*** Rebellious and Dreamy
‘Practice holding two opposing ideas in your head today,’ says a push alert on my phone sent by Co-Star, the astrology-powered social network. I swipe the glass and a loading screen appears. It resembles a medieval astronomer’s drawing of an eclipse, only moving, therefore magic. Plus, there are three words: ‘Fetching NASA data.’
What will happen to me? Who am I compatible with? My sun is in Sagittarius and as it happens so is my moon. Sagittarians are creative and rebellious, and don’t like to plan. They are dreamy and restless, and overly concerned with how they are seen by others. This is genuinely a good description of me, but I do not actually think my future can be predicted by way of NASA data, at least beyond its most large-scale sense such as how far I will be from Proxima Centauri or Teegarden’s Star at any given moment (on which count I differ in no significant sense from anyone else).
In my heart of hearts, I know that no occult practice can examine the trajectory of Mercury and from it extricate an ideal agenda for my day. I do not think astrology comes from anywhere real. I do not ‘believe’ in it. Yet I look at it, and like doing so, and think about what it has to say. I like the way it speaks to me. I want to be who it thinks I am.
*** Someone I Am Not
But who does it think I am, exactly? On a bookshelf in an Airbnb in Brittany I come across The Stars Down to Earth, an analysis of the horoscope section of the LA Times written by Theodor Adorno in the mid-1950s. It is interminably long and cantankerous yet mesmerising. Adorno finds astrology to be a sort of trick. The promise is magic and mysticism, but the scope of the advice is conservative and conventional. Do your job like this, it says. Manage your household like that. The material ‘speaks a language of its own, and its morsels of advice rarely if ever adequately express social or psychological reality, but manipulate the readers’ ideas of such matters in a definite direction.’ This seems in line with my own impressions gleaned from scanning the horoscopes in newspapers or magazine fifty or sixty years hence, or being part of one of those impromptu group happenings where everyone gets their glossy magazine forecast read out in turn. How nice to be the centre of attention while our sign has its moment. How much less so when there’s someone else there who shares it.
But here’s the thing: astrology’s power, in Adorno’s telling, rests on its capacity to talk to the person reading as if they were someone they probably aren’t. The implied reader of the LA Times’ 1950s horoscopes seems to be the vice president of a business. The actual reader, he conjectures, is likely a lower-middle-class woman leading a life of suburban domesticity. Seventy years on, a horoscope is as likely to treat the reader as a great artist as it is to talk to them like an entrepreneur. That reader could be anyone, it could be me. I can’t deny it. I enjoy being talked to that way.
*** Plausible Deniability
In the depths of the conservative mysticism, Adorno makes out other shapes too – Freudian ones. ‘The stars mean sex without threat,’ he writes. How, exactly? ‘An almost unrecognisable and therefore tolerable substitute of the forbidden relation with an omnipotent father figure.’ And the kicker? ‘People are allowed to enjoy communion with absolute strength inasmuch as it is considered no longer human.’
The stars are flirting with us, then? Is that why they flatter us so, why reading or mentioning them in company feels homeopathically illicit, a bedroom door nudged a molecule ajar?
The most important quality of flirting, the trait that defines it as such as opposed to other forms of intimate exchange, is this: plausible deniability. Which is the exact disposition many adopt as they consume astrology. Maybe I do, maybe I don’t.
*** Buying an Escape
New Age shops are everywhere, wedged between Walmart and Dunkin’ Donuts in Wyoming strip malls, plugging quietly away on European high streets even as record shops and internet cafés dwindle and die. As well as dreamcatchers, tarot cards and semi-precious stones, the outlets, which are always independent, sell books, which, among other things, cover astrology. It seems clear that what these shops offer is escape, or its promise. But escape from what?
In London I visited a tarot reader who operated in the cellar of an Italian restaurant. Eileen made readings during the dead mid-afternoon period. I’d heard she was unusual in the specificity of her insights, that rather than vague statements of the ‘big change coming in either work or romance’ ilk, she would say something like ‘you will be burgled on Tuesday’ and it would turn out to be true. The room was artificially lit with a stack of brown cardboard boxes in the corner. After examining my cards at one of the dining tables, she looked up with a sad expression and told me something scandalous about a member of my family (I’m sorry, I can’t reveal the details here). I left, offended, and didn’t think of it again for years but eventually it all came out: Eileen was right.
A friend who is studying astrology made me a birth chart. It was uncannily accurate. ‘The horoscopes column, Co-Star? Just entertainment,’ she said. ‘Proper astrology is a sort of anarchist spirituality. It’s about acknowledging there are cycles and patterns in the world we don’t always un-derstand. The church tried to stamp it out. It’s what we have left from ancient times.’
So, the pull of the New Age shop – its elaborate bongs and metal dragons, its Inca-pattern trousers – is of a secret torchbearer of everyday paganism? By which I mean all the assorted flotsam carried behind statements such as, ‘I’m not religious but I do believe there’s something… else.’
