Astrology Year Zero

The zodiac as collective not-joke

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This essay was due on November 6, 2018, but I didn’t finish it on time. I can list several obstacles I faced—overcommitment, fear of failure, anticipatory angst at the disconnect between the essay in my mind and the one that will appear on the page, actually, I did get pretty sick—but even together, they don’t seem to fully explain why I haven’t yet written it. (It’s now November 13.) Under such conditions there’s not much to do but waste another ten minutes on a mindless and unhelpful pursuit, which is to say that Uranus entered Aries on the afternoon of November 6, activating rebellious streaks that last made an appearance in April and May of this year—which is, intriguingly, around the time I was late filing another piece for The Baffler. Not this late, though—a Leo, I’m usually motivated by the promise of attention publication brings. (I’m Virgo rising, too, so I give off the impression of being on top of it that, as a Leo, proud and concerned with impressions, I’m anxious to maintain.) Keeping in mind that, really, I should have started writing this essay in the days before November 6, I can see that the moon in Libra squaring with Pluto catalyzed power struggles on the fifth, and communication blocks were possible on the fourth. This was supposed to be a good month for me, but that prediction only applied, unfortunately, to my love life.

It’s difficult to write about astrology—the idea was to write about astrology, to examine the nature of its trendiness right now—because the two questions the topic brings up most are “Is she serious?” and “Who cares?” A friend points out that my Gemini moon is likely to blame for my inability to settle on an argument here, but regardless: I don’t really know how to answer either question because the latter depends on the former, and because determining the seriousness (or not) of a person’s professed viewpoint requires a detailed checklist, one that takes into account author, subject, context, and micro-context (what jokes are popular on social media that day). The horoscopes women—mostly women—read today also take themselves pretty seriously; they’re much more elaborate and astronomically informative than the ostensibly personalized fortune cookies once found in the backs of newspapers and magazines, which were easy enough to justify as meaningless daily ritual. The authority of the contemporary astrologer is alternately expert (Susan Miller’s long-running Astrology Zone, Broadly’s Annabel Gat), speaking in friendly, straight-talking tones about things like Jupiter’s position and geometric aspects, or mystic-poetic (Astro Poets, The Cut’s Madame Clairevoyant), as if written by a medium in Los Angeles receiving garbled messages from Elizabeth Bishop. The popular Co–Star app—which uses your birthdate, place, and time to algorithmically generate lengthy, “hyper-personalized,” koan-like forecasts for you in each of ten (ten!) life-areas (transcendence, innovation, love & tenderness, thinking & communication, intense transformation, responsibility & limits, sex & aggression, ego & identity, emotional world, growth & progress)—combines the two. It also allows you to compare your natal chart—a diagram of the relationship of the sun, moon, and planets to your place of birth at your time of birth—with friends’ charts to assess your compatibility in all the life-areas. The daily horoscopes it produces are so long that I usually do not finish reading them, though they often contain gems like “The present moment is its own hellscape,” which it served me on my birthday when I had woken from a night of short, drunk, bad sleep in an un-air- conditioned apartment in Berlin, which was experiencing a heat wave.

That the Co–Star algorithm included “The present moment is its own hellscape” in my horoscope several different times does not make it any less true, and this is the foundation of the vogue for in-depth astrology: as in fiction, its fakeness allows it to inhabit an intuitive, shifting truth. A sympathetic 2016 “Intellectual Situation” column in n+1 dates the beginning of the new New Age to around 2012—sure, why not?—before arguing that astrology is lovable because it is explicitly, obviously fake, among the “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.”

Serious interest in astrology has become trackable from alternative social media spaces and blogs, through more popular memes and viral astrology accounts, to merch at Urban Outfitters.

A more cynical version of this argument can be found in astrology trend pieces, which have proliferated as serious interest in astrology has become trackable from alternative social media spaces and blogs, through more popular memes and viral astrology accounts, to merch at Urban Outfitters: the internet is the ideal breeding ground for frivolous irrationality that incorporates the narcissistic character building of the personal brand. (The seventies are also back.) “It’s not science!” the trend pieces due-diligently disclaim, not really thinking anyone would believe it was. No, it’s “a cultural or psychological phenomenon,” according to a social cognitive scientist interviewed by The Atlantic. Articles like “Astrology has almost no science to back it up. But people love it anyway” (Vox) or “Astrology Is Hard, Even if It’s Fake” (New York Times) attempt to explain the not-joke: astrology is interpretation layered onto myth layered onto a logical system that is fully realized but completely distinct from the material realm, all drizzled with therapeutic self-excavation and suffused with existential despair.

