The first chapter of the Daoist classic, Zhuangzi explores the way perspective is related to the kind of creature we are, but also shows that, having minds, we can imagine different measures and consider other perspectives. Although students these days often read the text through the lens of relativism, the point isn’t there’s no difference between perspectives nor that however we look at a thing is okay. It’s rather that we should be interested in the existence of different kinds of measures and patterns and be aware of how we are looking at a thing — what lens we are using — when.
I’ve been interested in astrology since an old girl friend did my chart in college. And while I don’t find it particularly useful to try to explain why or how the language works, I’ve found the language finds interesting patterns or shapes I wouldn’t have other noticed, that the language lets me think things I couldn’t otherwise suppose. I have a mind that likes to move between and inside other languages in search of ways to say something I want to say. To be funny, but also make a point, I’d say I think with astrology the way I think with evolution — I tend to think the language has a strong grip on something that matters even if I can’t say exactly why, and I don’t always like the thinking people do in the same terms.
From its early history, Astrology has been about identifying meaningful measures related to the lights in the sky by which the repeated cycles of days, months and years could be thought. Until fairly recently, we knew about the sun and moon, five lights (planets) that move against the grain of the wheeling sky, and the wheeling spangle of stars, and we knew the movements of these lights were regular and cyclical. In terms of duration, the longest was the twenty-eight or so years Saturn took in its wander through the sky. Twenty-eight years was a long time, but still a span that fell within a normal human life. We could almost understand what that long was, and if you lived into your 70s you could start to think about that.
Over the last few centuries, we’ve begun to discover even more distant wanderers, and it may be that the list isn’t done. Most astrologers nowadays track the even longer cycles of Uranus (some 84 years), Neptune (some 165 years), and Pluto’s orbit (some 248 years), if not Pluto’s newly discovered, even more distant sisters. These cycles are either at the limit of a human life or are well longer, and if thinking 30 years is hard, it’s even harder to know how to think 165 years, or 250.
It’s not surprising that astrologers have used the language of collectivity / generational process and or mythic and religious terms to talk about the kinds of shapes marked out by these longer periods. The mythic and religious has always been a language we’ve used to say things we need to speak of but cannot fathom, and the language and imagery of ancestry and creation is a key part of both. Strictly speaking, I cannot say what the affects of a Neptune transit are, but I can work inductively and consider the shape marked out by its transit. I can ask, what happened the last time Neptune was in the sign it is in this decade, and the time before that? And, in addition to these patterns I can look at the periods of time between the years that Uranus and Neptune are together in one place in the sky, from conjunction to conjunction, even if each conjunction occurs in a different part of the sky.
So, if I know, for instance, that Uranus supposedly is associated with high energy catastrophic and disruptive change (visible from the vantage of a century), that Neptune is associated with the change characteristic of the tides — slow and relentless but also absolute, or that Pluto is associated with the total and irreversible change of death — if I try to think in these terms, all I can do is see if there’s a correlation; I cannot say that there will be. In terms of will be, all I can say is “well, the last time we were in this particular room, this is what it was like; let’s see if that helps us understand where we are this time.”
So, over the next few issues here, I am going to lay out some cycles and patterns that might be worth considering. As I do I’ll start edging into the kind of territory you’d expect — I’ll make a good deal of 1965-66 (the last Uranus-Pluto Conjunction) instead of 1967-68, and I’ll talk of the significance of 1891-1892 (the beginning of the most recent 500 year Neptune/Pluto cycle) and the periods of time from 1478-1650, 1650-1821, and 1821-1994 (the last three 170 year Uranus-Neptune Cycles). And, since every cycle has it’s four key moments (conjunction, 1st quarter, opposition, and 3rd quarter) we’ll look at those dates for a few of these.
That said, I am not going to talk in millennialist terms the way folks have viz the Mayan Calendar end-time of 2011 or the Harmonious Convergence of the mid-80s, and I am not going to tell you where the spaceships that’ll save us are going to land. I don’t have a very happy view of things, but I do think that, once you get over your shock, it’s never bad to have more information and might could help.
