Kathryn Lofton’s new book on Oprah Winfrey sparkles with coruscating turns of phrase and often glittering analysis of American religion and consumer culture. “Oprah is an instance of American astonishment at what can be,” Lofton writes in the very first paragraph of her Introduction. On page after page thereafter, the reader is left gaping, not only at Oprah’s gospel and media image, but also at what a talented exegete can produce from this remarkable embodiment of “spiritual capitalism.” It is hard to imagine a more vigorous examination of Oprah’s therapeutic persona and the myriad products the talk-show host promotes. “I believe in meditating in the tub with some very nice bath products,” Oprah bubbles at one point. Winfrey’s spiritualized taste-making is a marvel absolutely worthy of Lofton’s cleverness and insight.
Lofton tells me she shares with Jonathan Z. Smith the view that difference is the beginning of any good conversation. I am going to take her up on that notion and dwell here on a point of disagreement rather than those points, about the wild commingling of religion and consumption, upon which we agree. (Full disclosure: she and I have been involved in two collaborative projects as well as a handful of other professional ventures together, so we have discussed Oprah, among other subjects, quite a bit already.) The difference here, while an issue of significance, is only a matter of collegial counterpoint. Given the respect I have for Lofton’s interpretive skills, I place my remarks in the category of friendly banter or yakking, not criticism.
Lofton has a grand sense of Oprah’s power. At one point early on she remarks that her gaze is fixed upon the mass media’s “omnipotence”—Oprah’s especially—not on the trivialities of personal idiosyncrasy or the illusions of consumer improvisation. Even those who claim no affinity with Oprah—those who never watched an episode of her talk-show, never followed her book recommendations, never felt compelled to pick up a copy of her magazine for makeover advice, never imagined a celebrity to be a particularly reliable authority on the good life, let alone the “best life”—all remain in her thrall. “Even if you want to avoid her, even if you have avoided her, you have not (you cannot),” Lofton writes. Big Sister Oprah “looms”—not exactly as a panoptic warden, but as a pervading presence and power. She is among the great puppet-masters of American consumers; she formats their desires, hopes, tastes, and feelings; she determines them; she occupies them. Oprah is our Zeitgeist, the very Spirit of the Age. That all certainly sounds portentous. It also sounds, I think, like a rhetorical splurge in excess of Lofton’s otherwise nuanced argument.
To be fair, this Foucault-derived vision of the “discursive production” of a disciplinary system is not Lofton’s main point, which consists far more in a fine-grained analysis of the persistent tropes of Oprah’s media empire. Still, it is the scaffolding, and that scaffolding allows her to censure certain historians, ethnographers, and qualitative sociologists as pointillists, dot-dot-dot empathizers with their subjects, unaware of the powerlessness of those they imbue with such quaintly romantic attributes as creativity, individuality, or agency. These scholars are up so close to the canvas that they cannot see the big picture of determining structures. I find the options so presented to be artificial; one can surely attend to both structure and agency at the same time, to the mindless predictability of consumer behavior as well as its annoying unpredictability to its corporate managers. I agree with Lofton that there is all too much about Oprah’s world and her devotees to make one wonder—at least from a certain highbrow academic standpoint—about “the intensity of their shallowness.” Call me an unreconstructed humanist, an overly hopeful liberal, but I doubt that banality is the sum of the matter, even for Oprah’s most frivolous (or lighthearted) fans. I am all the more hesitant to accept that judgment when it is derived from a methodological stance that finds it unnecessary—even sycophantic—to attend to the devotees themselves, to their yawns and misgivings as much as their amens and hallelujahs. Do we want to swing in pendulous fashion away from reception history and ethnographic intimacy to an all-knowing scholarly view of what social determinants and discursive formations really count? That would be quite a makeover, perhaps one worthy of Oprah’s “transformation circus.”
I happen to be writing away—yakking, confabulating, whatever—on Lofton’s Oprah on the day after Mother’s Day. Now, if there was ever a merchandized ritual, this American-made holiday would be it. In all kinds of ways, it was scripted for us by American florists and greeting-card manufacturers. No doubt we have been formatted to observe the holiday in very particular ways, which serve the interests of quite particular industries. That said, I have never been able to convince myself that this commercial trap is the only story—or even the primary story—to be told about the ritual cycle in which so many Americans gladly participate. Our three-year-old came home from his preschool with a craft project for the holiday this year. The teachers had provided this line: “My mommy is special because . . . .” Our preschooler had provided the finishing phrase: “she tickles me.” Anna Jarvis, the syrupy yet somber Methodist inventor of the holiday, would have been proud. That’s banal sentiment for you, but even puppets (to borrow a titular phrase from Victoria Nelson) have secret lives. Even the ventriloquist’s dummy is not quite as dumb as it seems (hence the recurrent nightmare of the puppeteer’s mouthpiece turning on its master).
Lofton has incisively depicted the ways in which Oprah imagines freedom for her viewers—as a facility they gain from her to choose among handbags, seasonal colors, shoes, books, spiritual paths, and the like. Yet, it is telling that one of Lofton’s best examples of what it means to acquiesce to Oprah as an arbiter of fashions, relationships, and spiritual well-being is a performance artist who decides to play at submission and blog about it. An artist (with an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago) cannily letting Oprah’s prescriptions dominate her is camp, a theatrics of irony, not one more sign of Oprah’s omnipotence. In short, where I look for signs of resilience, if not resistance, Lofton sees signs of docility, if not surrender. That’s a difference worth some banter, but not worth depreciating Lofton’s achievement. Oprah is one shrewd remapping of where we need to look for religion in contemporary American culture.