aims of education, it is confronted by its heart of darkness at every turn.

Where the genre and aesthetics of "dark academia" are both symptomatic of a more insidious aspiration fueled by scarcity just as the recent turn towards the "adjunct novel" lays bare the grueling economic conditions of intellectual labor the most immediate products of academia, our scholarship, likewise bear the imprints of capital. After all, disparate as these various genres may seem, they emerge from the same workings of capital that govern intellectual labor and which hold, at their very core, the sole object of value accumulation. Hence, what I mean to suggest is that the dramas of "dark academia" are also those of our work, and the former's stories of envy, spite, and overblown ambitions only elucidate a structure of feeling already endemic to academic labor. Were one to follow such stories to their generic conclusions, it would appear that nothing but demise awaits academia in its future that is, if it isn't already here, suffusing the halls of our institutions, signaling their rot and decay.


Exhibit A:

Donna Tartt's The Secret History, the ur-text of "dark academia," opens with the murder of a student by his closest friends, before unfolding retrospectively into a story of want, jealousy, and the backbiting betrayals culminating in his death. Narrating these events is Richard Papen, a transfer student at his elite, liberal arts college in New England, poised carefully by his unassuming, middle-class, Californian background at the peripheries of this clique. Positioned thus as an outsider to his newfound social circle, Papen takes to the group a circumspect lens: he is cautious of the cryptic whispers passed between them, wary of the uncertainty that their mystery entails. Still, no suspicion or unease can serve to unsettle their appeal. For the coterie has come to symbolize for Papen a degree of comfort, idyll, and even upward mobility allowing him a glimpse of the life of "English nannies and private schools, summers in Switzerland, winters in France" such an estimable recompense, or even the mere prospect of it, suffices to bind him to them.1 An optimistic and desirous attachment to the good life then sustains Papen's fraught friendships, just as it does, I would argue, academics' own institutional longings. But is this at all a surprising proposition?

It is particularly telling that The Secret History has been consecrated by fans, online, in the aesthetics of "dark academia," as well as in the novel's proliferous successors as the very apotheosis of refinement, erudition, and wealth, while far less discussed is Papen's apparent precarity. One remembers Tartt's novel for the ancient and opulent iconography associated with it. One hardly recalls the episode in which Papen suffers from hypothermia after living in an unheated warehouse during his winter break, working to support himself, only to have to be rescued by his wealthier peers when they return from vacation. Evidently, then, just as Papen yearns to flee from his pedestrian situation, most of us cannot wait to shed ourselves of our unstable socio-economic conditions and for good reason. Capital's intensifying instrumentalization of our lives has left us all irreparably worn; the neoliberal university's simulacra of an authentic life of the mind conversely lend us an alluring alternative. In the shreds of security that the academy lends us, therefore, we are compelled to take refuge: we seek in its infrastructure the resources to carry out our research, to keep the lights on in our workplaces, to feed and to house ourselves. Accordingly, we can no longer extricate our lives from the university's myriad affordances. The only question that remains is that which closes Tartt's novel: "Are you happy here?"2

To which the answer seems to be, "Not particularly . . . But you're not very happy where you are, either."3

Exhibit B:

"Publish or perish."

On September 1, 2013, Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct French professor at Duquesne University, "died underpaid and underappreciated at age 83."4 She had collapsed yards from a house that she could no longer afford to heat, ailed and in poverty, having had her teaching contract reduced to a tutoring job that paid $15 per hour for 10 hours a week.

On December 17, 2018, Thea Hunter died in an intensive care unit, following belated treatment for her asthma and heart issues. She is remembered as a "pioneering young scholar" of American history, whose teaching and research far exceeds the mottled streak of adjunct positions on her curriculum vitae.5 An article in The Atlantic describes her struggle for a tenure-track position not just as a pursuit of its recognition and security, but also the health insurance it provides: "If Thea had a tenure-track job and access to proper health insurance to be appropriately diagnosed, she might still be alive."6

Exhibit C:

The Faustian bargain, it appears, has become a quintessential trope of "dark academia": it takes the guise of blood sacrifices in the genre's more fantastic iterations; it is rendered as hazing rituals in other campus fiction.7 It is even invoked in the first pages of The Secret History, when Papen confesses to us his "fatal flaw," or that which he calls "a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs."8 Here, the "picturesque" is his peers' rarified air, a seemingly unattainable manner of elegance, genius, and premature cultivation. Its "cost," as readers will discover, entails no less than two lives and his happiness. In short, in his attempt to remake himself in the image of his friends, Papen inadvertently transforms the course of his life irreversibly and devastatingly instead.

