“The Brilliant Wickedness of Oprah”
My friend and Commonweal contributor, Anthony Domestico, alerted me to this interview with Yale religious studies professor, Kathryn Lofton, who has a new book coming out March 4 analyzing Oprah through the lens of American religious history. The book is called Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, and it argues that Oprah has created and embodied her own brand of modern spirituality based on the idea that the “narrative of personal discomfort” can be profitable if it is only turned into a historical commodity. This is to say that the suffering of a human spirit in history can bring salvation by innocently giving itself over to a dysfunctional human economy. Sound familiar? It’s a Jesus story for the late capitalist.
The message seems to be that if you master the discipline of virtuous consumption, you too might have the opportunity, in an ironic twist, to give your “self” over to the very market you have just transcended, thus serving to elevate the crass world that once oppressed you. This, of course, is Oprah’s own narrative. After achieving success in the seedy world of daytime television, she was able, through personal conversion and discipline, to offer her “self,” her own life story (along with a few of her “favorite things”) for the betterment of her followers. Having thus died to the world, she was able to rise again as “O,” the transcendent Other of late capitalism that simultaneously serves as its judge and sanctifier. And, now that the sun is setting on her show, the cross from which she has instructed her disciples, her work is accomplished as her ghost is given over to, reintegrated, and installed at the right hand of the One from whom she was begotten. She will now serve her friends by giving them a community of their OWN to ensure that this day they will be with her Father in Television. As Lofton says,
Now she is conjuring the very network that will represent, I would argue, the future of the way networks will be construed. Even as her physical self slowly evaporates, she becomes increasingly an icon, a brand. One Oprah will fade, and another Oprah will strengthen and redact, with her physicality dissolving to an eventual brand “O.” That kind of programming for the self—which seems highly particularized, but of course prescribes its own particularization—is the genius of Oprah Winfrey.
Of course, this is the worst kind of idolatry. It does not radically transform the particular by creating something truly new, but it simply pours new wine into old wineskins by claiming to elevate the particular as it really is. The genius, of course, is that Oprah finds ways to repackage the old as something new by creating a kind of pagan ritual in and through which the same old commodity is imbued with a new meaning. She first did this with her own show, as Lofton explains, not by changing the actual content, but by reciting a new incantation over it. Lofton writes, quoting Oprah:
“Originally our goal was to uplift, enlighten, encourage, and entertain through the medium of television,” Winfrey explained. “Now our mission … is to use television to transform people’s lives, to make viewers see themselves differently, and to bring happiness and a sense of fulfillment into every home. [...] I am talking about each individual coming to the awareness that, ‘I am Creation’s son. I am Creation’s daughter. I am more than my physical self. I am more than this job that I do. I am more than the external definitions I have given myself. … These roles are all extensions of who I define myself to be, but ultimately I am Spirit come from the greatest Spirit. I am Spirit.” Much of the content for her show stayed the same, as celebrities continued to sell their films, mothers continued to weep about their wayward daughters, and amazing pets still strutted their special stuff. Now, though, it was enchanted with a straight-backed righteousness of the spiritually assured.
This enchantment is, of course, also for sale. Oprah employs a team of high priests, like Dr. Phil, to say the magic words over your life, so that it might be given a new narratival significance in the context of the new capitalist utopia fueled by offerings left at the altar of “O.” Take, for example, high priest of fiscal responsibility, Suze Orman:
Suze Orman appears in every other episode about money, a wry voice about balancing a budget, warding off credit card compulsion, and sensible planning for the independent woman. The liberation of women from economic ties that bind is an incredibly important message of the show and, I would argue, for the broader discourse of liberal economics. Women in particular are struggling over the issue of consumption, which was a key part of the economic crisis. But the brilliant wickedness of Oprah is that she’s simultaneously telling you how to save and how to spend. At the end of an episode, once a couple has gotten control over their credit cards, there has to be some way of finding a reward for them. Peace of mind is one thing, but wow, much better if they get to take a road trip with their new Hyundai! Whatever the counsel is, the glamorous and the visual are the conclusion, creating a tableau of success even amidst practices of austerity.
The ultimate message, then, seems to be that all change is merely formal. It’s about the way you consume, not that, or even what, you consume. It’s about the way you do trashy TV, not that you do it. The aesthetic presentation of the conversation is the thing, and what’s talked about is only incidental. The important thing is that we all maximize the expression of the Human Spirit (whatever that is) in everything we do, and with this, all actual criticism that might lead to a real revolution goes out the window. Lofton brings this point out most clearly at the conclusion of the interview. When asked what Oprah might think of her book, she says:
This is not the sort of book she reads—or, rather, this is not the sort of book that the product Oprah endorses—since it neither prescribes a better reality nor posits an alternative reality to which you could escape. If she and I were talking, though, the first thing she’d want to know is how this book fit into the first-person journey of my life. Then I’d find myself quickly formatted into her production as a signifying woman of one sort or another. This is her real legacy. After Oprah, what first- person iteration is not a commodity?
It seems to me that this is the scariest thing about the Oprah-fication of religion, or the religiosity of Oprah. Real people and positions are actually eclipsed by personal narratives and idiosyncrasies. The idea is that if we all just get together and tell our own stories, the deep Spirit beneath our most closely held positions will reveal itself and we can all have a good empathetic cry over the discovery of our mutual humanity. What this actually reveals, however, is the poverty of a world in which we can’t recognize our neighbor as human unless we can commodify her between the covers of a book that can be sold for $19.95 and read while sipping a cup of coffee at Starbucks. This is a world in which we can’t bring ourselves to love enough even to properly disagree, because the terms of the debate are no longer set between right and wrong, but between humanity and monstrosity. And what kind of monster criticizes Oprah?