“What’s really outstanding about those moments is usually when you hear something like that, it’s—it’s—it’s reminding you of what you already know. That’s what the aha is, ‘cause it feels like, “I knew this; I just didn’t know the words to put it,” you know? That’s what it is. That’s what’s fabulous about it.”
—Oprah Winfrey, The Oprah Winfrey Show, October 13, 2000

Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon is a work, first and foremost, of cultural anthropology. The back cover confirms this fact. Yes, the book is about the incorporations of Oprah. But more significantly, it is an ethnography of “American astonishment,” of what it feels like to live before screens that enlighten and advertise and encompass (the virtual counterpart of living within the effervescent glare of studio lights and perpetual applause). Lofton captures, as few writers can, the everyday magic of our viral time—what, in the ritual grammar of Oprah, are referred to as “Aha! Moments.”

Caroline, for example, witnessed Oprah’s immanence by way of Skype, beamed up and in from a remote location. This forty-one-year-old from Pacific Grove, California, who had once made a decision to be a stay-at-home mother, spoke of her spiritual struggle during the “Best Life Week” that inaugurated The Oprah Winfrey Show in January 2009:

Hi. Twelve years ago I decided to give up my career and stay home with my kids, and I feel very blessed to do that, but there are times when I’m doing laundry and chauffeuring them around that I don’t always feel appreciated. And what I realized after reading the Eckhart Tolle book [is] that I am identifying with being a mother. That was a big aha moment for me. And I would like to create a larger space between realizing when I’m in ego and identifying with the role of being a mother, so that I can be in the present moment and find the peace and the happiness that I would like to be able to attain while I’m doing laundry or having to clean the bathroom and that type of stuff.

Caroline is a sophisticated analyst of her own identity, reading the push and pulls of her own psyche against a structural backdrop of gender and class formation. She is not bitter or resentful over her decision to be a stay-at-home mom as much as she longs to make the decision again, more decisively. After different layers of self-interest have been acknowledged, Caroline seeks to reconcile these differences by integrating them from afar. She is looking for that space that is both inside and outside simultaneously, performing her life but also directing the performance. This is the deferred sense of control that ‘spirituality’ has promised since the antebellum period, born aside the genre of the novel.

The sense I get from Caroline and Lofton’s other informants is that they take a certain pleasure in feeling out of sorts or misplaced or altogether some place else. For this combination of heightened consciousness and soft alienation is both strange and potent. It turns on a dime. It drags down even as it makes way for a transcendental perspective. For whether on stage with Oprah, in the studio with Oprah, or doing any manner of things—from a distance—with Oprah, these individuals receive a narrative gift that perfectly frames their sense of their own individuality.

And this is what I take to be the object of Lofton’s ethnography—the “Aha Moment,” the sense of being part (or is it a part?) of the time of the now. Such absorption, of course, is not new. Dare I say, rather, that such absorption is universal, is the very premise of being a subject in the world. We all gotta serve somebody. And so it is with a million screens of “Change Your Life TV” (and its consummation in OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network). There is both wonder and sanity to all of this enclosure. There is also a powerful congruence of structural possibilities. There is safety and security in Oprah’s sway. For it—Oprahfication—keeps the swift jig of subjectivity from spinning out of control.

What is so incisive about Oprah is its account of onto-commodification and the work involved in “being possessed by possessions.” As Lofton writes, “Oprah offers to us a way to see a mechanism, up close, strings demonstratively exposed, of how contemporary mass culture convinces us of its conveyances.” The mechanism of this particularly virulent strain of biopower is seemingly simple: show, tell, idealize, and sell the spectrum of individuations. A gateway drug that is all but given away. Yet there is always a debt. For, in her “spirit-filled capacity,” writes Lofton, “Oprah supplies an array of products connecting you to the life you want and, more specifically, to the self you need to become to create the life you want.” Spirit, here, refers as much to an impersonal moral force as it does to a vehicle of the will and attendant self-knowledge. This is not so much a point of theological contention for Lofton as an operating assumption that allows her to spin a rather disturbing tale about our late, great secular modernity.

The spirit of the O generates the Emersonian desire of our time: You want to feel that nothing can befall you in life—no disgrace, no calamity—that Oprah could not repair. Standing on the bare ground, your head bathed by blithe light and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism will vanish. You will become transparent to yourself and the world. You will see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulating through you. You are nothing. You are part and particle of Oprah.

This enclosure of the O is a moment of transcendence shared by Oprah, her guests, and her studio and worldwide audiences. It may never really happen. But it doesn’t matter. For what does happen is the overwhelming promise of mediation, the moment when something else will pulse through you and all of you will pulse through it. Complicity, yes, but also the potential for precision and the renewed struggle for leverage.