Fundamental to Faust's tale, then, is the structural logic of speculation: one's ambitions are assigned a prospective value; one's desires are weighed against what one gives up for it. The issue, however, lies with the fact that such calculations must always be made on unspecified terms. Because the future cannot possibly be known, we cannot determine its significance against what we have relinquished. Therefore, we can neither anticipate nor determine if a bargain will be "worthwhile" when we lack a reliable measure of "worth."

No doubt, capital has indubitably attempted to quantify nearly every aspect of our lives, giving all things the appearance of fungibility. In what Deborah Thurman terms the university's purported "system of meritocratic differentiation," for instance, academics now find ourselves producing CV-lines, citations, and H-indexes for a bid at employment.9 As administrators bemoan the crises of funding, enrollment, and anti-intellectual backlash, inventing scarcity in the face of growing endowments, academics are made to assert and repeatedly justify our prerogative to access a dwindling or so they tell us amount of resources. In other words, to prolong our existence and contracts within the institution, we must advertise our research's use and relevance; for the monetary currencies that we require to live, we exchange the symbolic currencies of our work.

But the truth remains that neither our labor's significance nor what we receive for it can be fixed to such tangible quantities; definitive evaluations of our work's implications both in and outside of the marketplace of ideas are only so arbitrary. In this regard, even as job applicants can only hope that their circumstances will elevate the "fit" of their dossiers just as graduate students can only gamble on the timeliness and relevance of our research interests we find ourselves impelled, nonetheless, by our abiding material needs, to toil away in our desperate attempts to inflate our portfolios' values. Most of us forgo the extortionate years spent earning our degrees, at the very least, for the sheer hope of a decent living. Some less fortunate, however, are overworked to their deaths. In any case, somewhere along this spectrum of grave and graver sacrifices, we are made to renounce more and more of what we were and had before, for a mere shot at a job to reach for an object of fantasy that slips increasingly from our grasp.

Exhibit D:

Screenshot of the application requirements of Stanford's Modern Thought and Literature graduate program. The first section is a statement of purpose, asking the applicant to propose their interdisciplinary project and why they want to pursue it in the program. The second section is called the Supplemental section, and it asks the applicant to describe how their project can be applied to a more specific discipline or field.
A screencap of the application requirements for Stanford's Modern Thought and Literature graduate program, which includes a supplemental section that requires applicants to "explain the relevance of your project to at least one discipline or field"

What is it that we seek in the institution of academia? These days, we are no longer so sure. Once the hallmark of inquiry, learning, and enlightenment, the fantasy "of uninterrupted personal time and deep scholarly concentration" that it once held has long been exposed as a mirage.10 While the job market is dismal, the wages are even more appalling, and whatever change that one intends to effect with one's work is limited by the scope of one's readership.

This, however, does not change the fact that the activity of intellectual labor persists. In the same way that graduate programs continue to churn out workers for the neoliberal university, the academic paper production line grinds on except now, as our desire for knowledge runs up against our attachment to life, our commitment to what Franco Beradi calls the "autonomy of knowledge" is ceded to our commitment to survival itself.11 As our livelihoods are tacked to the institution's demands, our scholarly ideals are likewise tethered to capital's senseless circuits. What hence emerges, as in the libidinal economy of dark academic narratives, is a lamentable "body count": whereas a taste for a romanticized "life of the mind" generates an incitement to murder in Tartt's novel, the need to defend our purpose in the neoliberal university leads academics to similar aggression. Urged to engineer the conditions to require our labor, the result is not just our habitual impulse to stress the importance of our contribution, but the obligation to do so that the very expense of our objects of study.

Take, for example, the generic convention of academic writing that establishes one's scholarship on a "gap in the literature." Establishing the need for one's intervention on the faults of the status quo, one proffers the new to displace the old. Indeed, such a critical gesture does not always have to be detrimental to scholarship, for it is also what prompts the progress of knowledge one need only turn to the humanities' epochal texts to discover a series of faults from which our theoretical toolkit arose. Yet, it appears that it is not such a vivifying renewal but an urgent sense of crisis that has become salient in the academy today. As meta-discourses on the severity of academic critique abound from the comparison of literary critique to "casual violence" and "hatchet jobs," to the likening of classroom inquiry to a "piranha feed" it is increasingly clear to us that little but animosity has been produced within academia's capitalistic enterprise. This is because, as Lisa Duggan observes, the neoliberal academy's "manufactured scarcity economy of smartness leaves many clamoring for the top, only to be achieved by denigrating the competition."12 When capital's rhetoric of merit, value, and worth has been so thoroughly incorporated into our critical vernacular, we, too, can no longer operate outside its Manichaean logics. In this way of being inducted into the routines of competition, we are made to clash with our colleagues to render our stances more precise and unassailable: looking for holes in their positions to reprove and fill, we hollow out bodies of scholarship when we find none. Of course, in thus wresting value from our peers, precedents, and interlocutors, what we might desire might perhaps only be our mere survival. Yet, driven to antagonism, what remains in our wake may well be nothing but destitution.

