What a strange, provocative experience it has been to dwell with Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon during these unsettling months. The seams of public life seem especially frayed of late—a precariousness underscored by disasters natural and political that keep coming. And yet ours is the radiant moment of endless possibility so central to Lofton’s subject, whose chief promise is that of a self that matters, that experiences abundance and becoming. It was with this coexistence in mind that I plunged into Oprah’s world.
The book’s many levels are only partly reflected in the conversations it has begun to generate. Lofton’s most widely discussed contribution is her reading of Oprah as “religious,” and the implications this identification has for the way we think about “religion” and “secularism” and something fuzzier called “spirituality.” Lofton urges us not simply to see in the story of American celebrity dreams an outline of secularism’s frames; she insists on both the collaboration of these categories and the hypertrophy of the religious, spilling beyond the limits of what she calls the “blaring data of tax-exempt religiosity,” whose supposed gravity and grounding in something called “real” religion constrain the scholarly imagination. Rather than seeing in the rituals that attend Oprah a formulaic “empowerment” by which consumers “make meaning” in their lives (one of the duller formulations of the 1970s, still on academic life support), Lofton locates and traces Oprah’s productions to explore the “great divide between what is properly religious and what is not.” Both empty signifier and placemarker of abundance within the “pulverized space” of American dreaming, “religion,” Lofton reminds us, is that by which the projects of the self reach beyond their material limits only to be sold back to us as lifestyle, makeover, transformation, and community. The expressions by which this “religion” takes shape are not just those of celebrity charisma and national fantasy but the stories we tell about ourselves, and which we see writ large in O. Her productions posit for themselves a world in need of their care.
The book is also, however, a critical engagement with its subject and with scholarship. Appearing during a period of reappraisal in Religious Studies (whether or not the field recognizes it happening), the book lays bare certain aversions fundamental to the way (American) religions have been analyzed. While the field grows continually more aware of the collusion of categories once held distinct by the modernist imaginary that still haunts our analytic—not just secular/sacred, but market/home, or self/other—Lofton argues forcefully and correctly that scholars of religion often shield themselves from the implications of this entanglement. More than simply kneading in ever more layers of nuance to pad our tender accounts of our subjects—or expanding what she calls “a checklist of classifications premised on a scientific posture complicit with religion’s eradication”—Lofton reminds us that no method or tone, however fervently defended, can avoid the fact that we are always, already, from the moment we begin, complicit with our subject. This intimacy is never more powerful than when we disavow or overlook it: the scholar in imagined distance or the secular’s disenchantment.
What does this entail? On the one hand, scholars no longer have the comfort of a kind of shallow critique (which Lofton identifies as either reflexive anti-consumerism or blunt constructions of Oprah’s “trap”). Neither, however, can we afford the luxury of scrutinizing these things forever at a distance—always Hegel watching Napoleon’s armies from Jena’s hills. The implications are great here, because of the way the field is haunted by one chief identitarian assumption, rooted equally in the old politics of representation and in methodological caution: authenticity. Lofton is concerned that “in our scholarly ambition to translate our subjects—to, as the phrasing often goes, take our subjects seriously—we have become sycophants to our subjects, reframing every act as an inevitably creative act.” In this she is part of a growing, and welcome tendency in the field.
But why are these considerations of “religion,” “spirituality,” and “the secular” important to us now? It is not simply the case that O makes for provocative material, though she surely does. Indeed, Lofton demonstrates her subject’s superfluity as her powerful cultural production captures themes and concerns central to American religions. But what Oprah provides is not simply data to confirm certain modes of study, nor merely an exemplification of a trend. Lofton urges us to see Oprah as a context in which certain languages and sentiments are conjured and sustained. Beyond the complex weave of the religious and the secular, Lofton practices her own critical arts subtly, by attending to the drab architecture of cultural desires instead of merely hacking away at their most obvious expressions. Religions are everywhere, mirroring (and driving) the excess that gives shape to us, outracing the conventional legal and scholarly disciplines that hope in vain to pin it down. Of Oprah the metonym, we “make of her pieces what we need,” gathering her multiplicities into us. In our relentless optimism, our dreams “programmed into analogy,” our “ideally accessorized moment,” and our “straight-backed righteousness of the spiritually assured,” we are “stunned before her plenty” as before the excess of the secular in which we all float, suspended adrift on common dreams of having it all.