Over the system the studio announcer announces to the studio audience: “the grim business of your audience lives” is about to end. “I summon you to a hyperlife of laughter and tears and tenderness and rocking socking sensation. Note well. Delfina draws literal life from her audience.” This is Delfina Treadwell, the not-unlike-Oprah talk-show host from Don DeLillo’s Valparaiso (1999). Delfina is a subject who is also a commodity, who gives life to others in order to satiate herself. Delfina understands intuitively, as does Oprah, this cycle of life, referring to her live performances as “my private moments.” “The studio audience restores my life force,” she confesses. “You have to understand. I live in a box in a state of endless replication.”

It would be comforting to know that Oprah, in her Delfina-like knowingness, was in charge. But she is not. She determines us only insofar as we determine her ratings. Her omnipotence feeds upon our improvisation; her cultural agency is not an either/or proposition, and neither is the freedom of those who watch or do not watch her. Whatever Oprah is depends, absolutely, on the freedom of each of her audience members. The self-consciousness of her subjects is Lofton’s working assumption. “Aha!” she exclaims, he exclaims, you exclaim, they exclaim. For Oprah’s audience demands the demonstration, the exposure, and the strings. These are complicated people, epistemologically speaking, as are we all.

Consequently, a necessary exactitude pervades the pages of Oprah, on each a clinical dissection of what Jenny Franchot once called “the interior life.” For everything pivots on the intimacy involved in the rituals of exposure and response. Oprah winks. She nods approvingly. “Aha!” she exclaims, over and over again, looking deep into the camera each and every time. Oprah is in on the joke. Oprah’s audience is in on the joke. We are all in on the joke. And yet we continue to buy.

There is a negativity in all of this Oprahfication, though it is no via negativa but something else—familiar and phantasmagoric. For Oprahfication is, among other things, the shadow cast by centuries of religious history and therapeutic culture, a point deftly made by Lofton in her discussion of such things as the anxious bench of Charles Finney and the World’s Parliament of Religions, New Thought, the Black church, and Protestant journal keeping. Lofton’s analogies between Oprah and American “patterns of religious productivity” are born of a sense of analytic implosion. Acknowledging that Oprah exists in the “excessive specifics” of her “vagaries,” Lofton has no choice but to dwell within her shadow. Oprah, here, is neither liturgical referent nor doctrinal vessel. For this is no mere “metaphoric transference,” David Chidester’s phrase for the fraught act of pulling the so-called secular into the light of religious meaning. On the contrary, Lofton insists upon the impossibility of ever resting easy with either the metaphors or their transference.

Whatever is religious about Oprah, then, is fleetingly glimpsed, seen only when she appears in drag, a preacher queen whose Whitmanic largesse and benevolent hand secure the diversity of (and circulations within) an American order.

In Oprah, Lofton is practicing cultural criticism in a world that does not (and never did) fit into the neat boxes of profane and sacred, lifestyle and liturgy. At a time when “truth” and “cute” serve increasingly similar functions and amount to increasingly similar things, Lofton’s is no mere examination but a relentless documentation of the conceptual vortex from which new categories of thought emanate, new styles of reasoning emerge, and new gods are born.

From a 2003 studio encounter:

Winfrey: It is all yours, Fannie. God bless you.

Fannie: God bless you.

Winfrey: God bless you.

Fannie: God bless you.

Winfrey: God is blessing me right now. He’s blessing me right now. It is a blessing to be able to do this for you.

Fannie: God bless you. Oh, my God. My God, this is unreal, Oh, my God.

Winfrey: I know. But you have the tape. See, you can play it back. It’s really happening.

Whatever is really happening, here and elsewhere, is preserved in Lofton’s kinetic wordy precision—but also resisted, of course, which I take to be at the heart of her discussion of the ‘us’ who live in Oprah’s post-Empire. For it is in and through the line-to-line delight of these pages that an argument is forged. Lofton’s is not a voice crying in the wilderness but one that speaks of and from the mesh of the O. It is representative rather than authoritative, offering neither comfort nor clarity but, in the end, leverage. Words accumulate, circulate, and forge strange ontic indices—supply chain of self, smothered in sale, possessed by its own plurality. But such jest, energy, and unexpected sentence structure offer insight into living after the ruse of privacy has been exposed, self-consciously and celebratorily. For in the course of our modernity, Oprah—herself, her wares, her minions, and the connections between—has come to inhabit, if not altogether suffuse, the space of our psyche. This psyche, of course, does not refer simply to what is going on inside your head, or even to the reality that you posit outside.

Cut to The Delfina Treadwell Show. The studio announcer beckons:

The cameras will swing toward the audience in the course of the show. Not once but many times. Point to yourselves on the giant monitors. I understand the need for this. I encourage this. Wave to yourselves. See yourselves cross that critical divide into some plane of transcendence.