In Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, just out from University of California Press, Yale religion professor Kathryn Lofton orchestrates an encounter between American religious history and daytime television. Oprah Winfrey and the media empire that bears here name, Lofton finds, bear the rudiments of modern, neoliberal womanhood, conveyed through a resolutely non-religious spirituality.
This interview was conducted in conjunction with the SSRC’s project on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life.—ed.
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NS: Tell me about what brought you to the study of Oprah. Was it fandom, or irony, or what?
KL: Undergraduate irony. As a student at the University of Chicago, my dorm had a communal room with a television, and Oprah repeated late at night on the local ABC affiliate. I would be sitting with a group of friends who were, because of the Common Core, all reading the same high-brow social and political theory and applying it colloquially to The Real World: Boston. Few were as captivated as I was by Oprah; I think it reminded them of their moms. But to me it was an intellectual playground, hitting on everything I was reading while also queering, contesting, and troubling those readings. Then, in graduate school, it became a dorky parlor trick for me to connect Oprah with almost any aspect of U.S. religious history, from Wovoka to Carrie Nation. As I began to teach courses in religious studies, I found she was a great way to test theories of myth, ideology, and ritual for students new to religious studies abstractions. So, since the early nineties, I haven’t been able to get her out of my head—she seemed pervasive in the world and persuasively central to any given narrative of the West.
NS: Speaking of ritual, of what did working on the book consist? Was it a lot of TV-watching?
KL: Starting in 1998, I began to take notes when I would watch. I have those notebooks, and they’re comic exercises in scientism. I started doing a very ordered appraisal, using different-colored pens for different kinds of claims that were being made. If she said “This I believe,” or “What I know for sure,” those would be in purple. If she complimented someone, I would put that in a different color. If she interpreted a text or something that was said, I would put it in another color. It was a rudimentary study of her language, as well as of the ways that other women she spoke with became converted to her language games. I have five solid years of notes for every episode and a ten-year archive of topics that the show covered, with key transcripts for the episodes that I thought were particularly emblematic. Meanwhile, I was reading along with the book-club, buying her magazine, and consuming her celebrity scat from tabloids.
NS: What is it about how American religious history is studied now that has left Oprah not well-enough understood?
KL: I would say that the “how” of what we study is less problematic than the way we cordon our topics, which is very much an inheritance of our role as seminary church historians. I want to see more books written about objects that seem unlikely for religious studies, such as those seemingly in the purview of pop culture, but also those from economic and political arenas. Moreover, I think our disposition toward our subjects is often too tender for our own good. If, on the one side, we’ve been formed by our seminarian genealogies, on the other, we inherit an abused mentality, one that flinches constantly at the possibility that elsewhere in the humanist ranks we’re being mocked for proximity to the religious subject. And so we appear, I think, often too defensive of our topics, believing they need caretaking before exposure to the imagined Marxist menace. So, if there is a critical edge to the book, it is to goad us to be less worried about explaining our subjects to their cultured despisers, and instead to pursue the mediations of their belief systems, the multiple functions of their ritual reiterations, and the social systems to which they reply and in which they participate.
NS: You made Oprah’s message and its delivery your focus. But what about the believers—in this case, the viewers?
KL: I briefly toyed with the idea of doing an ethnography, where I would look at how women consume and conceive of Oprah, particularly in the context of their religious lives. I thought I would then explore the sort of complicated descriptions of agency offered by Marie Griffith in God’s Daughters or Saba Mahmood in Politics of Piety. I decided not to do that, though not because there aren’t a lot interesting things one could learn from that kind of study. Ultimately I decided that the interesting thing about Oprah was that such ethnography of her consumers was incorporated into the commodity itself, as lay piety (its failures and successes) is the central subject of her exhibitions. What I thought was intellectually and politically needed was a concise examination of her precisions and consistencies, of how Oprah explained a normal for her audience despite their possible idiosyncrasies. In an era in which mass mediation is the primary format for encounter with difference and experience, knowing what that mediation mediates seemed pretty exigent to me.
NS: As an American woman, do you feel some responsibility to confront what Oprah represents, in the form of an active, engaged social critique?