Its popularity makes sense when you think of how stressed out Gen Xers and millennials are: lacking economic stability, removed from religion, and deeply confused about what irony is, whether it’s acceptable, and if we are in fact employing it right now, we gravitate to the idea of a governing celestial system as much as to kitschy iconography that makes for a decent tattoo. We also yearn for a sense of community, or at least an acknowledgment of mutual pressures and conditions, and like fist-shaking at bad weather or the New York City subway, collective complaining about Mercury retrograde fosters a sense of commonality when things are beyond our control. Life is indeed quite hard, and though the tone of horoscope advice has become more involved, it retains the same appealing, reasonably hopeful bent the newspaper columnists gave it: the bad phases will always pass by a certain date, to usher in an exciting new series of planetary effects.

The persistent grip of poptimism on cultural criticism cleared away many of the obstacles to astrology acceptance the sometimes-thinking person might face: it’s totally fine to like stupid stuff as long as you overanalyze it. Celebrity worship pairs well with astrology; to think of Beyoncé as a Virgo is to imagine her as just like us, beholden to the same forces. A resurgent interest in the Frankfurt School fortified this permission structure for the reading-thinking person, though Adorno, in The Stars Down to Earth, wrote that astrology represented a mode of totalitarian creep and appealed to the middlebrow, the person who “vaguely wants to understand and is also driven by the narcissistic wish to prove superior to the plain people but he is not in a position to carry through complicated and detached intellectual operations.” No matter—Adorno was wrong about a lot. It’s not about agreeing with him, but being able to read him.

Lost in the Stars

Until recently, my thoughts on the zodiac were unbothered, casually approving. I grew up reading my horoscope in teen magazines—my initials are L.E.O., which may have predisposed me to act like one—and I worked for Broadly, where the horoscopes generated a significant portion of our monthly traffic. When people pointed out that since this was a women’s website, the publication of horoscopes was sexist, implying women were loony and vapid, I rolled my eyes. Are you serious? Who cares? Our line was that women were capable of discerning harmless projective fun from the things that actually shape the world, that a woman’s interest in astrology was like a man’s interest in sports, minus threat of bodily injury. In fact, it could be argued that vehement anti-astrology sentiment is what’s sexist. As with many cultural phenomena, the perceived danger of astrology is not in how it’s practiced now but in its hypothetical future application by morons, and I tend to think the patronizing discursive tendency to cater to the dumbest possible reader by foretelling grave sociocultural consequences in innocuous activities results more from a desire to appear a know-something whistleblower than to save society from descent into barbarism. What and how you yourself think does shape your own existence a great deal but, unless you’re famous, it has no effect on the rest of the world, and if nothing else, astrology provides a good framework for remembering that; it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things but may be personally helpful. Although I tried, I just couldn’t muster the emotion to find in the stars some legitimately pernicious residue of sexism or authoritarianism or other political scourge; Nancy Reagan consulted the astrologer Joan Quigley frequently and funneled her advice to the president, but it was mainly for scheduling stuff that was going to happen anyway: debates, press conferences, speeches, trips. So much in life is arbitrary—wedding dates, the moment you finally cave and buy a new computer or a plane ticket, the time of your husband’s showdown with Jimmy Carter. Why not use the made-up parameters of astral aspects to help you narrow down the range of endless, pointless time? For the hardcore enthusiast, with the software and the charts, astrology seemed at most an intricate hobby, convertible to modest profit at only the highest level, like translating Scandinavian languages or freelance writing. I assumed the rest of the astrologically amenable were like me, believers when the outlook is good, for as long as it takes to read a horoscope. “I know so much about astrology,” another friend once told me, sadly. “I wish it were real.”

True Lies

If life were controlled by the movements of the planets, I don’t think things would be any better. But astrology isn’t not real, and it’s becoming more so all the time, via well-meaning attitudes like my friend’s. Astrology is like social media or Donald Trump or autofiction or reality TV: a destabilized cultural force, promoted by an elite media class that purports to get it, driven by fluctuating levels of seriousness and literality, something that stalls the development of a shared reality by being confusingly tautologically only what it is. The literal truth of these things is supposed to be beside the point, but it never manages to stay on the sidelines; the possibility of fact inevitably contaminates. (Of course, the advice to take Trump “seriously but not literally” didn’t work out very well.) Per Adorno, “astrology tends to do away with the distinction of fact and fiction: its content is often overrealistic while suggesting attitudes which are based on an entirely irrational source, such as the advice to forbear entering into business ventures on some particular day. Though astrology does not have as wild an appearance as dreams or delusions, it is just this fictitious reasonableness that allows delusional urges to make their inroad into real life without overtly clashing with ego controls.”

The charitable n+1 editors resist this conclusion: they suggest there’s an honest desire, these days, to source, to explain exactly why people and things are the way they are, and the kind of thinking astrology encourages can fill in the gaps that Marxism, feminism, and psychology, among other things, leave open. Character is about as real as astrology, so the fact that astrology itself cannot explain anything is irrelevant: the archetypes of the zodiac are just a “supplement to other points of view,” an “overlay” that can highlight certain traits or behaviors as opposed to others, a way of reconsidering one’s life and “reminding you of a person’s complexity.” Nevertheless, the n+1 editors were not at a party I attended over the summer, where I overheard someone say, in the tone of personal epiphany, that he had always believed he was so accommodating and hospitable because he was Jewish, but recently he realized it goes “much deeper”: he’s a Cancer.

It’s difficult to write about astrology because the two questions the topic brings up most are “Is she serious?” and “Who cares?”

Was he serious? And if so, who cares? Adorno saw the qualified appreciation of astrology—accepted “with a kind of mental reservation, a certain playfulness which tolerantly acknowledges its basic irrationality and [the believer’s] own aberration”—as indicative of a growing passivity toward the way things are, a result of the “opaqueness of today’s social world calling for intellectual short-cuts” and the ease of sinking into pseudo-intellectualism. I would have called it picking battles—the true test of irrelevance is not whether a thing enrages you because it should not exist but whether it elicits indifference, and it was so nice not to care about something that did not matter. But the Cancer at the party seemed to signify a turning away from the communal experience of unstable human conditions that astrology could symbolize and into some delusional personal narrative that has nothing to do with the world the rest of us are living in.

Adorno squares—to use an astrological term—the emphasis on making decisions in horoscopes with their readers’ pathological aspiration to live life passively by arguing that horoscopes allow the individual to distance himself from himself, and so to excuse his delusional urges; astrology represents a desire for a benevolent “abstract authority” that would create the illusion of freedom, which, if you listen to your horoscope, “consists of the individual’s taking upon himself voluntarily what is inevitable anyway.” But astrology lovers today feel less need to mask their self-obsession; they relish it, brag about it on social media, even claim it as political.

Where Adorno drew a (minor) distinction between the general-interest newspaper column that was the focus of his study and the more detailed horoscopes in astrology magazines, which involved “lingo” and were admittedly less abstract as they “attempt[ed] with some violence to defend [astrology’s] ‘status,’” the new astrology enthusiasts today are likely to resemble the latter, breezily citing a new moon in Sagittarius or the discombobulating power of an eclipse as they burn sage to purify their bedrooms. The increased granularity may promote pseudo-rationality to a greater degree, but the main appeal is that it allows for “hyper-personalization”—the sense that one is special. This is why astrology pairs so well with social media, and with dating. Used as an excuse for an old-school come-on or as a profile question on a dating app, star signs were always a strategy for communicating a discrete set of qualities that are within your control. If I say I’m a Leo—and since I am a Leo it’s not really saying it, but announcing or declaring—I can skip the tedious social effort of developing relationships with people who will come to know me as however I may actually seem. I can plant, in their minds, the idea that I am passionate, brave, and fond of flashy accessories. Now, lest that feel basic, knowing my full astrological chart is a shortcut to communicating my multi-faceted nature, so complex that only an algorithm can predict it. The literal truth of the overarching enterprise being beside the point means that the elegant fiction of it is too.

The effect of contemporary astrology and other serious-but-not-literal phenomena has not been to supplement the understanding of the human, as the accommodating media class that gave these things platforms intended. Instead, humans seem more and more like characters, with sets of attributes they assert by acting as their own abstract authority. Place an innocent fad on social media and it morphs, inevitably, into a disturbing refrain, the kind of thing the late critic Mark Fisher would call “eerie,” found “in landscapes partially emptied of the human”:

What happened to produce these ruins, this disappearance? What kind of entity was involved? What kind of thing was it that emitted such an eerie cry? As we can see from these examples, the eerie is fundamentally tied up with questions of agency. What kind of agent is acting here? Is there an agent at all?

Fisher identified capital as typically eerie—“conjured out of nothing,” it “nevertheless exerts more influence than any allegedly substantial entity.” Astrology itself does not fit this description—it comes from tradition and myth, exerts no measurable or material influence, and is suffused with humanity in the impulses it responds to. But the forces driving its intense popularity—the various kinds of capital on social media—are source-less and strange. #Scorpioseason memes and lamentations of Mercury retrograde read less as humans fostering connection and more as eerie cries emitted from the final stages of the species’ transition to robot-mystic iPhone users, sectioning themselves off into astrological demographics, no longer participants in a collective not-joke but “practitioners.” The new astrology is anything but passive, but it nevertheless rejects true agency, not by suggesting the stars might be in control but by insinuating that taking control yourself is easy, a matter of identification. Reading my Susan Miller horoscope for November, panic about my missed deadline reverberating in the back of my mind, I paused at one piece of advice, concerning the end of Venus retrograde, that I could twist into usefulness: “Do not launch a product that is interesting to women until after November 16—Venus rules women. (Mars rules men.)” Surely an essay on astrology would count.

Lauren Oyler is a writer living in New York. You can find her on Twitter @laurenoyler.

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