A few weeks ago the stars were realigned. The Archimedes’ Lever of this cosmic shift was, of all places, in Minnesota, where a newspaper published an article quoting an astronomer on an issue involving the accumulated result of long, slow gravitational pull. These comments went viral online at something close to the speed of light, leading to reevaluation of the Zodiac, panic among horoscope followers, assorted tweets defending or regretting tattoo selections, and some attempts at explanation from astrologists as to their systems of making sense of human existence through claims about the pull of the stars.
Rating by Astrology Not Actuarially Sound
As it turns out, all this was just a harbinger for the next round of horoscope-related news, a media meteor shower that began last Thursday with a press release from Illinois-based Allstate Insurance containing tabulated data on insurance reports and star signs, proving that Scorpios were the safest drivers, Virgos the worst. In second-best spot were the Ophiuchuses of the world, those being folks born in the thirteenth month, under the thirteenth sign, a guy with a big snake in his arms. Ophiuchus has long been part of sidereal astrology (dominant in India, among other places), but absent from the traditionally twelve-signed tropical system most popular with American newspapers until now, with the revised map of the night sky and its influence on human destiny.
Just as the revision of the Zodiac had induced popular outcry—people who had long self-identified as melodramatically emotional Pisces were suddenly told, for instance, that there were actually under the influence of Aries, which resulted in fiery rage and general confusion about one’s nature and destiny—so too this news from Allstate, which turns out to have been a kind of ill-conceived advertising stunt, set off buzz and worry such that this Sunday an official correction was issued from the company.
“We recently issued a press release on Zodiac signs and accident rates, which led to some confusion around whether astrological signs are part of the underwriting process,” the statement reads. “Astrological signs have absolutely no role in how we base coverage and set rates. Rating by astrology would not be actuarially sound. We realize that our hardworking customers view their insurance expense very seriously. So do we. We deeply apologize for any confusion this may have caused.” All of which was intended to mean that Allstate customers remain in good hands, as the catchphrase goes; but which, in fact, draws our attention to the profound divide between that logic which is “actuarially sound” and that logic by which, as the past few weeks have emphasized, a sizeable percentage of Americans use to make sense of their lives.
The “misperception” Allstate sought to correct was that, as an insurer, they might raise charges or restrict coverage on customers born under certain signs. Regardless of the actuarial logic, this would be discriminatory and illegal, akin to variable treatment based on ethnicity, race, religion, or political affiliation. Yet Allstate’s damage control actions, combined with the public outcry over the Zodiacal revisions, remind us of the degree to which astrological signs remain, for many people, as constitutive of identity as these other more mainstream markers. Astrology, in this way, is not unrelated to racism, as argued by Frankfurt School critic Theodor Adorno in his analysis of the social function of American horoscope columns. Affiliation with a given sign reduces “the complex to a handy formula” just as the blood rhetoric underlying racism does.
An Ideology for Dependence
For Adorno, the daily horoscope was part of the wider “culture industry” of modern capitalism, cultural means by which individual lives are determined and shaped. Astrology becomes a means to accept the degree to which our lives are constrained and constructed by larger political forces while, simultaneously, providing a fantastical narrative—a placebo, really—wherein our fates are shaped not by society but by the stars:
“In as much as the social system is the ‘fate’ of most individuals independent of their will and interest, it is projected onto the stars in order thus to obtain a higher degree of dignity and justification in which individuals hope to participate themselves.”
The blogger who declared, “Dude, I’m a Leo and always will be a Leo, no matter where the sun is on August 5th,” is not merely reacting to a potential shake-up of the way we map the stars; he’s insisting that a certain system of sense-making has practical use for navigating his daily life. Star signs function as totems, markers of tribal identity and true self, while, through a dynamic of self-fulfilling prophecy, allowing individuals to shape their own behavior according to the characteristics and quirks assigned to their one-twelfth-size segment of the population. Adorno railed against such acceptance; for him, astrology was “an ideology for dependence, as an attempt to strengthen and somehow justify painful conditions which seem to be more tolerable if an affirmative attitude is taken toward them.” Not for him the existential crisis recently voiced by astrology followers such as New York’s Sofia Whitcombe. “My whole life, I thought I was a Capricorn. Now I’m a Sagittarius?” she says, in dismay, “I don’t feel like a Sagittarius!”
For Ms. Whitcombe, as for Adorno, it’s the feeling that matters, the acceptance of affiliation with the label, the alignment of identity with that which is foretold by the stars (via newspaper columns, paperbacks, and websites). It is this depth of feeling—this vigorous use of the system of star signs as a means of making sense of one’s life—that Adorno lamented as a mark of the lack of individual liberty and that the avowedly capitalist insurance company Allstate is now lamenting in the wake of their press release. Maybe some Virgos out on the road today will have reason to pay less attention behind the wheel; our actions, after all, aren’t determined by distant stars, but by how we, on Earth, give sense to our universe.