Also posted here.
Every day at noon, my astrology app, Co-Star, sends me a push notification. One day, it read, “Try not to commit any acts of self-hatred today.” This elicited strong reactions from friends who happened to see it.
“It’s fake,” explained the Rationalists, who tended to be my computer programmer friends.
“If you’re a Virgo, we’re through!” laughed the Ironists.
“If you’re a Virgo, we’re through,” said the Woo-Woo Astrologists, the true believers.
“Have you thought about which acts of self-hatred?” asked the Post-Ironists.
I count myself among the Post-Ironists. We don’t care if astrology is real; we care that it’s useful. We practice astrology seriously but not literally. We’re responsible for the recent surge of interest in astrology, the creators of the “astrology-is-fake-but” memes. People conflate us with the Woo-Woo Astrologists because our actions mirror theirs: We read daily horoscopes, remind ourselves that Mercury is in retrograde and read our friends by their signs. But there’s a clear distinction between us: We don’t actually believe in astrology.
Rationalists and Ironists enjoy helping us Post-Ironists understand our fallacies. When we rejoice that our horoscope is accurate for the day, they accuse us of confirmation bias. Others say that the horoscopes are generic enough to apply to anyone. To prove a point, a tech friend built a horoscope app that randomly assigned generic quotes to users. They left raving reviews like “most of these are pretty accurate!!”
Post-Ironists have been around, and have been criticized, for decades. In 1952, Frankfurt School thinker Theodor Adorno, in critiquing the L.A. Times’ horoscope column, referred to our kind as those who accept astrology while “acknowledging its basic irrationality.” He claimed that we use astrology to take “intellectual shortcuts.”
In the fall of 2019, I had interviews scheduled for many jobs that didn’t excite me, and I wanted to cancel some of them. Just then, I received my notification of the day: “It’s good to have choices, even if you’re not into all of them.” Call me narcissistic, but this quote was made just for me. I didn’t cancel any interviews. Maybe I took the “intellectual shortcut” and had the stars decide for me. Or maybe I picked my battles and saved my energy for more important decisions.
Our search for right answers and prescriptions from the stars is a product of the Rationalist-dominated world. Nutrition labels on our food, clinical results on our cosmetics, heart rate monitors on our wrists, psychological studies telling us how to parent, Tinder coaches optimizing our dating profiles. We look at the quantification of the world and think, “Huh, maybe there’s a right choice for everything.”
We’re hungry for a science that runs calculations and derives answers about how to feel. Adorno also said that science had become a religion and the “ultimate, absolute truth.” But it’s not always a perfect substitute for religion, so we fill the gaps with a pseudoscience. It’s no wonder that Co-Star advertises that they’re “powered by AI that merges NASA data with the insight of human astrologers.” Why should I conduct a cost-benefit analysis of how to feel about job interviews if “NASA-powered” algorithms could do it for me?
I call us the Post-Ironists because we all used to be Ironists. I first downloaded Co-Star last summer as a joke. At a company retreat, I met Abbey, a co-worker and an apparent Woo-Woo Astrologist. She encouraged me to download the app because it could tell us our compatibilities across seven domains of life. I laughed, “Yeah sure I have to know.” (What I really wanted to know was which childhood trauma got her into believing in astrology.)
I downloaded the app and accepted her friend request. We read the app’s prescription together: “Your struggles are similar, and you likely can help each other work through them.” She looked at me, paused, and asked, “Do you also have trouble being assertive at work?” “Yeah!” That struck a chord with me. Slowly, we launched into conversations about gender, relationships and happiness.
It was then that I realized my irony had been unproductive. In his novel “Infinite Jest,” author and armchair sociologist David Foster Wallace suggests that “hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is … a fear of being human.” Abbey is a white American copywriter who has worked in fashion most of her career. I’m a Singaporean engineering student who wears T-shirts most days. Maybe I gave into cynicism because I thought we’d never get along. But the stars made us think about our similarities, approach each other with sincerity and become fast friends.
As time passed, I gradually became increasingly Post-Ironist. In October 2019, I started alarming my friends about “Mercury in retrograde.” According to astrologers, Mercury had started moving backwards on October 31, thus throwing everyone’s lives into chaos. Mentioning Mercury’s movement always prompted my friends to lament about their tough weeks. We felt the camaraderie of going through similar struggles. I skipped the conversational gymnastics of transitioning past small talk. I took a “shortcut.”
Once, I received a Co-Star notification that read, “It’s important to see the people you love as capable.” The Rationalists may say that this quote applies to any garden-variety narcissist. But the notification made me meditate about friends I would be seeing that day and about the ways in which they were more capable than I’d been giving them credit for. That day, when I saw my friends, I listened more and noticed more to admire. Thinking about the people I loved didn’t feel like a shortcut to me.
Sometimes, the advice is more figurative. “Be a plant: absorb sunlight and emit oxygen.” I took the metaphor seriously and carried it around that week. In every situation, I considered the multitudes of ways I could be a plant: I ended up being calmer like a plant, sleeping earlier to sustain myself like a plant and doing my best to energize people around me like a plant. I didn’t manage to oxygenate anyone, but I did enjoy living the metaphor.
I told my friend Ashia about my week of living metaphorically, and she liked it. She interprets people as texts, with astrology as her chosen critical lens. At a retreat, she sat her friends down to write out their birth charts. It opened up “a whole other line of questioning that people may have been scared to ask,” Ashia recalled. It wasn’t intimidating to discuss interpersonal conflicts because she presented them as interstellar conflicts. Her friends talked about each other like characters in a book. Astrology is a literary language, and its scientific truth is beside the point.
When Ashia told me about her retreat, I told her a friend had gotten our friend group to take the Myers-Briggs personality test and discuss our results. That experience didn’t differ much from Ashia’s astrological group exercise. Writer Lauren Oyler suggests in a Baffler essay that “[the zodiac signs] are just a way of … reminding you of a person’s complexity.” Knowing I’m a Libra makes me more aware of my indecisiveness but also its beauty. My indecisiveness comes from the ability to “see both sides of every situation.”
So, I use astrology as a framework for the interpretation of myself. It’s like another framework that I use: Freudian psychoanalysis. (I tell my friends I don’t get drunk easily because my superego has repressed all my urges to have fun into my id.)
I notice many parallels between the frameworks. Both are placeholders for talking about how our mind feels — id, ego and superego for Freud and sun, moon and rising signs for astrology. Both have therapeutic benefits: Psychotherapy has cured people of neuroses, and horoscopes calm me in times of stress. Scholars credit Freud for our historical turn towards subjectivity in times of hyper-rationality. Co-Star wants “irrationality to invade our techno-rationalist ways of living.” Could the astrology trend become an intellectual movement as well?
Maybe having just one (rationalist) interpretation of the world is the ultimate “intellectual shortcut.” Maybe left-brain hyper-rationality shouldn’t be the only measure of intelligence. Poet John Keats characterized the greatest writers and thinkers as having “negative capability,” the “willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery and make peace with ambiguity.” Responding to figurative horoscopes is illogical, but it allows me to notice more things to admire. Alluding to “Mercury in retrograde” may not be rational, but it allows me to access communal feelings about struggle. The zodiac signs aren’t based on science, but they foster connections, help us communicate our interior selves and remind us that as Wallace says, we’re all “unavoidably sentimental … goo-prone and generally pathetic.”
Or maybe that’s just such a Libra thing to say.