Uranus-Pluto Cycles: Living into the Troubles
If a year is a period of time marked by the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, the orbits of the three outer planets, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto mark periods of time that are longer than a typical life, periods of time that begin before a person is born and end after a person dies. Some astrologers have thought of these in terms of generational effects (largely because all people born in a particular decade, for instance, will likely share Neptune and Pluto sign placements). I think of these planets as describing periods that are generational for a different reason — these planetary cycles reflect dynamics that occur across several generations and thus mark episodes of intergenerational duration.
The key points with respect to outer planet cycles are 1) that the planetary cycles of the outer planets are longer than most of the kind of things human beings try to explain (while we can say what happens in a car crash, our ability to explain things that take longer than 3-5 years is actually quite limited), and 2) things happen that we have difficulty explaining and we frequently try to understand what’s happened with what I would call religious language or by thinking of something else that happened that this new thing could be like.
Most contemporary astrological texts attempt to describe the influences and effects of outer planet cycles by using the language of 19th and 20th century spiritualism, speaking of, for instance, “transpersonal dimensions” of self and/or discussing the planets in terms of spiritual insight and transformation. I prefer not to use that language because, as a religious studies scholar, that language seems culture specific and because I don’t share all of the assumptions of that worldview. In particular, I doubt the meaning of our life is to “transcend,” and, in the context of American fantasies of community and unity, I am suspicious about the prediction of any “collective consciousness.” This doesn’t mean I am trying to be “scientific;” it just means I’d rather use language differently. When I do use the spiritualist and transpersonal descriptors for outer planet influence it’s to refer to things said by and for people who think in such terms.
Some of the traditional images used to describe Uranus’ influence include lightning, revolution, high-voltage generation, accidents, the Tarot card “the Tower” (which depicts a tower that has been struck by lightning and is collapsing). Uranus governs flashes of insight, catastrophe, and earthquake; people who have strong Uranus influences are extra-independent, sudden, quirky — they like explosive show, are intuitive, are future-oriented. In our culture, some of these qualities are prized — independence, an ability to radically re-invent oneself, the sense that the answer to any problem is to pick up traces and move on. What the Chinese call shen (we translate as spirit) which means something like a thing that stands up, an in-breaking that occurs that awakens.
If we were to think Uranus in the context of yoga or tantric practice, we would be talking about what practitioners call kundalini, a lightning quick flash that shoots up through the body. Perhaps in this sense, Uranus marks our experience of levels of bio-electrical energy our body typically mutes or transposes, as if our body was a rheostat that made it possible for us to know world in a functional way. I like this last, if only because it allows us to think of patterns or dynamics of phenomena that exceed a scale that is meaningful to the kind of creature we are. It’s not that those dynamics or patterns aren’t there, it’s that, like the peahen who can only fly as high as a tree, we don’t have a good way to understand a bird that is the size of an ocean.
Some astrologers have thoughtfully suggested that the stressful Uranus aspects have similarity to post-traumatic stress disorders. Folks who think in terms of reincarnation will sometimes say folks’ difficult Uranus aspects reflect war-trauma from previous lives. Both of these thoughts suggest that trauma has an impact that “cracks” the achieved bodily-sense of world and, at such times, we are open to too much, to more than the body-self is meant to make sense of — the “ground” has quite literally been shaken, the tower smashed and fallen.
Because we have difficulty bearing our creaturely finitude, revolution and sudden freedom also excite us, and despite its association with violent catastrophe and accident, many astrologers celebrate Uranus and the revolution and change it’s imagined to augur. When we imagine these, we rarely take note of the violence each entails, the fact that these mark the sudden, often catastrophic collapse of the ability to manage impossible stressors in other ways.
Pluto is typically thought in relation to processes of death, the process of actual, difficult and slow, relentless removal, of facing the absent or gone. It can also be thought of in relation to what fear or hatred of death stirs in us — an intensified, ruthless desire to control, even more passionate attachment, the fantasy of absolute control and immortality. There is both a glamor to Pluto (in the intensification of will) and a terrible sense of self-removal and utter self-control. As with death, Pluto’s course can be ultimately benign, but it requires something of us, and often the more negative expressions of Pluto are associated with efforts to desperately control — secret police and secrecy more generally, violent self-abnegation and self-mutilation, desperate bargaining.
