Reading the Planets through Capital, Power, and Labor
by alice sparkly kat
north atlantic, 336 pages, $17.95
Does anyone believe in astrology anymore? Is there anyone who still really thinks that our destinies are written in the sky? The answer is probably no. Maybe there’s some ancient black-clad Armenian peasant woman consulting an almanac every time she crosses the street—but for everyone else, astrology is a dead science. The vast wheel of the universe is still turning, but nobody beneath it cares.
Supposedly, a lot of people do believe in astrology, more than ever before. Co-Star, an astrology app “powered by AI that merges NASA data with the insight of human astrologers” to “algorithmically generate insights about your personality” has raised $20 million from Silicon Valley venture capitalists. Astrology is hip now. It’s queer and diverse and empowering, maybe revolutionary, definitely unavoidable. When a new acquaintance asks me, innocently, as if she’s just making conversation, how long it is until my birthday, I know what she really means. She’s asking me what I am. I’m a Virgo, I say, Moon in Aquarius, Aquarius rising. When I started dating my current girlfriend, I noticed she had a big astrology book on her table, half-opened to the chapter on our specific compatibility. She’s a Leo; our birthdays are quite close together. Virgos and Leos are not, it turns out, very well suited to each other. We’re both too rational. The Leo becomes overbearing and tyrannical, the Virgo reserved and pernickety. Somehow, we’ve made it work. Love defies even the stars.
I sound critical, but then I am a Virgo; it goes with the territory. In fact, though I don’t believe in astrology, I do quite like it. At its heart, astrology is a system for turning the chaos of the world into something meaningful. Every society in human history has looked at the night sky and sought out the patterns. Huge cosmic animals, heroes, or the dead: The stars are a permanent storehouse of myth. In A Scheme of Heaven, Alexander Boxer reminds us:
Nearly 10 percent of the night sky . . . can be accounted for by retelling just one single legend, that of a hero (the constellation Perseus) who slays a monster feared for her demon eye (the star Algol) which could turn any living creature to stone. This hero then returns to rescue a beautiful princess (the constellation Andromeda) chained to a rock by her parents (the constellations Cepheus and Cassiopeia) as a sacrifice to a giant sea monster (the constellation Cetus).
These arrangements are not fixed, because the stars are not alone in the sky. There are also the planets, moving erratically through this vast hall of images, leaving a trail of narrative behind them. The Perseus legend reads very differently depending on whether it’s told in the light of Mars—great Perseus, slayer of monsters!—or Venus—the hardness of stone, the thrust of a sea-serpent, the love that’s greater than both.
The zodiac is an algorithm, the first incarnation of the ars combinatoria that ended up giving us the digital computer—but what this computer generates is stories. You assign a set of possible meanings to each of the seven classical planets, another meaning to each of the twelve houses, and watch them move. Seven to the power of twelve yields nearly fourteen billion possible arrangements of the spheres. (The real number is a little lower, since Mercury and Venus are never more than two signs away from the Sun, but nonetheless.) The narrative you end up with can be an epic, if you want. Late last year, Jupiter and Saturn saw a great conjunction in the sign of Aquarius. Gas giants colliding; empires in peril. Almost every U.S. president elected under a great conjunction has either died in office or narrowly survived an assassination attempt. Or we can go bigger still. If you accept Bishop Ussher’s calculations, the universe was created out of nothing on October 23, 4004 b.c.—which means that reality is a Scorpio. Doesn’t everything suddenly start to make a lot more sense?
But astrology can also be very intimate. Why do I sometimes find it difficult to write? This is the work that I love, and it’s the only thing I’m really good at, so why is it so hard? Astrology weaves my small frustrations into the story of the universe. At this very moment, Mercury is transiting Taurus. Mercury rules thought and communication, but Taurus is the earthiest of the Earth signs: slow and grounded, stubborn, a bit stupid. After all, it is a bull. So if my prose is a little plodding, now you know why.
