- Astrology, Computers, and the Volksgeist
Carroll Righter is not a name you will recognize, unless, perhaps, you’re old enough and you grew up reading the Los Angeles Times. Righter was the Times’s astrologer, and encountering his name recently brought back a couple of memories from the early 1950s. I remember finding it strange that a man (he was pictured alongside his column) was called Carroll, though he didn’t spell it like the girl who lived across the street. But especially I recall the fun we had when my father would read the horoscopes out loud and we’d compare them with the day’s events. Ours was a tough family for an astrologer to please, with rather different things happening to too many Aquarians, and a robust skepticism about anything of the sort later to be called “New Age.”
How could I know that while we laughed and debated, somewhere else out there in the urban sprawl, Righter’s prognostications were being subjected to subtle and portentous analysis by that kingpin of the Frankfurt School, Theodor W. Adorno? Mirabile dictu, Adorno was living in L.A. at the time, and we now have his examination of Righter in The Stars Down to Earth, and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture, edited with an excellent introduction by Stephen Crook (Routledge, $16.95). The result seems, now in the fullness of time, of mixed value and relevance. Adorno has produced an admirably accessible rhetoric of astrology, what he terms “content analysis.” In this, he is finding out for himself about the so-called cold-reading techniques of psychic consultation, practices long known to magicians and astrologers and only really understood by psychologists since Bertram Forer’s work in the 1940s. But beyond that, Adorno uses astrology to support and exemplify his theory of authoritarian irrationalism. As you might expect, this is more questionable. [End Page 424]
To be sure, there are many intriguing observations throughout this mostly readable essay. In a passage perhaps even more true today than when it was written, Adorno says that a “climate of semi-erudition is the fertile breeding ground for astrology.” He refers to people who have gone just beyond the naive acceptance of the authority of science, but who don’t know enough, or who have not sufficiently developed “the power of thinking,” that they can replace such acceptance with anything better: “The semi-erudite vaguely wants to understand and is also driven by the narcissistic wish to prove superior to the plain people but he is not in a position to carry through complicated and detached intellectual operations.” In other words, quantum mechanics is pretty tough, but astrology offers sophisticated understanding of all reality in a few easy steps. Besides, astronomy is about those remote stars and planets out there—rather cold and impersonal. In Adorno’s apt title phrase, astrology brings it all down to earth, because it’s about the single most important thing in the universe: me. In an analogy that isn’t too far-fetched, he says that to the semi-erudite individual “astrology, just as other irrational creeds like racism, provides a short-cut by bringing the complex to a handy formula and offering at the same time the pleasant gratification that he who feels excluded from educational privileges nevertheless belongs to the minority of those who are ‘in the know.’” Someone once remarked that Scientology boosts self-esteem largely by giving semi-educated, degreeless persons impressive certificates to hang on their walls, and Adorno is right that there’s a similar syndrome at work with most New Age esoterica, including astrology. (In literary theory, there are no certificates, of course—you just have to learn the jargon.)
Much to his credit, Adorno independently identifies many of the features of cold reading described by Forer and later writers, such as the persistent tendency of the client to personalize the general message. Of Righter’s “Follow up that intuition of yours,” or “Display that keen mind of yours,” Adorno says, “People who have any affinity at all to occultism are usually prepared to react to the information they are craving in such a way...