Although death challenges us in its implacable frustration of our will, it also appears to be our best image for the scene or context of processes of inexplicable healing and transformation, for rescue out of darkness and resurrection, and thus for radical and redemptive change. The descent of New Jerusalem. Dreams of dying and dismemberment that lead to restoration and confer power. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, we are told that all existence is quite literally bardo — a passing between that happens not only at death or from waking to sleep, but with every instance of attention and awareness, as every thought blooms. Bardo, a word that may be etymologically related to the Persian barzack (barrier, partition), a word Ibn al-Arabi used to designate the activity or actor that differentiates between things.
Death as passage or partition—as striation, perhaps, in Deleuze’s sense (and thus his emphasis on fluidity aS fantasy)—as the thin herm of sand along which a shell slowly forms that H.D. sings of in Trilogy—as the poles that walk, stilt like across Pollack’s paining Blue Poles. As the hard stuff of coming into and having form, of being creaturely amidst the pleurisy of star and air and matter.
On Oct. 9th, 1965, Uranus and Pluto were conjunct in the sky at 18° Virgo. Because of retrograde motion, outer planet transits often occur in sets of three — this first conjunction at 18° Virgo was followed by two more on April 4th, 1966 and June 30th, 1966. The close timing between the last two suggests that Uranus went stationary direct very soon after the second conjunction.
Conjunctions of Uranus and Pluto occur every 101-140 years (this is because Pluto’s orbit is eccentric, and Pluto’s transit of different parts of the Zodiac occur at varied speeds). The previous two conjunctions of Uranus and Pluto occurred in 1710 (in Leo) and 1850-51 (in Aries). The last opposition between Uranus and Pluto occurred in 1901-2 close to the most recent Neptune – Pluto conjunction (in Gemini) in 1891-1892. The opposition phase of the 1821 Uranus-Neptune cycle occurred five years after the 1901-2 Uranus-Pluto opposition and lasted from 1906-1910. I will write more about the unique features of this particular period (1888-1912) in my next post. For now it’s worth noting that the waning square of the 1850-1 Uranus-Pluto square took place during the worst years of the Great Depression from 1932-34.
When planets form aspects, a rule of thumb is that the slower moving planet controls or affects the faster moving planet in its career away from the conjunction. The planetary cycle that begins at the conjunction develops as the faster moving planet differentiates and pulls away. The first quarter marks a crisis in that differentiation (and the possibility of such) in that it marks a moment where the faster moving planet is “turned” toward the subsequent opposition. The differentiation of the planetary effects and influences now moves toward some form of integration (which occurs at the opposition) and which integration subsequently collapses or disperses (at the third quarter). This means that what emerges over the course of a given planetary cycle is not, strictly speaking, visible at the “new moon” phase, but only visible at the opposition, where the faster moving planet now shines with the effects lent to it by the slower moving planet. That is, what comes to light, comes to light in terms of the faster moving planet, which effects reflect the integration of slower moving planet influence.
Uranus and Pluto mark difficult but also very different kinds of change (sudden, eruptive versus implacable and absolute). There’s a strong contrast between the intense desire for freedom marked by Uranus and the intense subjection marked by Pluto — the planets appear to work furiously in opposite directions and to signal very different kinds of time (sudden, immediate versus long-term and absolute). That said, the Uranus-Pluto cycle should describe a process by which Uranus internalizes and is brought to task in relation to the facts / conditions Pluto discloses. Hence the cycle would be marked by both an escalation of destructive will or as apocalyptic transformation (sudden, absolute revelation), with the culmination of what is realized under the influence of the cycle occurring at the opposition.
In my discussion of the basic delineations for Uranus and Pluto, I describe both positive and negative effects — catastrophe but also the tremendous energy and release associated with a thunder storm, the persistence of life coupled with the fact of death. One way to think this difference is as yet another indication that making sense of or bearing the fact disclosed (the fact realized across the planetary cycle’s duration) is too large for us to easily manage in personal, creaturely terms. We do rise to meet Uranian catastrophe and can imagine at times that we could have the power of an earthquake or storm, but we have no good way of managing the forces — even the yogic disciplines are crude essays that often go awry. And we have almost no way to face death and the strongest desire not to do so. In both cases, these are forces we can barely contain, that most often cannot be managed well.