These combinations are significant, even if the movements of the planets don’t literally influence our daily lives. It’s something like a language: In semiotics, language is only meaningful because there’s no necessary connection between a word and its meaning. Signs are mutable and capacious; they hold worlds. And there’s nothing bigger, more changeable, or more world-bearing than the night sky.
No, the planets can’t make things happen on Earth. Still, they can help us form new ways of understanding. Once I was just staring at an empty Word document; now I’m struggling against the weight of a vast snorting bull, and one made of burning stars . . .
But it’s not strictly true that every human society has found patterns of meaning in the night sky. There’s one exception: ours, the world of scientific modernity. Heinrich Heine tells a story about a conversation with Hegel, his great teacher:
One beautiful starry-skied evening, we two stood next to each other at a window, and I, a young man of about twenty-two who had just eaten well and had good coffee, enthused about the stars and called them the abode of the blessed. But the master grumbled to himself: “The stars, hum! hum! The stars are only a gleaming leprosy in the sky.”
Hegel stood at the beginning of something. Unlike Kant, who wondered at “the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me,” who still sensed some distant principle uniting the two, Hegel was exclusively interested in the internal unfolding of the world-spirit on Earth.
Today, we know more about the stars than anyone in history. Five thousand stars are visible to the naked eye; the European Space Agency has mapped and catalogued them in their billions. But they don’t matter to us. Electric lighting has obliterated the sensuousness of the sky. The night is something to be conquered: billionaire fantasies of bases on Mars, humanity worming its way across an empty galaxy. Our monumental structures are no longer aligned with the rising or falling stars. We don’t use the stars to steer our ships or chart the seasons. (Nuclear missiles, however, are guided by celestial navigation. The starlit world might still have its revenge.)
What remains of outer space is mostly for children. When you’re very young, you’re allowed to be fascinated by the fact that our planet is set in a black and hollow universe. You can express the awe that is proper to that universe; the churning bands of Jupiter, the terror of the endless voids. And then you grow up, and you’re expected to forget about almost everything that exists. Concentrate on more important things, like sex and mortgages. When I was an awful, precocious child, I knew the name of every constellation. Now, on a clear night, I think I could identify maybe three.
This might be why astrology is so popular. We miss that fascination; we want the sky to have meaning again. Astrology tells you that the stars are important. They’re not just a gleaming leprosy, or the scene for Elon Musk’s technological apotheosis. They are to be approached in awe and terror. And astrology tells you that there is a thread connecting the grandeur of the heavens with your ordinary life in the sublunary world. You are part of its infinity; these are the hands that guide you. Like the Psalmist, you can wonder:
When I consider thy heavens, the
work of thy fingers,
The moon and the stars, which
thou hast ordained;
What is man, that thou art
mindful of him?
And the son of man, that thou
Not that astrology as it’s actually practiced reaches these heights. For one, most astrologers outside India use the tropical rather than the sidereal zodiac, replacing the actual constellations with abstract divisions of the sky, which is a travesty. Roland Barthes notes that “the stars never suggest that order could be overturned, but merely exert a little day-to-day influence, remaining respectful of social status and of the working week.” Theodor Adorno devotes an entire book, The Stars Down to Earth, to grumbling about his horoscope. He, too, argues that astrology serves to “justify painful conditions,” teaching us that social iniquities are really preordained in the skies. But there’s cause for hope. One thing that’s different about the current vogue for astrology is the decline of traditional horoscope columns. More and more people are going back to the chart and the ephemeris, relating directly to the planets and their significations, trying to conjure something new.
