Rose Rowson is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. She has a B.A. (hons) from the Slade School of Fine Art and a research M.A. from the Universiteit van Amsterdam, where she wrote her thesis on magical writing practices in digital culture. Her research interests include continental philosophy, critique, media archaeology, new media theory, science technology studies, and pop culture. Rowson has presented her research throughout Europe, the United States, and in Japan. She is currently developing a dissertation project about metaphors of birth and babies in the history of computation. She is a union workplace steward for the Graduate Labor Organization (GLO).
Viewed from Earth, the planet Mercury will appear to move backwards through the sky three times in 2021: between January 30th and February 21st, May 29th and June 22nd, and from September 30th to October 23rd. Even though neither planet has changed direction, this apparent retrograde motion occurs when Earth’s orbit overtakes that of Mercury. In astrology, this phenomenon is associated with difficulty communicating and breakdowns in electronics, and it is ill-advised to sign contracts or have elective surgery while Mercury is retrograde. This paper takes the concept retrograde as an access point to the study of modern astrology, and is offered as a critique of rationalist history in the retrospective mode. To “think retrograde” challenges scientific observation as the knowledge standard to which modern astrology is held: although astrology is unprovable within the experimental paradigm, this should not result in its total relegation from interpretation.
Given the 2019 valuation of the astrology industry at $2.2bn, the need for specialized language to interrogate astrological cultural forms is clearer than ever. While astrology has been a cultural mainstay in its modern, Western form since the introduction of horoscopic newspaper astrology in the 1930s, critical approaches to astrology have remained time and again at an impasse. Complaints that astrology is unscientific, anachronistic, and irrational proliferated during the 20th century: examples include Theodor Adorno’s 1957 analysis of Carroll Righter’s horoscope column in the Los Angeles Times, and the 1975 open letter “Objections to Astrology: A Statement by 186 Leading Scientists” published in The Humanist. These approaches, however, make little effort to appraise astrology on its own terms, and did little to erase the tenacious notion that planetary positions influence terrestrial affairs. Tackling such objections, I argue that early 21st-century astrology is not anachronistic but has rather been constructed within modernity: apps such as Co–Star address astrological subjects caught in a continuum between an essentialized self who emerges at the moment of birth, and accumulated data points based on planetary movement and relation to other subjects. By appearing to move backwards whilst still moving forward, this paper sheds ideological assumptions and addresses astrology head on.