In order to understand where we are in the current Uranus-Pluto Cycle (begun in 1965-66), let’s look at a set of such cycles.
The last four complete cycles of Pluto and Uranus are as follows:
1455-1456 conjunction in Leo // 1538-1540 opposition (Leo – Aqu)
1597-1598 conjunction in Aries // 1648-1649 opposition (Sag-Gem)
1710 conjunction in Leo // 1792-94 opposition (Leo-Aqu)
1850-1851 conjunction in Aries // 1901-1902 opposition (Sag-Gem)
As noted above, the current cycle began in 1965-66 in Virgo; the first square occurred from 2011-2016, and the opposition will occur in 2046-48 (Vir-Pic).
There is not sufficient space here to look at each of the prior cycles closely (to consider other aspects to the planets at critical phases). However, events linked to the opposition (the moment at which something related to the conjunction is irretrievably realized) include the following:
1538-1540 — Spanish conquest of Peru and Columbia; excommunication of King Henry VII and beginning of English Protestant Reformation; Ottoman expansion into Eastern Europe under Sulieman the Magnificent is halted at Vienna but extends across Mediterranean; apex of Ming Dynasty in China
1648-1649 — End of Thirty Years War in Europe; English Revolution; collapse of Ming Dynasty and founding of Qing; Zenith of Mughal Empire
1792-1794 — French Revolution; Third Anglo-Mysore War between East India Company and Kingdom of Mysore; apex of Qing Dynasty
1901-1902 — death of Queen Victoria and election of Theodore Roosevelt to be president; Wright Brother’s flight; the beginning of the 3rd Saudi State; end of the Boxer Rebellion (collapse of Qing); Boer War; 1st exhibit of Van Gogh’s work in Paris
It is certainly the case that atrocity and transformation can be found in any given year, and significant cataclysms (the US Civil War, WWI and WWII, the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, and so on) are not tied to critical phases of the Uranus-Pluto cycle. That said, the periods noted above do coincide with both the excess and triumph of imperial projects and significant violent revolutionary rupture marked by new iterations of authoritarianism. The rise and fall of Chinese Empires in particular is tied to succeeding cycles. Further, the oppositions that fell when Pluto was in Aquarius and Uranus in Leo (1538-40 and 1792-94) both reflect the emergence of a new autocratic revolutionary genius (Leo) in whom was integrated the power and will of futurist idealism (Aquarius).
The Uranus-Pluto cycle that began in 1965-66 is the first of a new set of cycles that will begin in signs other than Leo and Aries (Virgo, Taurus, eventually Libra). The opposition for the phase (2046-48) will occur in Early Pisces/Virgo with Pluto in Pisces and Uranus again in Virgo. The opposition will occur after the most recent transit of Pluto through Capricorn and Aquarius (see my last column). Significantly, the conjunction in 1965-66 was further complicated by Saturn’s transit of Pisces in 1966. For most of the second half of the 1965-66 conjunction the aspect pattern was thus intensified by an opposition to Saturn. At the opposition phase Saturn will be in Sagittarius forming a T-square to the opposition.
The “story” of the Leo-Aquarius axis is a tension between the figure of the autocratic (or at least exceptional) leader (Leo) and the masses / society (and the sense of self as a member of such) brought about by or which becomes possible in relation to that leadership (Aquarius) — and the existence of this as a fixed feature of human social process. The story opened out in the Virgo-Pisces axis is a different one, related to a tension between the continuous analysis and practice necessary to manage (service) otherwise arbitrary social practices (a process that leads to or clears a place for us to at least imagine we can realize the beautiful life — i.e. Virgo-Libra) and sensitivity to and immersion in the actual pain produced by and in such social practices (a process that leads to or clears a place for us to attempt to act to justify such harm — i.e., Pisces-Aries).
A transit of Uranus through Virgo might portend a period of time marked by both lightning-like disruption-innovation with respect to the management and service of extant social practices and forms and considerable idealism with respect to the implications of proper service in any “new” social arrangement. This was a period of time during which breakthroughs in medicine (birth control, vaccination) and the refinement of electro-mechanical systems (space race, early computing) significantly altered our sense of the world (community) within which we lived and to which we owed service. The World’s Fair of 1964, Walt Disney “It’s a Small World After All,” the explosion of consumer culture and marketing, the “Best and Brightest” whose analysis and management of material systems would realize the promise of the Enlightenment.