At least, this is what I used to think. My position on astrology is a bit like my being a secular Jew: I appreciate the tradition, I find it meaningful, and though I don’t actually consult my horoscope or abstain from pork, though I don’t actually believe, I think it has a lot to teach us . . . But you can only hold this kind of position if there’s someone else to do the work of believing for you. A secular Jew needs the black-hatted frummers who keep every one of the commandments. An ironic astrologist needs the person who believes that lumps of matter in outer space really do control his life. Once, such people existed. Until the eighteenth century, the London Bills of Mortality would frequently list a cause of death as “planet.” This meant that a man had died without apparent cause, but the reason was clear. He had fallen under the influence of an evil star. A planet had killed this man, as directly as if a trillion tons of livid space-rock had come screaming out of the sky to conk him on the head. This is what it means to believe in astrology: accepting that at any moment, the mathematically preordained rhythms of the heavens might simply decide to kill you.
Do any of the cool, young astrologists believe this? If you really press them on the subject, they’ll probably end up saying something very familiar. No, I don’t really think it’s true exactly, but it’s fun, I like it, it helps me make sense of the world . . . Which was precisely my stance. I thought I was staking out a unique and provocative position. (Aquarius rising: We like that sort of thing.) But actually, without knowing it, I’d been believing in astrology all along. This is just what believing in astrology has come to mean.
Alice Sparkly Kat is probably the most prominent advocate of this approach. Born in Henan Province, China, she was raised in Iowa and is now, as she puts it, a “non-Black gentrifier” and “an Asian settler in occupied Lenapehoking territory” (specifically, Brooklyn). She identifies as queer and uses “all pronouns.” Her work has been exhibited in MoMA, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and Hauser & Wirth. As I write, her book Postcolonial Astrology: Reading the Planets through Capital, Power, and Labor is steadily climbing Amazon’s astrology top ten. She’s a professional astrologer; you can book her for a personal reading or buy one of her worksheets. She also does not believe in astrology. From her blog:
My decision to not believe in astrology does not take away from my practice, but it gives it infinitesimally more room to grow. . . . Not believing in astrology means that a reading begins with the client’s life, not the textbook interpretations of signs, planets, and aspects. . . . Not believing in astrology as an astrologer means that my practice involves much more listening and asking questions than it does talking. It means that I admit the power of astrology comes from the power of suggestion, just as the power of money, race, and gender come from the power of suggestion.
I’m told that in some quarters of Brooklyn, Alice Sparkly Kat is basically inescapable. You can’t enjoy a bold, hoppy IPA in a Bushwick bar without overhearing somebody sing her praises. Not living in Brooklyn, I first encountered her in an interview in The Nation promoting the book, headlined “The Astrological Is Political,” subtitled “Why Alice Sparkly Kat uses postcolonial theory to read the stars.” That headline alone seemed to have driven some of my friends on the no-nonsense left mildly insane. Politics, they insisted, should be about material conditions, not this mystical nonsense. I can’t agree.
If astrology is a set of collective metaphors, then the question of how we decide on those metaphors will always be a political question. I think that question is worth asking. I think it’s significant that political power keeps identifying itself with the Sun and regards with suspicion the fickle changes of the Moon. Georges Bataille begins The Accursed Share, his treatise on political economy, by noting that “the origin and essence of our wealth are given in the radiation of the sun.” Our Sun explodes with its gifts and takes nothing in return; there are no trades or contracts with the Sun. This is the primary fact of economic life: You can’t think about money or the means of production without first acknowledging the terrible, blinding wound in the sky.
What I’m trying to say is that I really did try to like this book.
Sparkly Kat’s general argument is that astrology and the symbols it uses “have gathered meaning through histories of colonization.” In particular, the zodiac is bad because it was first formalized by the Romans and then carried forward by white people. (Its long history in India and the Islamic world is entirely ignored; similarly, Sparkly Kat doesn’t spend a single line delving into the very different astrological systems of China and Africa.) “Astrology is a story that connects modernity to Rome—a story about whiteness.” Elsewhere, Rome is the “mythic origin of whiteness.” This is strange, since—for all its sins—Roman society never had a color line, and racialist theories tended to be grounded in fantasies of barbarians instead: Franks or Saxons with their ferocity of blood. But Sparkly Kat has an attitude toward Rome that you rarely encounter outside the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster. At one point, she gets upset that some English words have Latin roots.