If, in the attic of each person’s memory is a chest labelled ‘occult evidence?,’ then mine con-tains Eileen, and probably that birth chart, but also: 1) a friend regularly visiting a woman called ‘magnet Maureen’ and returning full of zest and optimism; 2) an Ouija board moving autonomously and then passing all tests we could devise to discover any fakery; 3) some friends holding out a tarot set and saying ‘pick one’ and my happening to get the Hermit after a week of solitude at a writing residency. (I still don’t believe in any of it.)
*** What Is Love?
For a time, when given the opportunity to suggest content that I myself hadn’t selected, Instagram would show me videos of men in suits with no ties who would explain how easy it is to make $10,000 out of thin air, though never in enough detail for me to actually do so. Occasionally men dressed very similarly to those men would, in settings also resembling television studios, concern themselves instead with explicitly right-wing politics.
Then the algorithm re-evaluated matters and I was encouraged to watch K-pop dance routines. I think this was the doing of my sister, who takes weekly Korean classes. I confess it was also evidence of my having once clicked on an out-take from a performance of ‘What Is Love?’ by the girl band Twice. It went like this: one of them could not quite get the timing right for an impossibly swift hand-flap and laughed in a way that was unguarded and endearing. In the mute mode in which I watched, this moment, which took up no more than three seconds, was hypnotic and dreamlike. I let it play on repeat three times. This must have been significant to whichever circuits are assigned to me, and which had perhaps sent me this video to test me. For a time, I was categorised as either a K-pop fan or someone interested in the dancing that accompanies it. Similar videos filled my feed for several months but as I didn’t click them anymore, not least as I didn’t want to encourage the cloud to ‘think’ of me in that way, they stopped.
That is all ancient history now. For over two years, the focus of this particular window into what Patricia Lockwood has called ‘the portal’ (the screen that contains a flattened version of everything) has been fixed, more or less, on shuffle dancing. Based on a combination of T-step and ‘running man’ foot movements, the shuffle dance grew out of the Melbourne rave scene and yet turned out to be ideal for frenetic performances that can fit within the narrow rectangle of a smartphone. I see synchronised lines of shuffle dancers crossing the road in Madrid. I see a woman in Miami shuffle dancing in high heels on a fire escape. I see a pair of men in hoodies shuffle dancing in a French chateau.
I didn’t think I loved shuffle dancing, K-pop or sales patter. Does the algorithm know me better than I know myself? Is that love?
*** Daily Poetics
A friend is introduced for the first time to the family of a girlfriend.
‘You’re not a Scorpio?’ the parents ask.
‘We don’t get on with Scorpios in this family.’
‘Please tell me you’re not a Scorpio,’ says the sister. ‘That would be a disaster.’
‘Are you a Scorpio?’ says the grandmother.
‘I hope not.’
Turns out, he is a Scorpio.
That story is funny because it’s strange. It’s not normal to vet potential in-laws according to the zodiac. But Adorno’s assumptions almost entirely rest on the reader taking the predictions of astrology seriously: that they believe them, obey them and arrange their lives according to them. Only once does he acknowledge the existence of a kind of astro-agnosticism, noting that, ‘a few disciples of astrology accept it with a kind of mental reservation, a certain playfulness which tolerantly acknowledges its basic irrationality.’ Yet that seems to me like a good description of how most people interact with astrology, at least today (an exception being the word ‘disciples,’ as I think many would be better described as recreational users).
Astrology in the 2020s is many things. It adapts and warps as society changes.
For example, it propels an entire realm of artistic production that is the direct opposite of Adorno’s consumerist trap, in which its devotees reclaim it as an anti-capitalist sanctuary from the merely rational, a centre of gravity for queer culture. ‘Astrology is an ancient language,’ says poet CAConrad in an interview with Ignota Books that implies that it’s not so much ‘2+2’ true but true, rather, in the way that poetry is true.
*** Wow! Signal
A friend not generally up for mystical matters is a big advocate of a book called Sextrology. I text to ask for its verdict on Sagittarius. ‘It’s rarely far from my side,’ he replies, attaching a picture of the page. ‘Sag exudes an untamed energy,’ says the profile for Sagittarius Man, ‘a renegade charm, which, along with his signature strapping physique, makes him a highly sought-after heart-throb.’
Late one night in classical Greece, a stargazer looked up at a cluster of lights and traced out the image of a centaur pulling back a bow, hence why Sagittarius man is illustrated with a silhouette of the same. Sagittarius means ‘archer’ in Latin but the constellation in question has no name really, nor any particular shape. It is located in the southern celestial hemisphere and is home to several ‘fine binocular objects’ including the Large Sagittarius Star Cloud and the Lagoon Nebula. Its westernmost reaches house the very centre of the Milky Way.
In 1977, not long after I was born, an unusual radio transmission known as the ‘Wow! Sig-nal’ was received in Ohio from the direction of Sagittarius. It remains the strongest candidate for a radio signal from extraterrestrial life. If that kind of thing happened more often, if suspicious radio stations pulsed across our dials on a weekly basis, would we still project our desires onto the stars’ no-longer-blank canvas? The answer, of course, is a clear and resounding yes.