A transit of Pluto through Virgo might portend having to face the death of prior forms of service by which people found a place within larger social networks, but also the difficulty and violence with which people might resist that death, might hold on to what had otherwise become a ghost — the violence that might be pursued to stave off that death and perhaps a new apocalyptic anticipation given the tension produced by the difficulty of any reckoning. Pluto’s transit of Virgo from 1958-1970 marked a period of time during which the environmental effects of resource extraction began to be recognized; it also marked a period of time during which a community of parents who had gone to war in WWII according to one notion of service had to begin to face the possibility of the death of the social orders they had lived by. The transit of Pluto through Virgo marked the successful and violent culmination of Civil Rights struggles in America, the long violence of the war in Vietnam, the difficult and woefully incomplete process of decolonialization in Africa.
The conjunction of Uranus and Pluto in 1965-66 suggests a period of time during which lightning-like disruption-innovation with respect to the service of social practices was “lit up” by the tensions related to the difficult but actual death-exhaustion of specific notions of the service by which a person found a social place — notions of service whose coherence had been exhausted. When we think of the death of the 19th and early 20th century social forms (socialist, nation state) — however unevenly realized in the 1960s and 70s — we forget that this was also the death of an individual’s sense of a world into which they fit, the death of an idea of a possible social order.
Events specific to this period include the largely unknown massacres of Indonesian communists (sponsored by British and American governments) in the Suharto military coup, Mao’s launch of the Cultural Revolution (May-Aug 1966); the voting rights march in Selma, Alabama; Watts Riots; 1st Marches against the Viet Nam War; Ronald Reagan’s election as governor of California.
Even as there was a sense of disruption-innovation “lit-up” by the need and refusal to face the effects of the violence of WWII and the forms of colonialism that underpinned the war, there was also a need, practically, to face the limits imposed on us by the needs of all (Saturn in Pisces opposing Uranus-Pluto in Virgo). Hence, this was also a period of time marked not only by the expression of new forms of authoritarian control exercised in the name of freedom, it was also a period of time in which the actual limits we might face in realizing anything like Disney’s “Small World” became desperately apparent. This might have been expressed in the form of a new pessimism about the degree to which any structure or self-discipline might make it possible to meet such goals.
With respect to this, it’s worth noting that the forms of progressive critical social theory that became popular in the wake of the failures of utopian action in 1968 (Foucault, Deleuze, the Frankfort School) all to some degree articulated positions that critiqued (perhaps demonized) structural analysis and solutions, preferring instead, for instance, to imagine totalized (oceanic, Piscean) forces, to celebrate fluidity over striation (and thereby keep the possibility of freedom alive) or to think social process in terms of a negative dialectics. It is worth asking whether and how this thought actually did the work of facing up to the death of real people and the forms of their social practice that haunts this period. Far from staging any real moral critique of the new forms of authoritarian violence let loose in the 60s, the call that we turn away from structural analysis might be yet another of this era’s refusals that, like the government reactions, marked an inability to face the deaths that haunted this period of time.
And so a period of terrible convulsion related to the death of empire and colonialism, and of violent government and political reaction, of rapid transition to new, supposedly more brilliant social forms and possibilities (in medicine, in the dream of the appliance, with respect to sexual norms), a time when the “New Jerusalem” of the earth as a single world first dawned as an actual image transmitted from space, even as folks paying attention began to see the environmental catastrophe we had unleashed on ourselves, a time during which different communities of people attempted in different ways to respond to the death of prior social form by imagining new utopian possibilities and by thinking themselves to be the people in whom that new future would be realized, and the violent repression of this and/or the degree to which the actual limits of our social and personal capacities revealed itself, violently, in the failure of liberation and anarchical projects.
In 1965-66, Bob Dylan would tour England (captured in the great documentary Don’t Look Back), the Velvet Underground would play in Columbus and Cleveland Ohio (who went to those shows? what did they hea?). On December 4th, 1965, a band called the Warlocks played at the second of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests; this was followed by the three-day “Trips Festival” in San Francisco in January 1966.
