Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Stars—They’re Just Like Us! On astrology

From n+1
Published in Issue 24: New Age

..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…

….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.”

“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… read more: