BOOK REVIEWS

Postcolonial Astrology: Reading the Planets through Capital, Power, and Labor, by Alice Sparkly Kat, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA, 2012. Softcover – 312 pp. – $17.95 (ISBN 978-1-62317-530-6)

 

Astrology is not neutral. In Postcolonial Astrology, Alice Sparkly Kat asks the question, “Why do we keep taking Greco-Roman ideas and archetypes and applying them to everyone as if they’re really universal and overarching?” This book aims to “make astrology a more responsible cultural practice” by showing how astrological symbolism has been constructed “within political economic history” and unpacking how the Roman roots of contemporary astrology fasten it to an identity-building culture that appears to be outside race, gender, and class — but is not.

In the span of ten chapters, Sparkly Kat reveals the Roman origins of Western astrology’s symbolism and offers an expanded palette of interpretations for the traditional visible planets (the Sun through Saturn).

From the Introduction, the author situates themselves as a first-generation immigrant from Henan province, China. As the author of this review, I acknowledge my own position as a cisgendered white woman who has benefited from the privileges of whiteness and the hegemony of publishing and the systems of inclusion and exclusion that it reinforces. This book challenges those very systems on every level, in nearly every sentence.

If one has had the luxury of not having to think critically about capitalism, race, or the social construction of reality, this book will be a possibly uncomfortable, eye-opening experience. For many, though, this book will come as a balm, for it addresses deep omissions in contemporary astrological discourse and makes room for people who have been left unaddressed.

Each chapter in this work plunges the reader into a crash course in the history of the invention of the West. Certain sections contain trigger warnings, as the material in this book covers topics such as rape culture, cannibalism, genocide, and much else. In bringing these histories and narratives to the surface, the author shows the vulnerable underbelly of the West’s construction of itself. Over the course of the book, a case is built for realizing the debt that “Western” civilization owes in its global domination schemes. By becoming aware of the political and social forces at work, Alice Sparkly Kat creates the conditions for another way to engage with astrology.

The traditional planets are covered in pairs: Luminaries with Saturn (Capital); Venus with Mars (Power); Mercury with Jupiter (Labor). Each planet is first explored in its own “Etymology” chapter. After presenting these etymologies for each cluster, a synthesis chapter appears, tying together the relations between these apparent oppositions. A traditionally trained astrologer will immediately notice this structure being influenced by the Thema Mundi (chart of the world), where the two Lights (the Sun and Moon) rule signs counterpoised to “dark” Saturn’s signs (Leo/Aquarius and Cancer/Capricorn), respectively. The Venus-ruled signs oppose the Mars-ruled ones, and the same goes for Mercury and Jupiter’s signs.

The prose reads like an advanced college seminar, with quotes and references to historians, social scientists, and critical thinkers peppered throughout the text. In composing this symphony of voices, Alice Sparkly Kat adds nuance to the understanding of these astrological symbols across the last few centuries, and forges critical awareness of how astrologers may use them going forward. Rather than offer a prescriptive way to apply these new readings of planetary symbolism, the author suggests that the planets function as lenses through which to view one’s possible complicity in systems of oppression and power. By questioning and revealing contemporary astrology’s origins, Alice Sparkly Kat frees the reader to think and be outside the apparently “neutral” narratives that hold the current social practice of astrology together. This is a challenging and important book.

— reviewed by Jenn Zahrt