If 1965-66 was the year in which the seed of the next Uranus-Pluto phase came into being, astrological thought would look to the years of the first square (2011-2015) as a moment of crisis in the processes by which that seed is actually realized in material processes and social practices. It’s difficult news — arguably the economic collapse of 2008 ushered in a period of crisis for the “dreams of power” (whether in the United States or Russia, in China, in Europe, or in utopian terms) inaugurated in the convulsions of the 1960s. We continue to experience a radical shift with respect to social forms inaugurated by technological innovation in medicine and media that emerged in the 1960s but we are increasingly unable to manage the delivery of care. 2011-2015 saw the emergence of the first cracks in the European Union, the failure of the Arab Spring and the start of what may be the first mass migrations and attendant social violence linked to climate change. Looking forward 30 years to the opposition, it is difficult to imagine these “dreams of power” won’t be realized in the form of false springs and “social catastrophes” along the lines of King Henry VIII’s divorce from Rome (and the subsequent rise of the British Colonial Empire), the English and French Revolutions, and the false dawn of the first decade of the 20th century.
If you were born in 1965, and you live, you’ll be 81 in 2046 as the opposition phase commences. The children born from 1987-1997 will be in their fifties and sixties and their children will be in their thirties. And the people born in the 40s who were in their twenties during the 60s are already dying and will almost all be dead. The style pages of the media like to pit generations against each other, to assign blame, but the catastrophe of WWII which to date we have barely been able to face was the world into which the first of these generations was born. It’s not that one generation or another is at fault, but that all of us experience the effects of prior catastrophe and the onset of new catastrophe at different developmental moments, and each of us can only do so much.
The first reaction we might have to thinking this might be to think it frees us to double down for ourselves; and it’s true enough that each of us has to come to terms with the fact that we face “troubles” (as the Irish say) that are beyond our ability to make right. But at the very least, the place to start is to face death, not as something to overcome, and not as the indication of a power to which we must be passive, but in the deepest sense, as life’s sister, not because life is death, but because life is life. If there was anything I could make anyone feel it would be that. How important it is to mark the dead, how it takes nothing from us to do this.
And, as we continue to dream together about what may be, it’s worth noting that J.K. Rowling was born on July 31st 1965 just before the series of conjunctions began. In addition, many of the leading women playing political and legal roles on TV in shows popular in the last five years were born during the opposition between Oct 1965 and June 66: Julianna Margulies (the Good Wife), Robin Wright and Diane Lane, Tia Leoni (Madame Secretary), as well as the producer J.J. Abrams (Lost) and Josh Brolin who played Thanos in the Marvel Avengers Films. We might look to this to think of the forms in which that seed from 1965-66, that long howl of amplified shout, is being realized — at least at the level of myth and story.
Other Celebrities Born during the Conjunction:
Ben Stiller (Nov 65)
Bjork (Nov 65)
Patrick Dempsey (Jan 66)
Douglas Henshall (actor)
Cindy Crawford (Feb 66)
Billy Zane (Feb 66)
Jeffery Dean Morgan (Apr 66)
Cynthia Nixon (Apr 66)
Helena Bonham Carter (May 66)
Janet Jackson (May 66
Mike Tyson (June 66)
John Cusack (Jun 66)
Other Celebrities born in the 1965 Prior to the Conjunction:
Sarah Jessica Parker (March 65)
Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man; Apr 65)
Elizabeth Hurley (June 65)
Shania Twain (Aug 65)
Viola Davis (Aug 65)
Charlie Sheen (Sept 65)
Steve Kerr (coach of the Golden State Warriors; Sept 65)
Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights; Sept 65)
Other Celebrities born in 1966 After the Conjunction
Matthew Fox (star of Lost; July 66)
Halle Berry (Aug 66)
Salma Hayek (Sept 66)
Adam Sandler (Sept 66)
Luke Perry (Oct 66)
David Cameron (ex-Prime Minister of Great Britain; Oct 66)
Sherman Alexie (Native American author; Oct 66)
David Schwimmer (Ross on Friends; Nov 66)
Michael K. Williams (Omar on The Wire; Nov 66)
Keifer Sutherland (aka Jack Bauer; Dec 66)
C. Thomas Howell (Deadwood, Justified; Dec 66)
It’s not an insignificant list of figures in terms of whom we think our current myths: Harry Potter, The Avengers, Friday Night Lights, Lost, Deadwood, The Wire, Sex and the City, 24.
These the stories in terms of which we’ve been imagining the coming troubles.