The Intellectual Situation
Stars—They’re Just Like Us!
It was to be a magical, enchanting month for us. Jupiter, the giver of gifts and luck, was moving into Virgo midmonth in alignment with the sun, where it would multiply the beneficence of the gassy planet and rain fortune down upon us. Mercury and Venus were in retrograde, complicating email and love, but a group of small planets was gathering in our sixth house of work and assignments and health. If we were dating, we should get married soon. If we had a contract to sign, we should hold off. The current conditions were sunny, very warm, and humid, with a high of eighty-four and winds blowing at six miles per hour. Twenty-two across, “Too eager, or needing more evidence, for Freud?” was O-V-E-R-D-E-T-E-R-M-I-N-E-D.
Weren’t there plenty of things we took to be true without understanding how they worked—GPS, menstrual synchrony, gluten?Tweet
We threw out the crossword (Thursday, too hard) and asked our boyfriend, reading For Marx on the couch, when he started to believe in astrology. If “believe” was strong—and it was—when, at least, had astrology ceased to be an embarrassing thing to consult without irony? He put down his book and sighed. “Irony is overrated,” he said. “Besides, you have to choose your irrationality or it will choose you. Did you know,” he continued, “that Althusser was a Libra? It explains why we get along so well. I love Libras. My mom’s a Libra.”
When had astrology become our irrationality of choice? Probably sometime around 2012, when things were not so good for us. When you’re feeling stuck, one way to convince yourself change is in the near to middle distance is to read a horoscope. It didn’t matter that the mechanism by which it worked was dubious: cosmic forces emanating from the ordered motions of celestial bodies, wiggling down through the atmosphere in invisible rays to be inspired by human lungs. A broken clock is right twice a day, and weren’t there plenty of things we took to be true without understanding how they worked—GPS, menstrual synchrony, gluten? Our horoscope, at least, gave us something to look forward to. We weren’t idiots, just a little depressed, and comforted by this garrulous pseudoscience that advised, encouraged, cautioned.
For a while, we read Susan Miller. Of all the attentive online astrologers, Miller was the most attentive, the most online. She was also bewilderingly prolific and upbeat. At the peak of its popularity, her website AstrologyZone attracted 6 million readers a month. Her forecasts were long, gushy letters—she called us “dear,” shared friendly anecdotes about running into readers at the gym—and featured a level of material specificity we thought imprudent in a fortune-teller. (“If you were downsized from your job, then you may get a platinum severance package.”) Many of her devotees were fashion people in Manhattan, and though we were not fashion people in Manhattan, we, too, found vague consolation in her rambling pep talks. “In every way, you are moving to a better place,” she’d write. “Remember, if you stay home, nothing much will happen, but if you go out, your world could change!” “In case anyone has taken you for granted, or assumes you’d never leave, with Uranus on your Sun you will do the opposite of what anyone supposes you’ll do! Good!”
There was a pleasing scientificity to it all. Aspects, houses, nodes: so much to know, to master!Tweet
With Uranus on your Sun—we felt astral just saying it out loud! But there was too big a difference between our shabby self and the “you” of Susan’s imagination. She seemed to confuse us with a self-employed homeowner with rich friends—a freelancer with a publicist, an import-export business, and chronic dental issues. We checked her site less often, and when we did we saw Susan checking out, too: Susan is ill this month, read the text in place of our usual forecast. She pled carpal tunnel, wrist pain, bowel pain; grief over the death of her mother, Little Mom. Increasingly, she posted late. The fashion people got angry. “People are not dumb,” said an exasperated Upper East Side energy healer slash life coach to a reporter for the New York Post. “How it is possible to have another excuse every month? It’s become too hard to wait a week or two for everything to be launched. When you decide to be a public servant, you need to honor that.”
We didn’t give up on astrology, though. On the contrary, we gave in to it, as more and more of those around us came to share in our common delusion. One sign, we learned, was not enough by which to know ourselves. We had a sun sign, the one we’d read about in Cosmo—but what was our rising sign, which determined how others saw us? Or our moon sign, indicating our emotional nature? “That one matters more for women,” said our shrink, who had heard this from a feminist astrologer in the ’70s. Our personality was triangulated between the three signs, and we needed our natal chart to fully understand them all.
There was a pleasing scientificity to it all. Aspects, houses, nodes: so much to know, to master! Astrology and astronomy had common origins, after all—trigonometry, logarithms, and other mathematical discoveries developed alongside the desire for more precise astrological measurements—and traces of astrology’s former legitimacy could be found in its insistence on precision. It was not a science, no. But close enough, right? The astrology enthusiasts we knew were dodgy on this point. A recent study by the National Science Foundation states that in 2012, just slightly more than half of Americans thought astrology was “not at all scientific.” Fair enough. But two years earlier two-thirds had thought so. The decrease was disconcerting. “The comparable percentage” of skeptics, the report reads, “has not been this low since 1983.”