Consider Lofton’s chapter on Oprah’s book club, with its wonderful performance of alternate textual strategies amidst a dazzling reading of reading. What do we learn from what Oprah does to texts? We learn about Chautauqua, and Franzen too. But what seems far more important and illuminating is how Oprah “manages literature’s subversive potential.” As reading and “religion” collapse into one another, Lofton reads literature’s reduction to a heroic overcoming of personal struggles, a sentimental gesture that dovetails with “novelistic retellings of their life stories.” All narrative, all consumption, all expression devolves onto the self in an endless enhancement. And yet, Lofton reminds, these individual projects of accessorization as meaning turn “inevitably, unstoppably, back to her.”
If O becomes “history by the sheer will of her narrations, by the hegemony of her sway,” her readers and viewers may be left only with the relentless quotidian within which the injunction to make oneself over is intoned. Lofton reveals a world in which we find alluring the templates to which we are fitted, a melancholy whose song of empowerment sells us resignation as the hope we know will be dashed. The unreality of the ☺ contained in O’s regimens of reading, dreaming, and self-fashioning leaves us weighed down, as it were, by the sheer abundance of possibility, frozen in a moment of prescribed, radiant optimism. We change our experience of a world which seems built to constrain us.
But, as mentioned at the outset, I wonder if Lofton’s critical project can be so neatly summed up, as before a commercial break. Surely her reading of the strange joy in the impossible endless possible can have no relevance for drab materialism or a culture with its blood up, right? Oprah links up to the American religious past, and to the world of The Secret and the fluid discourse of journeys of self-discovery, but surely she cannot tell us about worldly disorder and rage. Yet Lofton reminds us that Oprah is “the one picture that tells the whole story,” a story broader than her corporate brand, with greater reach than the historical predecessors Lofton deftly names, or even than the first level of Lofton’s own critical discourse. These formulations of the “spiritual” exceed even Oprah’s excessive condition, and tell us more about our own. While we might look to Oprah “to determine the spiritual ambition of her secular conveyances,” we might also look to Lofton’s formulations as a way to understand how apparently non-O modes of public expression come to be, and on what they draw their energy.
We think of the purity of O’s joy and possibility, and the rage of the world they seek to enliven. What accounts for the coexistence of this supreme spiritual assurance and the furors of Fred Phelps, Rep. King, and Governor Walker? It is not simply that dumbfounded joy and hyper-aggression exist in an interesting tension. Somehow, Lofton helps us see us how Winfreyan radiance inexorably bleeds into the toxic, fact-averse, combat-soaked tone of things. These modes held apart share the love of an endlessly primary, endlessly revisable self, which is to all things the only thing. Lofton does not tell us about or describe directly the simultaneity of these impulses; nor do I highlight this possible critical engagement in order to collapse all expressions into a single muddle of religious affect of simulacra. But her work gives us a way of thinking about how affront is the co-conspirator of joy, outrage the outcome of the self’s bubble pricked. At stake in this cartography of O’s endless expanse is the ironic occlusion of the self in these self-assured projects. If Lofton is right that O’s production constitutes “the culmination of the religious now,” this “now” is one in which the triumphant self of autonomy and abundance and make(O)ver is constantly undermined by its own impossibility. As with our heavily mediated social worlds more broadly, Oprah’s generative existence reveals how what it means to be an “I” is to become both subjects and objects of what Bruno Latour calls “belief in belief.” This malleable modern “I” is always within and out of our reach, our certainty of its existence leaving us precisely where we are, with all the disappointments and powerlessness and fury that sometimes entails. But then there is that swelling soundtrack chord, a new dream dreamt for us, always a new now to believe in. Our wishes cannot be the problem, can they?
Lofton writes that Oprah “conjures a religious space in regard to her country’s mythic dream, becoming a site of ritual and moral transaction for a nation possessed by the idea of a plural marketplace for everyone’s dreams.” Oprah’s traces and makings are not simply those of a conjoined spiritual and secular; they are simply ours, whether we like it or not. They are, perhaps improbably, a necessary condition of the shapes of public life today. And they resonate powerfully in the context into which the book is published, one in which the book’s comparative possibilities and implications deserve careful elaboration. Lofton shows us the scope of their influence through her study of O, in the breadth and suppleness of her comparisons.