The book is structured around the classical planets themselves. There’s a chapter devoted to each. The method works like this. Let’s start with the Sun. Classical astrologers associated the Sun with gold; later colonial empires were brutal in their pursuit of the stuff; in South Africa, “apartheid was built on the mining of gold.” Therefore, the Sun as a symbol ultimately refers to white supremacy. Likewise, Saturn, which was the primordial ruler in Roman mythology, stands for a vanished Golden Age and, by some strange convolutions, for white supremacy. The Moon represents “race as a theater that is controlled, performed, and judged by whiteness.” And so on.
At every point, the actual planets are blotted out. For instance, Sparkly Kat writes that “the Moon promotes unclear visions and fits of lunacy. This dreamlike quality arises from the relationship between the West and the foreign.” In other words, the most basic sensuous properties of the Moon are just an artefact of power. When you look at the Moon on a hot-fevered summer night, when it seems to light the way to madness, you’re really drinking in racism.
This is most galling when she takes aim at my favorite planet:
Saturn, for the Romans, was citizenship because Saturn was associated with the land, and landownership emerged from Roman ancestry and citizenship. If Saturn is citizenship, then Saturn is also whiteness. . . . Saturn is also whiteness because whiteness is a utopia.
Is this really the only way to think about our oldest, farthest, faintest companion in the sky? For millennia, Saturn has belonged to the lost and the lonely; it is the star of melancholy, radiating gentle sadness in its prison of rings. A miserable person is saturnine. In his Astronomicon, Marcus Manilius called it the converse cardine mundus, the opposite end of the world’s axis. It rules the outer foundations of the universe, where it becomes a kind of negative or mirror of Earth. Maybe this is why, during the Roman Saturnalia, masters prostrated themselves before their slaves.
Why is it that the star of sadness also gave its name to Rome’s nationally enshrined Opposite Day? Adorno again, in Negative Dialectics: “Woe speaks: Go.” An unhappy existence is what sets you on the path to discover something better. Saturn, the light of sadness, opens up the possibility of a different life, with every unjust power reversed. As Aristotle notes, “all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholics.” Under the rulership of Saturn, they can imagine other worlds. In his fragment of Hyperion, Keats has Saturn thunder:
“But cannot I create?
Cannot I form? Cannot I fashion
Another world, another universe,
To overbear and crumble this to
Barthes was wrong; Saturn is the star that suggests order could be overturned. If we’re going to be constructing a political astrology, does it really make sense to lose all this rich history? Should we really abandon any hope that the planets could be our allies, and just scrawl white supremacy over the skies?
But the problem with Postcolonial Astrology isn’t just that I disagree with it.
My first clue that something might be very badly wrong with this book came only a few pages into the introduction, when Alice Sparkly Kat confidently informed me that the paleo in paleolithic means “stone.” Since this is extremely untrue, I stared at the page in bafflement for a few seconds before trying to move on. A typo, surely. I was trying to like this book.
A few pages later, she was telling me that in classical astrology “Fate referred to an abstract and metaphysical reality, while Fortune referred to the physical body or environment of a person,” and that they were associated with the Sun and the Moon, respectively. This is also not true, but I soldiered on. And then, not much further on in the same chapter, we get this: “After the French Revolution . . . Napoleon Bonaparte opened up the streets, constructed open plazas, and illuminated everything with electric lights.”
At this point I had to put the book down and have a small nervous laughing fit to myself. This thing is distributed by Penguin—was there not an editor around who could distinguish between Napoleon Bonaparte and Napoleon III? Apparently not. At one point, Sparkly Kat argues that the American hippie movement was basically an outgrowth of Nazism, because both advocated a simple life on the land, ignoring the mass graves beneath their pastoral utopias. This is a bit of a reach, but I’m willing to be convinced. She then namedrops my dad’s favorite psychedelic rock band. There’s something very sinister about the Grateful Dead, she says, “whose name suggests that dead people are grateful.”