Exhibit E:

As law professor Nicholas Price observes, when patent doctrines "focus incentives on the search for new and different innovation without emphasizing improving technology or increasing welfare," what results "is a proliferation of technologies that are 'new for the sake of being new'" and which exhaust large pools of resources even as more significant needs fall by the wayside.13 In the lucrative field of biomedical research, then, "evergreening" names a practice that "typically involves the initial innovator taking later actions to extend the effective patent life by making small changes to a drug." Such changes may include the slightest of tweaks to a drug's "formulation, method of delivery, or, in the most extreme cases, active ingredient," thereby entailing that even the most inconsequential of alterations may be used to extend market protection.14

A 2012 study, for instance, found that all 119 branded pharmaceutical drugs that it surveyed had at least two patent extensions to cover ancillary components of the drug, yielding an average patent term of close to sixteen years. The annual sales of such pharmaceuticals were, on average, US$748 million.15 Meanwhile, little headway has been made in malaria and tuberculosis research even today.

Exhibit F:

Last I counted, the words "need" and "value" have each been repeated over fifty times in Rita Felski's The Limits of Critique, the book that notoriously launched, or at least catalyzed, the "method wars" in recent literary studies.16 A sample of sentences in which these words are used include: "Literary studies is currently facing a legitimation crisis, thanks to a sadly depleted language of value"; "We do not need to throw out interpretation but to revitalize and imagine it"; "Such a shift [in critical perspective] is desperately needed if we are to do better justice to what literature does"; "Literary studies sorely needs alternatives"; "Such a vision is sorely needed if we are to make a compelling case for why the arts and humanities are needed."17

Reading these suggestions, one may easily be led to believe that the study of literature is perilously under threat. Its existing methodologies, after all, appear so worn, obsolete, and dead. In response, a PMLA special section was published two years later to address Felski's monograph. In it, several of the discipline's most illustrious academics raised their concerns with their colleague's assertions. This is a non-exhaustive list of the instances in which the same keywords occur: "Does Felski give us what we need [ . . . ] in the face of growing skepticism about [ideology critique's] value"; "Don't we need critique more than ever"; "we need it even more"; "I have no plans to depreciate the value of critique"; "There is a need for ongoing experimentation and research about how academic critique and critical making might relate to each other"; "Students need to emerge from a literary education capable of suspicious decryption."18

Regardless of where one stands in this ongoing conversation on critique, it is apparent that all sides share one and the same object: the necessity of our own critical proclivities. What is even more palpable still is the undercurrent of animosity brewing beneath each academic's uncompromising assertion of their opponents' shortcomings their obsolescence. As David Kurnick notes in his analysis of the "method wars," it should come as no surprise that this debate is so shot through with bad feelings, "satire," "caricature[s]," and "misrepresent[ations]" of what each argument endeavors to unseat.19 After all, it is by thus rewriting one's interlocutors, but writing them slant, that one makes room for the course-correction that one proffers.

In this light, Felski may not be entirely wrong to diagnose her discipline with "a terminal case of irony, driven by the uncontrollable urge to put everything in scare quotes," for it is more often than not that such excessively critical postures are motivated by bad faith.20 Deliberately staged to set the scene for aggression, our objects of study are hence no longer enigmas that fascinate and confound us. Instead, they serve only as bogeymen warily invented to fortify one's position, a "worst-case scenario" designed and overdetermined to establish the grounds for one's work.21 To this end, what they register is little more than the refusal of one's ephemerality the extrapolation of one's ego to infinity. Yet, Felski's rightful observations certainly do not exempt her from doing precisely the same, for she proceeds to reproduce the same "irony" of which she accuses her target. Taking an exaggerated tone to make loose generalizations about literary criticism, she multiplies charges across three books and more essays against her detractors, both real and imagined.

What is revealed in this succession of querulous gestures is then not just a discipline struggling to define its character, but one that has to repeatedly avow its relevance to justify its worth. As the humanities' most lauded names contend with each other to make gloomy predictions about their fields, one thing is clear to us: it is not just an identity crisis that confronts academia today, but a profoundly existential one.


