6.10.2018

Why I Love Astrology (and the Joy of Talking Out My Ass)


Like many around me, I'm guessing, I became interested in astrology thanks to the charming brilliance of Rob Brezsny. The way I see it, reading a horoscope is not about confirming who you are or what will happen to you. On the contrary, it invites you to see yourself otherwise, to see yourself swept up in the cosmic flow of it all, to shed who you are and become something else. Read more from him >


Let me say from the get go: I don't know much about astrology. I know about it the way people know about things — from magazine cartoons, dialogue in movies and tv shows, and mostly from Rob Brezsny's fantastically engaging horoscopes in the SF Weekly way back when. Which is to say, I don't really know anything about astrology.

This affords me a luxurious posture — that of talking out my ass. That's not a knock on me or talking out one's ass. On the contrary, it's my favorite way to talk about things. It's so liberating! I'm not encumbered by expectations of being an expert. It doesn't matter if I'm right or wrong! I'm at once detached and engaged. I'm beyond judgement. I'm not writing a column for "The New Yorker." I don't have a stance: I'm not some scientist — whatever that is — who for some deeply personal, questionable reason is trying to debunk anything; nor am I a devotee of really anything other than a 5:00 highball. I'm not a scholar and I don't "follow" my horoscope. Astrology is just something that I've glimpsed floating through the ether which has captured my interest now and again. Which is all to say, I've thought about astrology, probably more than you'd expect, but not enough to qualify me as anything other than some random guy talking about things he knows little about — that is, talking out his ass. And what, I ask you, is more luxurious than that?

Anyway, it seems to me that the first thought people say about astrology is either I believe in it! It's so true! Or: What nutty malarkey! How can looking at stars tell you anything about you or the future? Both responses use a common metric of assessment, namely, can astrology make claims to verifiable truth? It seems to me that this is coming at astrology from an odd perspective. Or, as the great French philosopher Henri Bergson would say, they both ask the wrong question, a false question.

Questions are insidious. While seeming to be open to the world — I'm just asking! Jeez! — questions already assume what counts as an answer. They thereby put the interlocutor in a difficult social position. Here's an example. A doting grandmother asks her four year old grandson: What's your favorite color? This assumes he has a favorite color; that one is generally expected to have such a thing; that in all the joy he takes interacting with a vast array of colors, he's being told that he's supposed to be ranking them — and not just in a vague, general sort of way. No, he has to have a favorite. One. Favorite. Color. That's insane! Don't we all enjoy colors in all sorts of ways? I wear black but I don't paint my walls black. What I like and don't like depends on lots of factors — mood, circumstance, desire. The question, like all utterances, already frames the world, already establishes the rules of sense. But unlike declarations — Astrology is not true! — the question feigns innocence. Be careful of questions.

The question the major discourse of our world asks of astrology is: Is it true? That question assumes that there are things that can access truth and things that can't. But what if I operate outside of any claims to truth? Say, for instance, that I do performance art. There is no question of an accurate or true performance; there is no way to verify what I've done. To ask if it's true would be absurd. We make sense of performance art without recourse to truth or verifiable judgement. We enjoy it or we don't. And we may have reasons for our enjoyment or lack thereof; we may have opinions on why others should or must feel the way we do. But no one would ever say:  I'm right and here's the evidence.

Now I'm not saying astrology is art as distinct from science. I'm with Nietzsche on this one: science is just art — poetry — that's forgotten it's art. What I'm saying is that we make sense of all kinds of things without asking: Does it tell the truth? So perhaps asking it of astrology is to ask the wrong question.

I've never had my horoscope read. But I do like the fact that it's referred to as a reading; it — whatever it is — is not self-evident. It is something that engages you and asks you to read it, to make sense of it, to engage with it and see what it wants, what you want, and what you can make of it together.