Postcolonial Astrology has no footnotes or endnotes, so it’s hard to see exactly where the author is getting these notions. But her treatment of primary sources gives us a clue. A good interpreter of texts, like a good astrologer, takes the raw stuff of her material—its trines and retrogrades, its metaphors or rhythm—and uses her knowledge to draw out something interesting and unexpected. A good reader of words or planets can make reality dance. A bad reader, like a bad astrologer, just assumes that the thing she’s looking for is already there. Here’s Sparkly Kat:
People of color are often accounted for en masse, as great weights or burdens. Antoine de Montchrestien wrote in the seventeenth century in colonial France that “a large number of men who live in idleness here, and represent a weight, a burden and do not relate to this kingdom.” By calling people of color “a weight,” Montchrestian [sic]implies that racialized people are not people but things—weighted, measured, and stocked.
Does this passage seem off to you? As it happens, I recognize the quote. It’s pilfered from the first chapter of Achille Mbembe’s Necropolitics. But Mbembe makes very clear that de Montchrestien was not talking about people of color at all. The “burden” in question was made up of the indigent whites of France, “vagabonds and delinquents” who ought to be packed off to the colonies, to be “given employment working in the mines and ploughing, and even hunting whale.”
Similarly, in the chapter on Jupiter, Sparkly Kat mentions Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals,” which she summarizes as “an essay that described societies that have never been influenced by Europe as barbaric.” As anyone who’s taken even a cursory glance at the essay knows, it says no such thing. This is how Montaigne judges the indigenous peoples of the Americas: “I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country.”
Clearly, all this inexplicable wrongness brings out the Virgo in me: the nitpicker, the pedant. Reading the book, I ended up feeling like Jamie Lee Curtis in A Fish Called Wanda: “Aristotle was not Belgian, the central message of Buddhism is not ‘every man for himself,’ and the London Underground is not a political movement.” I have pages of notes along the same lines. No, Alice, Napoleon did not invent the light bulb. Ulysses is not about an “antihero survivor of World War I,” and it does not suggest that Molly Bloom deserves to be raped. Hegel did not steal the “dichotomy” from indigenous magicians. Marduk is not the “ancestor” of Zeus, and Karl Jaspers was not part of the Frankfurt School, and famine is not “something that does not happen to white people,” and, and, and . . .
I dislike pedantry; let’s look at it another way. It shouldn’t be surprising that in a book on astrology just about every empirical claim is false. What is surprising is how few of those falsehoods have anything to do with astrology. If Sparkly Kat wanted to tell me that I’m worried about money because the Moon is in my second house, then I’d be happy to listen. But she does not believe that our lives are ruled by the movements of the planets. Instead, she believes that our lives are ruled by the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
Well, I am also opposed to racism, capitalism, and the subjugation of women. But I think I approach these things in a slightly different way to Alice Sparkly Kat. I am a Marxist. I see them as the products of history. But for Sparkly Kat and her contemporaries (the Robin DiAngelos, the Ibram X. Kendis), history itself is just the footprint of some transcendental monster—whiteness, or the West—blundering through the world. Even the Moon was caused by white supremacy.
Is this why people who believe in astrology don’t really believe in astrology? As a mystical explanation for why things are the way they are, astrology has been out-competed by this strange, caricatured version of anti-racism. Here, race is no longer a legacy of the slave economies of the eighteenth century—it’s baked into the structure of the cosmos; it’s a metaphysical rubric through which to interpret every facet of your life. When you say that people of color have been reduced to the status of mere flesh, and “flesh cannot be white since to be white is to be self-possessed,” it’s like saying that the tenth house governs your career. It is a statement that lives somewhere beyond truth and lies. Alice Sparkly Kat has not really politicized astrology. She’s a symptom of the astrologization of politics.