Although I present the above exhibits primarily to instantiate the darker underbelly of the neoliberal academy, I have to admit that they are merely a commonplace depiction of life under capital's pernicious regime. After all, academia is only just another domain of work. Yet, the crushing fact remains that intellectual labor, particularly in the humanities, tends to hold for us a fantasy of truth-telling: as "the life of the mind" enshrines itself as a mode of thinking and existence unfettered by its scenes of production, we ascribe to its fair eye the possibility of radical change.

In this sense, we rely not simply on our work, but also that of our peers to understand, diagnose, and ameliorate our present. Nonetheless, we too often find ourselves forsaking or tearing down our peers' work in our attempts to generate the "content" from which we derive our livelihoods and through which the university profits. For what is the alternative to such cruelty, but a capitulation to our competition and the terrifying loss of our world? Fearing this void of certainty, therefore, we nourish the inadequacies of our respective projects while at once dispossessing our desires. We enact, over and over again, a "cruel optimism" about our investments in the unworkable structures of academia.22 Thus, even as the academy dies when its workers are lost to attrition and precarity, it dies again when our objectives become appropriated by those of capital, no matter how radical as we are often at pains to insist to others we may believe our work to be.

All this is then to say that we cannot love our academic objects as long as we are made to depend on their faults. Should we wish to untether the objectives of our intellectual labor from the specter of capitalism that haunts the neoliberal university, it is only from the transformation of our labor conditions that we can begin. This may ask that we unmake our attachments to our existing institutions, that we join in the difficult, ongoing work of organizing. Yet, as the recent wins of Columbia's striking student workers amongst other union wins have already proven, a world beyond the cloisters of academia is not only possible, but a more livable and capacious one.

Rachel Tay (@lunarbaedeker) is a graduate student in Duke University's Program in Literature. Her research investigates the intersection of critical, media, and information theory, particularly as it relates to the problematic of distraction in contemporary culture. 


  1. Donna Tartt, The Secret History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), 8. []
  2. Tartt, The Secret History, 559.[]
  3. Tartt, Secret, 559[]
  4. Daniel Kovalick, "Death of an Adjunct," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 9, 2013. []
  5. Adam Harris, "The Death of an Adjunct," The Atlantic, April 8, 2019. []
  6. Harris, "Adjunct"[]
  7. Some titles in the former category are Mona Awad's Bunny, Katie Lowe's The Furies, and Leigh Bardugo's Ninth House. Those in the latter may include Susan Choi's Trust Exercise, Lara Williams' Supper Club, as well as Laura Wade's Posh. One might also consider of the prevalence of abusive mentors in "adjunct novels" such as Christine Smallwood's The Life of the Mind.[]
  8. Tartt, The Secret History, 7. []
  9. Deborah Thurman, "The Adjunct Complaint," Post45: Contemporaries, March 15, 2022.[]
  10. Amelia Horgan, "The 'Dark Academia' Subculture Offers a Fantasy Alternative to the Neoliberal University," Jacobin, Dec 19, 2021.[]
  11. Franco Beradi, Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility (New York: Verso Books, 2017), 223.[]
  12. Lisa Duggan, "Academic Affect," Commie Pinko Queer, January 17, 2022.[]
  13. W. Nicholson Price, "The Cost of Novelty," Columbia Law Review 120, no. 3 (March 2020), 771, 770.[]
  14. Price, "Novelty," 801.[]
  15. C. Scott Hemphill and Bhaven N. Sampat, "Evergreening, patent challenges, and effective market life in pharmaceuticals," Journal of Health Economics 31 (2012), 330.[]
  16. Coined in the wake of Rita Felski's The Limits of Critique, the "method wars" points to the drawn-out and contentious discourse surrounding the book's claims, specifically, over the uses of the suspicious mode of criticism this essay has tried to sketch.[]
  17. Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015), 10, 13, 29, 186. Italics added.[]
  18. "On Rita Felski's The Limits of Critique: Theories and Methodologies," PMLA 132, no. 2 (March 2017), quotes from Best, 340; Friedman, 344, 347; Fuss, 355; Jagoda, 360; Simpson, 379. Italics added.[]
  19. David Kurnick, "A Few Lies: Queer Theory and Our Method Melodramas," ELH 87, no. 2 (Summer 2020), 354, 353.[]
  20. Rita Felski, Uses of Literature (New York: Wiley, 2008), 2.[]
  21. Felski, Uses, 3.[]
  22. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 1.[]