Now, it seems to me that the basic premise of astrology is that life — all life — is contingent and interconnected, that nothing is hermetic — or at least that human life and planets and stars aren't. That is, you are not a self-contained, self-determining unit. Rather, you are caught up in an impossibly dense web of factors and forces. What you call 'you' is a nexus, or are nexuses, where and when lots of different elements converge and diverge. So if I can track the bodies and forces that flow through you — the movement of the skies, the planets, moons, and suns — I can help you make sense of the universe in which you find yourself. In fact, this seems rather obvious. People tend to be in better moods when it's sunny and warm than when it's cloudy and foreboding. So why wouldn't the flow of bodies outside our immediate environment also inflect how we go in the world?

As Rob Brezsny writes on the ECSTASY OF THE INVISIBLE, an incredible phrase I wish I'd thought of:  Many life processes unfold outside of your conscious awareness: your body digesting your food and circulating your blood; trees using carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight to synthesize their nourishment; microorganisms in the soil beneath your feet endlessly toiling to create humus. You don't perceive any of these things directly; they're invisible to you. 

Tune in to this vitalizing alchemy. Use your X-ray vision and sub-sonic hearing and psychic smelling. See if you can absorb by osmosis some of the euphoria of the trees as they soak in the sunlight from above and water from below.

In any case, astrology doesn't say: This is you! And this is what's going to happen to you! Astrology is neither determinative nor predictive. It says: This is what the cosmic forces that flow through you are up to. How does it play with and through you? 

A common criticism of horoscopes is that they're written to fit everyone and anything. You'll always just read yourself into it, says the nay-sayer as if he's offered some kind of insight. To which I say: Uh, yeah, isn't that amazing? Isn't that what all great art does — forge a détente with you? Ask you to wind yourself into it and be remade in the process?

To read a horoscope is not to confirm yourself — Wow! That's so me! That'd be ridiculous. Who needs anyone to confirm the known? No, a horoscope is not trying to confirm you. It's trying to affirm you. It's offering a play of forces and asking how you fit into it all, how you find yourself there and then. That very act of reading yourself into it is the art, is the practice, is the ask. For a moment or three as you engage with your horoscope, you abandon your everyday habits as you lean into this knot of cosmic activity in which you are necessarily entwined and rather than confirming yourself, rather than discovering some future truth, you explore yourself, take leave of yourself as you unravel and re-ravel, contorting your body to see how you fit, reading your way into a self forever in a state of flux right along with the moon, the stars, and the sun.


6.02.2018

How Tests Kill Thinking



Academic tests, at least in the humanities, are odd things. Do I really need to prove that I read all of Moby Dick, know what year the Magna Carta was, or what happened at the Potsdam Conference? Sure, knowing these things is important if I want to be an expert and scholar in a field. After all, that's what an expert is: one who knows all that stuff.

But is that why we're teaching students in our schools and colleges — to turn those 14 year olds into Melvillian scholars who go on to give tests on Moby Dick to 14 year olds so they, in turn, become scholars who teach 14 years when Melville was born? That's how we create the closed, strange, politics-laden worlds of the academy. It's not how we teach students to think or enjoy books, history, ideas, art, or life itself. On the contrary, by teaching students that there is one answer that they need to know — and that they need to prove they know  — we drain the vitality from the surging splendor of learning something new.

Tests are police actions. Show me your papers! And part of me understands that impulse. When I was teaching, I'd find myself frustrated and annoyed that students hadn't done the assigned reading. I told them to read it, dammit! And I'm gonna punish them if they didn't! But I realized that that was my ego, not my pedagogy. The student has to decide if she wants to read the book, if she wants to engage with it, if she wants to learn. I sure don't need her to prove to me that she read it. What good does that do anybody?

The logic of tests is the logic of the univocal. There is one answer. What is it? Tell me! Tell me! Even essay tests are odd in that they demand a student think and write quickly. I always gave final papers, not final exams. I wanted my students' best thinking, not their fastest thinking.

School and its grades coerce us into thinking there are answers when all there are are approaches, spins, takes. Answers are the least interesting aspect of any inquiry. The question is everything. The question opens things up; the question frames, distributes and redistributes concepts, facts, perspectives. Answers do the opposite: they close thought down. I know the answer! I'm done!