Meanwhile, a New Age revival is everywhere we look. On the roof of our office building, we sit in a hammock strung up by our neighbors down the hall at the digital publishing company; it’s their CEO’s. Slumped in the fabric, we’re introduced to a smart woman who self-identifies as a hipster psychic and the daughter of a boomer psychic. We ask her what the difference is. Young people, she tells us, are more flexible with their master narratives. Their political commitments are different from their parents’, and they don’t believe in fate. When she reads a tarot spread or an astrological chart, she knows what she sees are just symbols, open to interpretation. Her task is to show which interpretations are open to interpretation. They’re all, she says, “just tools.”
But tools for what? Self-knowledge? Astrology relies so heavily on confirmation bias—the odds that you’ll identify enough with your sign to overlook its contradictions — that it’s hard to imagine getting anything out of it that you didn’t have going in. A better question might be why people like it, or whether it’s a problem to subscribe to something in which you don’t believe.
For what did injunctions to “live in the moment” and “be present” mean if not “forget the past”?Tweet
The past century’s most vocal critics of astrology have argued that it is a problem. In “The Stars Down to Earth,” Theodor Adorno’s close-reading of the Los Angeles Times astrology column in 1952, he argued that belief was never the issue: astrology was rather a “secondary superstition,” a “substratum of belief and skepticism” that despite its deep phoniness lived on in the culture, zombielike, for anyone to pick up. Adorno took astrology to be another manifestation of irrational culture, which primed American society for totalitarianism. Whether people thought they believed in astrology or not didn’t matter as long as they absorbed its messages, which upheld the system’s abstract authority and divided life into day and night, work and love. The people he was curious about were thus the half-believers who got something out of it—people who “take astrology for granted, much like psychiatry, symphony concerts or political parties; they accept it because it exists, without much reflection, provided only that their own psychological demands somehow correspond to the offer. They are hardly interested in the justification of the system.”
Adorno’s central objection—that astrology fostered a risky passivity—was later echoed by liberal intellectuals who argued that New Age thinking (to which astrology belonged, despite its lineage going back to antiquity) did even worse damage by encouraging an inward turn at the expense of the civic sphere. Most notable among these critics was Christopher Lasch, who argued in a 1976 issue of the New York Review of Books that Americans had lost faith in politics and retreated to “purely personal satisfactions.” These satisfactions included New Agey self-improvement ventures like therapy and “the wisdom of the East,” but also yuppie ones, like ballet and jogging. Such activities were harmless in themselves, but signified an ominous “retreat from the political turmoil of the recent past”—and a retreat, more worryingly, from history in general. For what did injunctions to “live in the moment” and “be present” mean if not “forget the past”?
We are, arguably, still living in the era Lasch described. The highlight of his piece is an oft-quoted excerpt from Yippie leader Jerry Rubin’s memoir Growing (Up) at Thirty-Seven, which chronicles the trends he tried: “est, gestalt therapy, bioenergetics, rolfing, massage, jogging, health foods, tai chi, Esalen, hypnotism, modern dance, meditation, Silva Mind Control, Arica, acupuncture, sex therapy, Reichian therapy, and More House.” Rubin also dabbled in biofeedback, tantric yoga, and astrology. It’s not hard to formulate an equivalent lineup for our times: SoulCycle, green juice, butter coffee, tarot, ayahuasca, group retreats to the Omega Institute, hypnotism to quit smoking, The Secret, antivaccination, polyphasic sleep, Burning Man, kale.
“Is Alex a man or a woman?” Alex is an Aries.Tweet
What critics of astrology have in common—whether they come from the anarchist left or the Christian right or anywhere in between—is a tendency to see astrology as a form of therapy. What bothers them most is not astrology’s irrationality, but its use as a substitute for something older or truer—monotheism, freedom, the demos, the political — that is both the salvation and end goal of progress. To them, astrology is an ideology of the depressed, a politics of resignation: a balm that, like therapy in general, treats the individual symptom of a larger social illness without acknowledging the disease. Look at someone reading a horoscope and you may see hope: someone looking toward the future in a way that suggests a desire for a future at all. What the critics see, however, is someone giving up.
Astrology may be an ideology of the depressed. But is it necessarily a way out of the social? Does it allow one to forget history, as Lasch argued, or acclimate people to powerlessness, as Adorno did?
Last year, the online magazine RECAPS published an essay by Christopher J. Lee called “Why Queers Love Astrology.” What does it mean, Lee asks, that a community so averse to essentialism is so fond of astrology, a system derived from “natural” truths if ever there was one? “Enter a room full of queers,” Lee writes,
and one comes to know every manner of astro logical testimony, which delves directly into the vocabulary of inherent values. Queers know their sun, moon, and rising signs; they know when Mercury is in retrograde; mention Geminis and their minds wander to feelings of rage, longing, or regret…. Is it by coincidence that astrology is widely practiced amongst queers?
