Horoscopes and the Modern Subject

Horoscopes and the Modern Subject

Newspaper astrology dates back to the 17th century with William Lilly deemed the first in this field. However, R.H. Naylor, a prominent British astrologer in the early 20th century, is widely considered the father of sun sign astrology (a simplified form of astrology) beginning his predictions in Britain's Sunday Express when Princess Margaret was born in 1930. From this moment, the public developed an interest in the horoscopes following the publication of Princess Margaret's horoscope and immediately thereafter, Naylor successfully "predicted" the crash of R101 with him having written, "A British aircraft will be in danger." On 5 October 1930 this plane crashed and Naylor went on to have a successful column for many years, revolutionising horoscopes in mass media. Eventually Naylor turned the weekly format which was uniquely intended for those born that week into a more personalised column with a universal audience where everyone could find their "star sign" (the zodiac signs) amongst one of twelve predictions for that week, thus extending the daily readership of horoscopes. Naylor's column was interrupted by the Second World War's paper dearth in1942 only to return in 1952 very briefly until his death later that year. Since then, newspaper horoscopes have taken off and Naylor's original column spawned thousands of imitations extending this open secret of pseudoscientific hokum cum cultural fiction for millions who dabble in the occult.

What was it that captured the public's attention about zodiac signs at this particular time in history? And why was the newspaper the popular format for disseminating the horoscope predictions to its readers over other formats?

It is important to remember that by the end of the First World War, there was a sense of hopelessness faced by those who had survived. Dadaism, born out of a negative reaction to the massive loss of life, was a movement which refused reason and logic, pushing aside anything minimally reminiscent of the war aside. Marcel Janco, Romanian and Israeli artist and one of the founders of Dadaism, states, "We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished. We would begin again after the tabula rasa. At the Cabaret Voltaire we began by shocking common sense, public opinion, education, institutions, museums, good taste, in short, the whole prevailing order." Not only had many Dadaists believed that the "logic" of bourgeois capitalism had wrongly led people into war, but they made it their mission to dismantle all the bases for such violence. There was a generalised cultural longing for answers outside the rational.

Aside from the Zeitgeist of this era, the telegraph which was the means through which newspapers and stock markets received and transmitted information quickly was later replaced by the telephone which became, unlike the telegraph, a crucial means of interpersonal communications and staple of everyday life. The early 1900s was replete with a variety of technological means for reaching out to others as the modern subject was eager to search for meaning and these forms of communication directly affected the construction of selfhood. Also due to these technological advances, the traditional roles of the subject shifted from that of uniquely focussing upon the family and community towards capitalist society where selfhood was a more than a fleeting notion. Just as the narratives of Joyce and Woolf brought forth the voice of the narrator directing the story from the first-person, the modern individual was born with an all-consuming focus on the self. It was in this era of self-reflection--some might argue self-obsession--that the modern horoscope as journalism was born with Naylor laying down the foundation of this future forum.

Regarded as an endless source of fantasy for the hopeful, horoscopes are easily demystified by anyone with a modicum of intelligence who can see through these "predictions" stylised in a deliberately vague language. For instance, today my horoscope begins with: "Clear energy will be shining down on you today, giving you a razor-sharp spiritual vision..." This could mean pretty much anything from the fact that I caught my bus just in the nick of time to seeing the sun pop out of the clouds to drinking a cup of water. One can interpret these words in myriad ways such that the horoscope is always already confirmed.

Over time, the horoscope moved from newsprint to the radiophonic and, with the advent of the Internet, you can have a daily horoscope waiting for you in your inbox to read during your morning coffee or even sent as a meme. The range of writers range from the banal to the more gifted of wordsmiths such as Rob Brezsny, a staple from The Village Voice. Regardless of quality, people still gravitate towards this forum for a glimmer of hope in their lives. Still, why do many people today rush to read their horoscope?

A psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Dr Margaret Hamilton contends that unlike other areas of the news, 70% of information in newspaper horoscopes is positive. This means that the horoscope is, effectively, the "happy news" section of the media as it contains a significantly higher percentage of positive information. Although it makes sense that people reject negative news in their lives during what is a particularly difficult period (ie. the global economic crisis, high unemployment rates, and increasing worries of economic security), it is interesting that people reach out to fictional forms of happiness to offer some release from everyday pressure. Paradoxically, is it any surprise that the women who are turned down for promotions and face exponential discrimination in the workforce today comprise of the majority of horoscope readers?