Oprah is a compelling object for the scholarly study of religion as a contemporary phenomenon. She is mass-mediated, commercial, and famous—and spiritual, if by that we mean something that is not encompassed by the institutional structure of an organized religion, but that belongs nonetheless to the domain of the academic study of “religion.” People consume, consult, and adore Oprah on a daily basis. In a word, she’s an icon. This is the term that Kathryn Lofton uses to describe Oprah, and it’s an appropriate choice, because it simultaneously alludes to religious imagery and popular branding, to sacred economies and the commercial market of media products. And the allusions are not mutually contradictory. Sociologists as eminent as Simmel and Bourdieu and many anthropologists and scholars of religion in recent decades have developed a keen interest in spiritual capital, in the sacrality of money, in the production and circulation of aura, in systems of exchange that structure the relations of human and divine as well as human and human. Thinkers as different as Marx and Weber argued for subtle, but powerful connections between capitalism and religion. Studies of consumption in the modern and contemporary worlds have demonstrated that it is the air we breathe, the medium for every sort of human relation—for expressing sympathy, practicing charity, experiencing beauty, supporting religious communities and organizations, questing for one’s spiritual liberation. Is there anything sacred that human beings do without money or some other form of wealth? Even such private things as prayer and meditation are fundamental components of sacred economies. Prayer takes time, and time is money, so investing one’s time in spiritual matters means withdrawing from the marketplace of work and pleasure.
Spirituality belongs to a category of human phenomena that overlaps with, but is not identical to, religion. Like magic, luck, and divination, spirituality may be defined as attitudes and practices dedicated to transcending undesirable states of being without relying on formal religious institutions to get the job done. What sets spirituality out in this category of pragmatic procedures, at least in the modern world, is its characteristic concern for a self seeking to be free of encumbrances. Spirituality is modernity’s way of understanding the political ideal of freedom. In the modern world, the meaning of life is widely understood to mean what one creates of and for oneself. For many people, selfhood has emerged as the purpose of human existence. Of course, people always had some form of selfhood, modes of reflexivity and longing that projected their efforts and energy into the worlds in which they struggled to survive, if not thrive. But it was not until the rise of the middle class, with leisure and surplus capital and accommodating economies of consumption, that self-development became a fundamental social aim, an end in itself, and that “the pursuit of happiness” could serve as the fighting words of a political revolution. Not long after the revolution, Emerson could proclaim self-culture the aim of human existence and the basis on which to scrap the old religion and invent a new one. What ensued, no doubt falling short of Emerson’s mythic scope, was a self that was less soul than personality.
Kathryn Lofton is keenly aware of the history and scholarship of consumption and its important relationship to religion. Indeed, she chose to write about Oprah precisely because the latter offered an undeniable example of self as commodity, a celebrity personality whose product is her image, or icon. Lofton ably examines Oprah’s deft sense of commerce and how it takes shape in camerawork, hour-long programs, and commercial breaks. Oprah is her own message, and she is characteristically on message in whatever medium.
The problem with the saint-cum-entertainer, the transformer of grim realities into fairy tales come true, is that they look better than they really are. Does giving luggage, a vacation, and a minivan to Fannie Mae, an unskilled laborer, really change her life? As Lofton points out, “The structures of Fannie’s world are not edited; the existent ones are just better accessorized.” Viewers want to see the spectacle of a real-life fairy tale. It makes for great TV, but whose life does it really change? Is the point to make viewers feel good? Oprah might object that, in the logic of images, changing perceptions of ourselves is the magical power capable of changing our actual situation in life. Think differently about yourself, and you will achieve things you never imagined before. It is the power of positive thinking applied to the marketplace of mediated artifacts.
But this line of critique should not be allowed to miss the fact that there is an identifiable structure to Oprah’s spirituality, which does not lack God-talk, creed, cult, or community. Lofton finds it all, in one form or another, wrapped about a coherent core of O, Lofton’s clever trope for the product, which she aptly describes as an icon. O, the title of Oprah’s magazine, is an iconic figure that represents what Oprah does—which is herself, or rather the image of herself. If Oprah’s television show ritually enacts or performs the product, her magazine and website demonstrate that her religion is a very material one. It is about style and comfort and self-affirmation, about display and the community of feeling that displaying the good life entails. If you doubt the very tangible nature of this imagined community, just consider how lucrative is the endorsement a book receives when baptized into the Oprah Book Club. The honor translates into colossal sales and best-seller status, which means that hundreds of thousands of people around the country are reading the same thing. It is difficult to imagine a more concrete form of extended community. Not only does Oprah tell her fans what to read, she counsels them on how to read the books. “The Winfrey read,” Lofton writes, “is a situational read; according to her repeated recommendations, the revolutionary power of reading is maximized if done in the right place, in the right clothes, with the right pillows.” And if you need to acquire any of those, there is Oprah.com to search for convenient links. Well-being in the universe of O is a product of converging mediations.
Icon is a word that has had a long and varied life. It once meant—and, for Orthodox Christians, still means—sacred images that enable a powerful connection to the saints and holy persons they portray in the characteristic styles of traditional painting. But in the world of modern media, icon has developed quite another sense. It means the image of a widely recognized person whose figure represents an ideal, attitude, or lifestyle. But media icons are subject to the vagaries of age and the fickleness of the fashion system. Everyday brings another withering news report of a celebrity-icon—an actor, politician, or professional athlete, most commonly—whose real-life behavior reveals that his iconic persona has little to do with what we now realize it had actually concealed. Icons often turn out to be screens that hide more than they reveal.
But Oprah, at least so far, appears to be a resilient icon, flexible and resourceful because she has been able to make her iconicity into a story that is not done. And this may tell us something important about her enduring (though declining) market share: she is able to connect with viewers by reflecting and encouraging their own questing. Her mimetic task is to keep convincing us that the person we continue to watch on television is still herself. In so doing, she provides her fans with a model for their own self-narration by turning the rhythms of fashion, commoditization, and media into the shape of her self-discovery. Icons have the power to transform those who gaze devoutly upon them into participants in a grander reality. The Byzantines called this theosis. Oprah the Icon does not turn viewers into gods, but into truer versions of themselves, as so many of the ads in her magazine promise. It is a sort of mediatization of self, but also a personalization of media that endows her icon, or brand, with longevity. Kathryn Lofton’s fascinating study demonstrates that Oprah is not aping religion as a way of selling her product but conducting a practice of self-culture that appeals to many precisely because they believe it lifts them above their circumstances to reveal possibilities they had not imagined. Oprah’s genious is for achieving a coincidence of self-care, commoditization, mass-mediation, and entertainment. If that’s not modern religion, I don’t know what is.