What's So Funny about Astrology?

by Valerie Vaughan

Consensus reality is a body of ideas and assumptions that most people accept and believe about society and the universe. Consensus reality indicates what people at any given time are interested in, concerned about, and preoccupied with, and it determines how and what they perceive either socially or intellectually. Most individuals do not erect completely original world-views for themselves. The masses of humanity are dependent upon being spoon-fed a ready-made world-view via cultural traditions, public education, corporate advertising, and the influence of organized belief systems (such as religion and science). There are relatively few people who could handle the absence of consensus reality; the deconstruction of the consensus world view would leave many unprepared to deal with life.

Here we have the real reason that astrology is "rejected knowledge;" it is currently not included in our modern-day consensus reality because it confronts consensus reality at the roots. To acknowledge that there is some validity to astrology would undermine the whole basis of currently acceptable consensus reality. Curiously, there is one area of life experience where such confrontation is (and has historically been) socially acceptable, and that is comedy. It might be enlightening, therefore, to examine the numerous and profound similarities between astrology and comedy.

Astrology, like humor, can reveal the truth about people by pushing at the boundaries of consensus reality. Humor or astrology can provide a back entrance into a person's or society's innermost chambers, revealing truths which can never be disclosed by continually knocking on their front door. Perhaps the most provocative feature that astrology shares with humor is its potential as a catalyst for breakthrough into higher consciousness. Confronting consensus reality is akin to the process we used to describe in the 60s as "blowing your mind."

Astrology, like comedy, has experienced periodic rejection during times in history when the currently touted consensus reality was particularly rigid. Examples that come to mind are the Medieval Inquisition and the Puritans. The Judeo-Christian God is unique among the pantheon of world religions in that he has no sense of humor and also frowns upon nature (i.e., the stars) as a source of wisdom.

In modern times, astrology, like comedy, has been generally regarded as an unsuitable topic for study by "serious" scholars. Sociologists have feared they would be contaminated by studying such a lowly cultural topic as humor, and the aversion that academics have for astrology is commonplace (performing astrological research is the "kiss of death" for tenure). Despite this reluctance, humor and astrology have always enjoyed quite a large following among the general public, especially during times of political turmoil, which is itself one of the indicators that a major shift is occurring in consensus reality. The popularity of astrology and comedy, along with the persistence with which a few bold researchers have continued to study these disreputable topics, suggests that they must contain some enduring truths about human existence.

However, even those convinced that humor is worth understanding still face the question of whether it is really "knowable" (definable or falsifiable) -- and this is also true of astrology. Many humor theorists feel that humor, like a delicate insect under a magnifying glass, would be incinerated when touched by the investigative light of observation. It is the same with astrology: it can be dissected, like a frog, but something essential dies in the process.

When rationalists give laughter or astrology their most serious consideration, they test an elusive, subjective thing with dry and colorless terms of science. Scientific and philosophical analyzers feel they must make something serious out of these subjects, and show us that humor or astrology can, in proper hands, be made as dull and respectable as science. As one humor theorist wrote, "I must warn you, reader, that it is not the purpose of this book to make you laugh. As you know, nothing kills the laugh quicker than to explain a joke. I intend to explain all jokes, and the proper and logical outcome will be, not only that you will not laugh now, but that you will never laugh again. So prepare for the descending gloom."

The scientific analysis of humor (or of astrology) is a self-negating oxymoron because the comical (or subjective, mystical) content clashes with the scientific method. The purpose of Occam's razor is to minimize or simplify the subject of observation, whereas humor thrives on exaggeration, and astrology is too vast and complex to be reduced to cookbook equations. Science is not only incapable of comprehending humor or astrology, it also fails to be as entertaining or enlightening, with perhaps one exception: the subject being scrutinized can itself turn around and aim its own analytical skills (humorous or astrological) upon those who would presume to study it. And the results of that can be really funny.

Science can be contrasted with humor (or astrology) as two alternative modes of understanding the world. Of these two modes, the insights of humor and astrology are the more profound and subtle. Consequently, there are some humorists and some astrologers who disparage any scientific analysis and secretly hope that their subject will remain inexplicable. They feel that humor or astrology will lose its potency unless it retains its mystery.

Humor, like astrology, is easier to experience or work with than to define. They share a certain variability, an enigmatic quality. In trying to describe what we think is funny, we usually have to admit, "Well, I just know it when I laugh at it." A similar ambiguity is expressed when astrologers try to explain the reasons for their predictions or why astrology "works."

In order to understand how humor or astrology works, there needs to be a pluralistic approach, one that merges many theories into an overall conception. Most theorists who attempt to understand humor (or debunk astrology) via intellectual dissection have tended to make the same mistake, they fragmentize the subject and claim one theory to explain all instances. If there is one thing that the rigidly scientific (rational, left-brained) mind cannot handle, it's the fact that humor or astrology will not submit to a single factor definition. Is stepping on a banana peel funny? It depends. Is the Sun Sign important? It depends.

