Theodor Adorno on Astrology

Philosophy and Literature 19 (1995): 424-30.

Denis Dutton

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 had just a few years before been 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.

Theodor W. Adorno

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 as to make it fit their own system at almost any cost.” That is, the reader does all the work, and it’s flattering work: “Often [Righter’s] references to his readers’ outstanding qualities and chances seem so silly that it is hard to imagine that anyone will swallow them, but the columnist is well aware of the fact that vanity is nourished by so powerful instinctual sources that he who plays up to it gets away with almost anything.” And it’s not just flattery in the matter of self-ascription: the astrologer’s “I see an open suitcase” is inevitably personalized — come to think of it, the client is planning a trip, or just took one, or his brother did, or his mother is planning one, etc. Unfortunately, Adorno seems blind to the extent to which such dynamics of successful self-ascription parallel the self-ascriptions Freudian analysts impute to their patients.

This is a noticeable omission, but Adorno is not interested in the appeal of astrology per se; he wants to connect belief in the occult to his general social theory. For example, Righter tells people they will overcome their current problems. Despite rough spots along life’s way, success will come in the end. Adorno sees this as part of an emphasis on conformity, a kind of “official optimism” characteristic of totalitarian politics. He proclaims (in italics), “The overall rule of the column is to enforce the requirements society makes on each individual so that it might ‘function’.” Astrology is thus for Adorno a part of the late-capitalist culture industry, delivering politically complacent citizens to the market economy. Does this really follow from Righter’s optimistic formulae? I’d say rather that psychologist Ray Hyman’s Golden Rule for cold reading — “tell the client what he wants to hear” — is valid in any possible cultural or economic system, not just capitalism. There may be some latitude for historical determinism in what the client wants to hear, but no cold reader bucks consumer demand, whatever it is — and naturally (as opposed to historically), it’s usually a demand for comfort and hope.

It is not only capitalism that is embodied in astrology as part of the culture industry, but fascism as well: the “astrological ideology resembles, in all its major characteristics, the mentality of the ‘high scorers’ of the Authoritarian Personality’.” In fact, Adorno says, it was this realization that induced him to begin the study of Righter in the first place. The sucker for astrology is a dependent mind. “Moreover, by strengthening the sense of fatality, dependence, and obedience, [astrology] paralyses the will to change objective conditions in any respect and relegates all worries to a private plane promising a cure-all by the very same compliance which prevents a change of conditions. It can easily be seen how well this suits the overall purpose of the prevailing ideology of today’s cultural industry; to reproduce the status quo within the mind of the people.” So for Adorno it all ties together, rather too neatly, in my opinion: late capitalism, irrationalism, and weak, dependent, fascism-prone personalities in need of the authority of astrology — and all these factors lying at the very heart of so-called enlightened modernity.

Adorno is at pains to deny that the appeal of astrology is basically mystical. It’s not that it supplies a new sort of religion but that it makes the alienated individual more at home in the world of consumerism and the “drabness of a commodity society.” In this respect more than in any other, “astrology resembles . . . other mass media such as movies: its messages appear to be something metaphysically meaningful, something where the spontaneity of life is being restored while actually reflecting the very same reified conditions which seem to be dispensed with through an appeal to the ‘absolute’.” In the division of labor of the culture industry, astrology has, to use a cliché Adorno avoids, its special job in the general provision of opium for the masses.

The book includes “Theses Against Occultism,” a statement of a few pages, in which Adorno summarizes in nine sections his objections to dabblers and promoters of the paranormal. The occult, which for him includes psychical research, ufology, and clairvoyance, is even worse than religion because it represents an intellectual regression. He makes the curious observation that by establishing the fetish-character of commodities, late capitalism has robbed them of their mystery; so the occultist reinvents mystery and the supernatural as a separate, independent realm. “Occultism is the metaphysic of dunces,” he says, and the “mediocrity of mediums is no more accidental than the apocryphal triviality of the revelations.” Occultists are drawn toward “childishly monstrous scientific fantasies.” Okay; but he is determined once again to link it all to fascism: The “power of occultism” is connected to fascism by “thought patterns of the ilk of anti-semitism.” Why even “bent little fortune tellers, terrorizing their clients with crystal balls, are toy models of the great ones who hold the fate of mankind in their hands. . . . The hypnotic power exerted by things occult resembles totalitarian terror. . . . The horoscope corresponds to the official directives to the nations, and number-mysticism is preparation for administrative statistics and cartel prices.” Once again, a partial insight is exaggerated beyond reason and experience with the comparison of your local tarot reader to Stalin or the Bureau of Statistics’s work to numerology.

Karl Popper’s famous critique of pseudoscience lumps Freud, astrology, and Marxism together. The difficulty with these theories, Popper said, is not that they don’t explain enough, but rather that they explain too much. There is no imaginable human event which they cannot seize upon and place neatly in their theoretical scheme; they are unfalsifiable by experience. Despite my deep sympathy with Adorno’s contempt for the occult, there is something similar going on here. If Adorno doesn’t like something, no matter how inane or innocuous, it isn’t long before he begins to detect in it the seeds of fascism. The Stars Down to Earth seems now and again almost as obsessive as the astrology it analyzes.



For a further account of cold reading in astrology and other psychic arts, see Denis Dutton, “The Cold Reading Technique,” Experientia 44 (1988): 326-32.


Copyright © 1995 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.