So rather than asking students to take tests, we should be asking them to create tests. What even counts as a question? In a class of 23 students all studying the Potsdam Conference , I'd love to see 23 radically different tests. (I have to confess: I have no idea what the Potsdam Conference is, although I could guess; I just like saying it.)

Now, when it comes to licensing, tests make sense. Licensing is the way an institution polices itself, regulates itself. So of course licensees need to know how to administer the DTaP vaccine, do ear washes, know what a duodenom is. Of course, knowing these things doesn't have any correlation with how good the licensee is at his job — in this case, a medical professional of some sort. I have to say: I am pushing 50 and have never, not once, had a doctor tell me something I didn't know about my body or health. In my experience, the doctor and I follow the same decision tree on WebMD and come to the same conclusion. The art of diagnosis — for surely it is as much an art as a science — as if science and art are opposed, which they most certainly are not — anyway, the art of diagnosis is not taught and has little to do with passing an exam.

I also get why we have standardized tests. After all, high school students have an enormous variety of experiences from a ridiculously varied set of circumstances. For colleges to assess students, they need — or so they imagine — some kind of standard. That makes sense (even if I disagree).

And I, for one, always enjoyed the SATs. The questions, especially the math, are clever in that they don't rely on deep knowledge of math per se but on the ability to know how to solve a math problem.  I'm terrible at them. I know because I find myself using pen and paper when I know I should be able to look at the answers and know. I'll say this: the creators of those questions are a clever lot, truly.

But I'm still not sure what the SATs assess, exactly. In vocabulary, the text demands knowledge of roots and etymologies and, at times, rote memorization. Reading comp is a good test — although I had to fight my urge to discover alternate interpretations. I just figured out what the test wanted. And, alas, this might be the point of SATs: they test your ability to take tests. Which is useful in a school that gives tests. It wouldn't be so important in my hypothetical test-free school.

Because, at one point in my sophomore year of college, I decided I'd never take another test. I was in a class on French feminism. And the professor assigned an exam. An exam! In a class on feminism! It seemed so phallocentric: Give me the right answer or you fail!  What does Hélène Cixous call the perpetual state of mystical, orgasmic play that undoes the sanctity of the unified subject? Tell me! It was hilariously absurd. So I refused to take that test. "Tests are police actions," I argued, "coercing alignment with institutional knowledge, reinforcing the reigning discourse. You not only judge me but I judge my self-worth by my ability to participate in the prescribed knowledge field." I'd been reading a lot of Foucault. The professor was neither pleased nor persuaded and my grade suffered, as it were. But I didn't.

And I did persuade myself — and so I never took another exam. When I took my mandatory science classes — Physical Anthropology and Physics for Poets — I wouldn't answer any test questions. In Anthro, I flipped the test over — did I really need to memorize which lemurs are diurnal? — and critiqued the assumptions of the text book. In Physics, I flipped the exam over and tied the concepts we were studying to the philosophy I was reading. I got Cs in both classes (if you go to a fancy school and pay enough money, they refuse to fail you; a C was the lowest I could get; in a community college, I'd have failed, for sure.) As for the GMATs, I mostly doodled, filling in those little circles in silly ways.

Being asked to prove that I'd memorized the feeding habits of monkeys was, and remains, absurd. If I were requesting to go on an expedition in which I was expected to study said monkeys, of course an exam would make sense. But for an undergraduate student in a required physical sciences class? Why not teach me what physical anthropology cares about, the kinds of questions it asks and can ask, how the text book succeeds and fails and how it might otherwise be constructed?

To think is to distribute concepts, facts, bodies, forces into different configurations. It's certainly not memorizing how someone else did all that. Tests not only don't teach thinking; they squash it. And, worse, their status in schools make it such that students assess their own worth by how they do on tests. So, in effect, testing shuts down the act of thinking among all our citizens and hence among our culture at large. Which explains a lot about this world.

So I offer one simple suggestion. Rather than using one text book in a course, have each student write an outline for how they'd write a textbook for the course. And, at the end of the semester, rather than giving an exam, have each student go home and write a test.