Ideas53:59Mercury’s In Retrograde: The Rise of Astrology
For thousands of years, humans have looked to the stars to navigate everything from their love lives to geopolitics.
Now astrology is having a pop culture renaissance, where social media and predictive algorithms can deliver horoscopes and psychic comfort at lightspeed.
“The kind of resurgence that we’re seeing today is definitely a product of global instability,” said Alice Bucknell, an artist and writer whose work focuses on the intersection of technology and mysticism.
Economic insecurity, climate doom and existential dread leave younger generations feeling “devoid of power and hopeless,” added Bucknell.
That sense of hopelessness may be what’s driving people to turn to the stars in search of meaning in a world with seemingly unsolvable problems. And this isn’t a new phenomenon.
The rise of modern horoscopes
Astrology was first brought to the masses in the 1930s, when newspapers began publishing horoscope columns.
In the wake of the First World War, in the midst of the Great Depression and with second war looming, horoscopes served as welcome distractions from the fraught socio-political conditions of the time.
Robin James, philosophy professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, argues the horoscope column was a way to sell people “dominant narratives about what it is to be a good citizen or subject or worker.”
In his 1952 essay, The Stars Down to Earth, German philosopher Theodor Adorno was concerned that astrology provided people with a framework for thinking they have control over systems like capitalism that actually control them.
Astrology appropriated by the ‘self-care’ economy
It may be little surprise that astrology, like many other forms of new age spirituality, has been co-opted by the self-care economy.
In 2021, it was estimated that the astrological service industry was worth over $12 billion worldwide and is expected to jump to $22.8 billion by 2031.
Venture capital-backed apps like Sanctuary, which calls itself the “Uber for astrological readings” and Co-Star, which self-describes as the “hyper-personalized social astrology experience.”
A reading from Co-Star for the sign Scorpio reveals “You should go to patios and get fake eyelashes. And you shouldn’t self-critique, hide or overthink.”
Bigger, more complicated issues like climate change feel beyond our control, while self-care and personal fulfillment are within our grasp, and perhaps even our budget.
Big data and big astrology
Robin James sees this rise in astrological content as data-mining, using a cosmic veneer “to sell you things and to shape you into the kind of person that corporations want you to be.”
Companies like Amazon and Spotify have even harnessed astrology’s appeal, sending shopping horoscopes, audio birth charts and offering cosmic playlists.
“The whole point of Spotify’s surveillance is so that they can tailor your listening experience based on your past interactions,” said James.
As these apps praise our individuality and unique listening habits, “they’re making what is actually their own narration seem like it’s your choice.”
A personalized audio birth chart for IDEAS contributor Maggie Reid
The ability of predictive algorithms to personalize our internet experience means that we are constantly interacting with our former selves online. The idea that your zodiac sign determines who you are as a person appeals to that sense of personal narration, perhaps to the point of narcissism.
“I think humans definitely love talking about themselves,” said Charm Torres, a professional astrologer.
The intense focus on the self is a hallmark of popular astrology, but professor of philosophy and religious studies Robert Fuller believes this “is more of a symptom of narcissism than it is a cause of it.”
Bri Proke is a filmmaker and identifies as queer. Part of her turn to astrology was that she always felt like an outsider.
“Maybe people are seeking solace outside of everyday society to try and find their place and their purpose,” she said.
Contextualizing one’s place in the universe can lead to reframing harmful narratives and alleviate personal shame and guilt.
“Individuals are able to realize ‘I’m not responsible for everything bad that has happened to me in my life,'” said Fuller.
There are larger political and economic forces beyond our control that shape our lives. Astrology has the power to absolve us of personal responsibility while reaffirming our individuality.
“Every human being has some important need to feel prized, to feel whole,” observed Fuller, “to look out at the universe and feel that universe looks back at you and likes you and it affirms you.”
We want to know that when we look at the stars, the stars are looking back, and they care.
For Alice Bucknell, the corporatization of astrology has corrupted some of these more positive and potentially liberating outcomes.
While there are no astrological solutions to astrological problems, Big Zodiac has set itself up to provide a kind of emotional triage in times of social upheaval.
The business of astrology isn’t concerned with what might happen in the future or how to fix it, but rather how we might feel and why we feel it.
And maybe recommend a couple of items at the checkout to help us get through.
Guests in this episode:
Robin James is a philosophy professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Robert Fuller is a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Bradley University and the author of Spiritual, but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America.
Alice Bucknell is an artist and writer based in London, England. Her work explores the intersections of mysticism, capitalism and technology.
Alex Boxer has a PhD in physics from MIT and authored A Scheme of Heaven: The History of Astrology and the Search for our Destiny in Data.
Charm Torres is a professional astrologer and tarot reader based in Victoria, British Columbia.
Bri Proke is a Sagittarius and an avid follower of astrology.
*This episode was produced by Maggie Reid with help from Sheila Reid. **Article written by Maggie Reid and Sheila Reid.