The result is something far more antagonistic toward reality than mere astrology is. To do astrology demands some deftness, a sense of play, when the world doesn’t coincide with your model. You observe that Jupiter is entering the fourth house: an auspicious year! Instead, a volcano erupts and flattens the city. Ah, well, sometimes Jupiter’s generosity overflows, even violently . . . But what if you want to say that the entire Western intellectual tradition is dedicated to denying the humanity of non-Europeans, and then you run into Michel de Montaigne? What if you’re faced with Montchrestien’s screed, which seems to show that we’re all just a weight and a burden in the eyes of the powerful? No: The schema says that I get to be the noble victim of history, and not you. Snap off bits of the world until it fits.
This ends up doing a disservice to the actual struggles people face. Near the end of the book, Sparkly Kat drops a revealing line. She writes that “circuit boards are owned by IBM, Apple, and Microsoft but were originally designed by Dine women who had weaving experience.” This is untrue. But I think I know what she’s mangling here. In the 1960s and 1970s, Fairchild Semiconductor operated a semiconductor factory on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. Indian labor was cheap, and the work was arduous, long hours soldering transistors. In 1975, activists from the American Indian Movement occupied the factory, demanding fair pay and decent working conditions. Fairchild simply relocated production to Asia. But while they were still trying to defuse labor tensions, the company came up with an incredible piece of corporate propaganda. Soldering circuit boards, they said, was just a continuation of traditional Dine weaving; their plant stood for “the blending of innate Navajo skill and Semiconductor’s precision assembly techniques.” You like this work, they were saying. It’s your heritage; it’s what you’re good for. And despite all her supposed radicalism, Sparkly Kat agrees with this identitarian vision of the world: She ends up standing with the bosses, and against the indigenous workers.
The Romans believed this. Indigenous people believe that. It’s never good to flatten things this way. As a corrective, consider the “three very independent thinkers” the anthropologist Jan Vansina met while doing fieldwork among the Bushong of the Congo:
One old man had come to the conclusion that there was no reality, that all experience is a shifting illusion. The second had developed a numerological type of metaphysics, and the last had evolved a cosmological scheme of great complexity which no one understood but himself.
I find this brief account very beautiful. There is no singular Bushong thought, and there is no singular Western thought either. Just a galaxy of people building what they can from the materials they have.
There’s one piece of genuine insight in Postcolonial Astrology. Sparkly Kat asks herself why it is that astrology seems to be so popular now, and especially among marginalized people. Astrology, she writes,
seems to offer a way to talk among ourselves about ourselves without having to address the trappings of identity. Rather than talking about ourselves within the typical categories of race, gender, and class, people want to build community around identities that feel authentic and close. . . . I’ve seen queers relax and smile when their friends tease them for their Moon sign . . . because it makes them feel so seen. . . . The request for someone’s Sun, Moon, or rising sign become [sic] a tender shorthand for “I’d like to hear you imagine yourself beyond how I was taught to perceive you.”
She’s right. Astrology is a brief escape from the prison of race. Whoever you are, it addresses you as a human being alive in the cosmos, a part of every part of the world. It’s a shame she chose not to keep that thought going. It’s a shame she followed it up by insisting that, actually, this is just a collection of “Greco-Roman ideas and archetypes,” that people of different racial backgrounds are simply not alike, even in the deepest pits of our subjectivity. The language of identity defaces the sky.
We deserve a better kind of astrologer. We deserve astrologers who actually believe in astrology. And if there’s nobody left who does believe, then I’ll start. I will believe that the orbit of Jupiter controls my bank account. I will believe that my personality is determined by the angle of the sunlight when I was born. I will believe that if I’m feeling particularly riled up about all this right now, it’s because Mars is in my fifth house. I will not imagine that I can impose my own meanings on the planets whose power is greater than mine. I will believe it literally and sincerely, because I am a human on the Earth, and under the dance of the stars.
Sam Kriss writes from London.