Most humor analysts have proposed one of three main types of single theory to explain all humor:

Incongruity -- It's funny because it doesn't "fit" the status quo world view, physical laws, etc.;

Tension relief -- We laugh to release the pressure of living with contradictions;

 Superiority -- Our laughter affirms that we are separate or "above" a humorously disintegrated, inferior object or person.

What is curious is that these theories have not only been accepted as valid explanations for how humor works, they are actually the same arguments that have been used to debunk astrology:

Incongruity -- The analogy of the Zodiac is wrong because it does not conform to the physical reality of precession; astrological "influence" defies our current understanding of physical laws;

Tension relief -- Astrology is merely a balm for the superstitious fears of mankind and the apparent primitive need for the supernatural;

Superiority -- Astrology is elitist and therefore wrong because it claims that certain times are more auspicious, certain signs and aspects are better, etc.; whereas the scientific view is superior to any other form of knowing the world.

These theoretical principles demonstrate how humor and astrology achieve the same ultimate purpose: consciousness-raising. According to the incongruity theory, humor can be produced by the intersection of systems, the clash of two different frames of reference, two mutually exclusive codes of rule or "associative contexts." A simple example is the country bumpkin who appears an unsophisticated fool in the midst of a city, or a city slicker getting fooled by the country wisdom of the local yokels. This clash of contexts is the same principle which is at work when we struggle with contradiction and finally make a sudden leap to another level of awareness. This is why the Buddha laughs; spiritual evolvement is quite literally a joke.

The incongruity, which we can describe, is the driving force, but the joke or the leap in consciousness can't really be explained. Isn't this also the principle at work in astrology? We can explain that Mars rules Aries and Venus rules Libra, that these are opposing contexts with separate sets of rules and associations. "But what happens when Mars is in Libra and Venus is in Aries?," asks the novice astrology student. Here is the moment of potential breakthrough into understanding astrology, greater awareness or the joke -- and you either "get it" or you don't (until the next time you ask). Or until you rephrase the question, "Does that mean that Venus in Aries is like Mars in Libra?"

Unlike the interested student, the debunker is someone who never "gets it," but continues to use the incongruity to "prove" the inconsistency (therefore, the invalidity) of astrology. And isn't it "funny" how debunkers often have no sense of humor?

Astrology works like humor in that they both reveal life as a mixture of similarities and differences. The best parodies suggest a secret similarity between realms which are presumed to be very different, like sex and cigars. Something we tend to think of as having a distinct identity, like sex, turns out to have a lot in common with everything else -- just ask a Scorpio. Using the perspective that everything in reality looks or behaves like sex can bring a startling jolt in consciousness; that is, it does so until it becomes such a commonly assumed perspective that its opposite or lack becomes startling. We see how this works in the following sexual innuendo joke. -- Question: "What is it that Gorbachev has a long one, Bush has a short one, the Pope has one but doesn't use it, and Madonna doesn't have one?" Answer: "A last name." Likewise, the full realization of astrology's internal contradiction comes when we notice that everyone has got Scorpio "in their chart."

Montesquieu wrote, "Wit consists in discerning the resemblance between diverse things, and the difference between similar things." Astrology, too, consists of discerning how we're all the same, and yet how we're each different. These are two kinds of operations going on simultaneously in humor, in astrology, and in life: incongruity and ambiguity. Incongruity reveals the internal differences between things that seem outwardly alike. Ambiguity shows the external resemblance between things that seem to differ internally. In humor, one of these systems is annihilated -- we suddenly see that one element in an otherwise coherent system is incongruous or ambiguous. What triggers the humor is either the lack of resolution, whereby the system is destroyed without being replaced (as in the case of nonsense humor), or where equilibrium can only be achieved by switching systems (as in the case of the reverse sexual joke noted above).

Modern science has been particularly rigid in ignoring the value of ambiguity. Rational thought attempts to under-represent the ambiguities of life, or ignore them altogether. This is achieved by methods oriented to constructing facts through strictly unilateral modes of representation. Astrological thought and humor, on the other hand, tend to bring out the multiple interpretations and meanings of human existence. This is achieved by methods oriented to annihilating "facts" by splitting or undermining literal, linear thought into multiple components. Such annihilation opens the way for humor, spiritual awakening or astrological understanding (take your pick).

Any consensus reality system is open to attack by humor. Indeed, this is the main target of humor. Modern science and rational thought have grown in influence to be the closest thing that humans currently hold as a commonly-shared "world philosophy" or consensus reality. When, in the future, a single expectation system ever becomes dominant worldwide (and this is the stated goal of science), mankind's entire mental life could become vulnerable to sudden and total collapse by a joke. Perhaps an astrological one. Wouldn't that be funny?