Probably not, says Lee. On the one hand, turning to astrology is a way of giving the slip. For many marginalized queers, it’s not always safe to disclose your place of birth, romantic history, gender identity, or job; claiming your astrological identity instead, with genuine conviction, is a low-stakes way to assert who you are. On the other hand, astrology offers those who take it less seriously a nice opportunity to critique taxonomies of identity in general. For all the Americans who think astrology is “not at all scientific,” there are other unpolled Americans who believe gender is not at all scientific. Queer followers of astrology make the comparison easy to draw: “Is Alex a man or a woman?” Alex is an Aries.
Unlike the pernicious pseudosciences of the past, or the scientism and pop neurology of the present, astrology poses little threat of getting serious.Tweet
But there are other reasons to love astrology — therapeutic ones. Queers are no strangers to structural critique, but some might relax their standards, like a lot of people do, for palliative and campy alternatives to existing theories of subjectivity—alternatives so reliably unreliable that they at least feel honest, and less likely to trick us than those that arrive in the guise of religion, theory, or politics. Compared with “our existing systems of organizing identity,” which often fail us or worse, astrology, contra Adorno, is a safe bet. It’s an alternative “at once intricate and unconvincing, a kind of cheap fiction lacking the force to supplant our current world order.”
We trust it because it corresponds to nothing; it doesn’t pretend to be true, or demand our belief. Unlike the pernicious pseudosciences of the past, or the scientism and pop neurology of the present, astrology poses little threat of getting serious. Being a Pisces will never be sufficient grounds for getting thrown in prison or denied public benefits, because the category transcends all the forms of identity that matter to society: familial ties, ethnicity, religion, race, class, sex, age. And whereas Adorno suggests that to read a horoscope is the same thing as to enact its prophecies, we know from experience that one can very well do one and not the other.
Our friend the painter, who refers to astrology often, says that this is what he likes about it: that it’s another symbolic system, another transparent overlay, through which to read the world. He finds any single explanatory language insufficient, he says, and astrology is a second layer to others—Marxism, psychology, nutrition theory—as he tries to understand everything around him. It’s also, he says, a handy go-to in emotional situations. “Why is this person acting this or that difficult way?” he asks rhetorically. “Maybe because he’s a Scorpio, he’s just like that. He has other good qualities.”
To consider that the shy person is sometimes wild, the considerate person sometimes duplicitous, is to practice something rather like empathy.Tweet
“Whence has fantasy acquired its bad reputation?” Carl Jung once wrote. In a world in which irrationality is seen as a correctable flaw rather than a fixture of human life, fantasy has no place. But this is not our world, and Jung, whose dabbling in the occult did taint his reputation as Freud warned it would, was right when he said that astrology’s “value is obvious enough to the psychologist, since astrology represents the sum of all the psychological knowledge of antiquity.” The archetypes one finds in the zodiac belong to the collective unconscious, and the importance of such symbols is that they figure into our thoughts whether they ought to or not. A common concept in therapy is projection: the tendency of a patient to imbue impersonal symbols with personal meaning in the process of interpretation, be they dreams, inkblots, or slips of the tongue. Whether the source material is in itself “true” doesn’t make what comes out of it—the reading of one’s self through that material—false. One might say the same of astrology.
The painter may look at the Scorpio and see Scorpio traits, another instance of confirmation bias. But the color-filter overlay of any deterministic language, be it astrology or psychoanalysis or anything else, can shed some light from time to time. Taken alone, the filter is reductive: dialing up the contrast, blasting shades of gray into patches of black and white. But as a supplement to other points of view—what’s visible on first impression, say, or what you know of someone from experience—it adds another dimension, pulling some features into the foreground and pushing others to the back, reminding you of a person’s complexity. As skeptics have long argued, part of what makes astrology appealing (and so easily proven “true”) is that each sign of the zodiac has a cluster of traits assigned to it that may be found in nearly any person. Astrology could thus be seen as a humanizing corrective to other, worse stereotypes. To consider that the shy person is sometimes wild, the considerate person sometimes duplicitous, is to practice something rather like empathy.
At a bar in our neighborhood, waiting for a friend, we take a corner seat one stool away from two men to whom we have nothing to say. They talk to us anyway and eventually ask us our sign. We tell them, and they tell us theirs. One says his father had our sign; the other, all his exes, and sighs. Conversation turns to the neighborhood, to life. We’re still not friends or comrades, and thirty minutes later we still don’t know each other, not really. The strength and duration of our bond have not been tested. But we’re not quite strangers, either. It’s the most social we’ve been in weeks.