In the remainder of this column, I am going to discuss Pluto’s ingress into the signs Capricorn (where it’s been since 2008) and Aquarius (where it’ll be from 2024-2056).
Here are the details. Prior to its ingress into Capricorn in 2008, Pluto was in Capricorn from 1515/7-1533 and 1762-1778, and in Aquarius from 1532-1555 and 1778-1797. An astrologer would want to think of these years —1515-1555, 1762-1797, and 2008-2056 — as a particular kind of Plutonic season, a time when you could expect certain kinds of weather. What jumps out at you? [Go back further if you like as well; previous Capricorn-Aquarius Pluto transits include: 287-326; 532-570; 778-813; 1024-1060; and 1269-1305.]
From a Eurocentric perspective, it’s hard not to see the more recent dates mark periods of intense social and ideological transformation — the emergence of, respectively, Protestant and Enlightenment revolution. Both periods also mark the beginning of key phases of what my friend Dale Smith calls “the catastrophe of the New World” — the first saw the Spanish conquests of Mexico and Peru, the second the definition of the Atlantic realized by the American and French revolutions. In US ideology it is common to think of these as periods of time during which the freedoms realized in US culture insistently and irrepressibly broke out. A different way of thinking the second period at least (if not the first) is that this was a period of failed revolution — certainly the American Revolution marked the failure of pan-Atlantic efforts to resist the effects of a nascent market economy and inaugurated a second phase of state-sponsored settler genocide, while the French Revolution predicted the failure of the universalist dreams of rational egalitarian justice that would continue to flare sporadically in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Nor can we say that Protestant secession truly displaced the authority of the church — from a different perspective we might say that like the American Revolution, Protestant enthusiasm has created the conditions under which previous forms of authoritarian rule were successfully decentralized, distributed, internalized and retrenched.
What’s that mean for making sense of where we are now? At the very least it should make us suspicious of systematic transformations that allow us to imagine we can realize the forms of freedom and dominion we long for, and it should make us alert to the possibilities of violent crisis as one form of authoritarian violence gives way to another. And it suggests we should look closely at what look to be victories or discoveries of inestimable promise. The promise of the internet and of communications technology seems like an obvious place to start.
In general, culture depends on lies folks agree to tell each other, whether it’s a promise of heaven, or the sanctity of the king or the assurance that the market lifts all ships. We’ve been imagining and promising ourselves freedom for the last 500 years (at least) and, like Vedic priests of old who promised immortality, it’s clear that many of us would rather think and attempt to apply the most tortured theory than face the sort of obvious fact that we’re lying to ourselves.
I belong to a generation of kids who could sing about the Age of Aquarius just 30 years after WWII — perhaps, as Benjamin says, we all need religion and myth far more than we need bread. Folks have told me that if they looked at the world the way I do they couldn’t get out of bed in the morning — I struggle with the fact that we might need the lies.
And so, curiously, despite the fact that I am using astrology to think this, the other thing I’d keep my eye on are the currents of what Catherine Albanese calls “metaphysical religion” in America. One of the hallmarks of this very persistent form of religious imaginary has been the thought that Americans are uniquely dignified with and a vanguard for the ability to wield spirit with their thoughts. I think this might in fact be one of the lies that these days gets people out of the bed in the morning, and I wonder what folks might do to avoid having to think it might be a lie.
And so I’ll also say that what most disappoints me about astrological discourse is that almost all the people who hang out a shingle would never offer the reading I have here. In general astrologers are going to frame things in ways that satisfy the folks paying them. Because of this, the Reformation and the Revolutionary Era would be presented as breakthrough epochs of in the history of emergent liberty, and on the basis of this, we’d be encouraged to imagine we were at the cusp of a new era of freedoms. I don’t know if that is true, but I do know that both the Reformation and the Revolutionary Era were periods of intensified, apparently sped-up, catastrophic change, and that any freedoms imagined were inadequately realized and/or possibly realized at the expense of real change and at horrific cost. I can’t be satisfied with that, and I don’t think you should be either.