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Astrology, Patriarchy and Postmodernism

Copyright 1999 by Bill Sheeran. All Rights Reserved.

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Order and predictability in the Post-Modern Era
In considering the evolution of astrology into the next century, it seems we have a key here to exploring possible conceptual models. Two factors present themselves for re-appraisal - prediction and the importance of context. In fact, these are both inter-related.

In the past, the prevailing mechanistic paradigm promoted the notion that understanding the behaviour of a system was solely dependant on analysing its structure and applying the known laws of physics. The whole is no more than the sum of its parts, and the context which the system operates in is unimportant. This is true for a machine, but it doesn't work very well for organisms, which interact with (and are dependant on) their context or environment. This machine metaphor once so important to science can also be recognised within astrological practice, although it has fluctuated in strength over the last few decades. It is present in the idea that analysing the structure of the horoscope is the sole key to understanding the behaviour and experience of the native. It is implicit in the rules of horary as traditionally applied, and is enjoying a degree of revival among those who are interested in predicting the moment of death, for example.

In the new post-mechanistic (and holistic) paradigm, equal weight is given to the context as to the structure. To use an analogy from science, one will look in vain for the genetic pattern indicating a predisposition to malnutrition in the chromosomes of a starving child in the Sudan. It is the dynamics of the context which play the major determining role. Similarly, from an astrological point of view, the static structure of the horoscope cannot be isolated from the context to which it refers. This may seem obvious to many astrologers, but it has several major implications (not least the fact that when an astrologer interprets a chart, he or she becomes part of the context).

Prediction also comes under scrutiny. The uniform motion of the planets may be predictable to all intents and purposes, but the dynamic processes in life (i.e. the dynamics of the context) are not. This has become quite clear from the models and insights which have emerged from non-linear science [16]. As these become more established in western conceptualisations of reality, astrology could do worse than look for cues from that direction, especially as astrology's predictive record leaves much to be desired. The fundamental point in this regard is that Nature is the matrix through which astrological potential manifests as opposed to that which it acts upon - structure (i.e. information potential implicit in the horoscope) is subordinated to process. In order to understand prediction, one has to embrace the innate unpredictability vested in the dynamics of the context. This shifts the perspective from predicting final "event states" independent of context to predicting behaviour based on an understanding of contextual dynamics. Two complementary but opposing themes inter-penetrate. Predictive power decreases with the degree of specificity one wishes to attain, but increases in proportion to the amount of contextual information at hand. The bottom line would seem to be that predictive certainty is unattainable. There is a lot to be said for formulating an "unpredictability principle" in astrology, for seeing predictive potential as a spectrum that runs from strong to weak, or establishing the concept of a "predictability horizon" beyond which predictive hopelessness sets in.

Postmodernity and 21st Century Astrology
One of the ironies of the Modern era, so enamoured with structure and order, is that its apotheosis as Modernism resulted in increased abstraction, and eventually the disintegration of structure. In science, the smashing of the atom, relativity and quantum theories; in literature, Joycean streams of consciousness and free form poetry; in art, abstract expressionism and the blank white canvas; in music, John Cage's silent piano piece or the "atonal noise" of modern compositions, etc. In some respects this can be seen as a logical consequence of the pursuit of objectivity combined with the ideology of linear progress (Enlightenment ideals), which together require continual separation from both the influence of the past and of context. The fact that no one can actually listen to the music is unimportant, the fact that modernist architecture is ugly and unsuitable for living or working in is unimportant, etc. The selection pressure for reaction against the excesses of soul-less modernism eventually reached breaking point.

Paralleling this retreat from soul-fullness (receptivity to context) has been the gradual emergence of its opposite. This is most obvious in the re-appraisal of the feminine which has gathered momentum throughout the century; the evolution of ecological and environmental consciousness; the development of process thinking and systems theory, which necessitates the addressing of context; and the new mathematics and science of complexity and chaos. The communications and information revolution has broken down barriers which once helped to sustain cultural exclusion of the "Other", the foreign, the unfamiliar. Postmodernity is the name given to the cultural expression of the consequences of these developments. Key features include the abandoning of the quest for universal truths and absolutes, the dissolving of value hierarchies (whereby, for example, western cultural perspectives are seen as superior to others), the embracing of cultural diversity, media phenomena such as the Internet, non-linear storylines in literature and film, a re-appraisal of the past, and on. [17]

Astrology is hardly likely to remain unaffected by these changes, and already shows many signs of the influence of postmodernism. Most clearly, this manifests as the ease with which astrologers engage in the use of new techniques in the absence of any "traditional" rationale, the assumption of symbolic significance for every new rock discovered circling the Sun, the eclectic blending of astrological techniques from different cultures, the vitality of astrology's presence on the Internet, etc. Even the many valuable translations of ancient texts currently underway indicate a movement beyond Modernism, which characteristically belittled the value of the past.

While this is likely to have a vitalising impact on astrology, there are problems to be negotiated. First and foremost is the question of relativism. Critics of postmodernism argue that if the pursuit of absolute objectivity is abandoned, then the situation disintegrates into a subjective fog. In other words, a situation pertains where truths become distilled down to whatever one feels subjectively to be the case. From this point of view, truths have no core, no inertia, no collective dimension. There are counter-arguments which one can put forward against this view, and which also surmount the dilemmas of relativism, but they are beyond the scope of this article. What is clear is that a re-evaluation of the nature of truth is underway, and what is important is that astrologers start thinking about these issues.

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[16] See In the Wake of Chaos: Unpredictable Order in Dynamical Systems, Stephen H.Kellern, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1994  back

[17] See The Icon Critical Dictionary of Postmodern Thought, ed. Stuart Sims  back