KL: It is incredibly important that we—women, men, believers, heathens, citizens—think, and think critically, about the female complaint, especially as it takes this specific form in the public sphere. Oprah is not just Oprah—she represents what has come to be a naturalized logic for women’s suffering. I would be lying if I didn’t say that writing this book was, for me, an act of feminism. But I would say that it is more important to me that it be understood as an act of criticism connected to the deep tissue of our national political and economic imaginary. So, yes, this is an act of social critique. For as much as the solo striving hungry female is the object here, it is the silence of her sociality—all the while making commodity of her social receipt and struggle—that disturbs me. On her message boards, everyone testifies, but they don’t form social communities, social insurrection, or social protest. The social is incredibly absent from Oprah, even as she praises the idea of girlfriends, of groups, of clubs. The social is a rhetorical formulation leaving women exposed in their extremity without any public held accountable.
KL: One thing that’s said about Oprah is that she uses media so well. No, I don’t think that’s quite enough—she invents the medium. 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.
NS: Something that’s striking in your book is her insistence, always, that she’s going by her gut, that she’s not letting herself be bought, and that she’s putting herself right there in front of you. But if she becomes a brand and a caricature while she’s still alive, how much control could she actually have?
KL: Her first-person is always authentic in its anxieties and authoritative in its total control. Despite the fact that she hasn’t gone to business school, she leads one of the most successful companies in modern America and is the first black billionaire. All of these things testify to acumen, but her answer is, “There is no calculation. There is no logic. There is no plan.” It’s a very typical maneuver of the neoliberal moment, eschewing the monolith you maintain with smiling billboard nonchalance. She is inventing systems for women’s lives constantly: schedules, to-do lists, and prescriptions for everything from how you order your bedside table to your backpack to your child’s lunchbox. All the while, she’s chanting, “Girls, I’ll guide you to your total originality.” There are episodes where she goes behind the scenes, where she shows us Oprah in her natural state, without makeup. It’s tacitly revealing the marionette strings of her production, suggesting she’s all-access-to-you, but what access do you have to that natural state being broadcast? Cost is only one of the barriers, as she holds up her specific racial self, gendered self, psychological self as the only one who can really be Oprah.
NS: Do you think that when she moves to cable, among the Rachel Maddows and Bill O’Reillys, she might become more overtly political?
KL: No, I don’t. Barack Obama has had to move away from the vague generalities of campaigning, but Oprah never has to make those compromises; that’s why she never seeks political office. Notice Sarah Palin has finally come on Oprah’s show—and when? When Palin begins working for Fox News, adopting the very media gambit in which Oprah herself participates. She becomes acceptable once she too is forced to become formatted (however polemically still) for the masses. In her interview with Palin, Oprah definitely put Sarah through the ringer, but she gave her plenty of time to restate her memoir, to become irreducible and easy-to-consume—“Ladies, we all know her, the Working Mother.” When Palin comes on the show now, they can talk about hair and shoes and kids. Our practices of consumption are a universal form that allows us to discover other things we share. We love children. We want peace for mankind. We’d prefer if people didn’t starve. These values don’t have a particular party orientation, for Oprah would not allow herself to become exclusive to any ethnic or political marker. She speaks for women and children, which for her is a language of peace that should break down congressional impasses.
NS: We’re certainly in a time of congressional impasses. The president is calling for strength and pragmatism. Is the spirit of Oprah’s politics, which catapulted Obama during the campaign, able to stick with him? Does she offer a viable politics for passing health-care reform? Or does she throw up her hands and leave that business—I hate to say it—to the men?
KL: I would probably press back and say, who in the sphere of popular culture—who with her mass appeal and consumption—is, actually, politically consequential? Characters like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are in some ways allowed more extremity, more particularity, but they too become caricatures in that particularity, and thus again some sort of generic disenfranchised populist. These are two different forms of gargoyle, and neither one is more or less misshapen than the other. If the question is whether or not reformist politics are still best purveyed by a certain form of male embodiment—probably, but that doesn’t mean that women can’t ascend to it. Indeed, Oprah is a political formatting some women use—Sarah Palin is an Oprah kind of woman in a lot of ways. If the question is sustainability, Oprah’s politics are sustainable precisely because they aren’t contingent upon any legislation. They rest upon the discursive experience of pain and difficulty. Palin’s rallying cry as she enters the public sphere is, “I am a mother who made hard choices, I didn’t abort my child.” Hillary Clinton—less of an Oprah woman, but one corrected over time to become one—rides upon the coattails of marital misery. As long as the success of women in the public sphere depends on that narrative of personal discomfort, Oprah continues to control the game.
NS: Recently there has been a flurry of polemics fixing blame on the prosperity gospel and positive thinking in American culture for the financial crisis and much else, like Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided and Hannah Rosin’s denunciation of prosperity preachers in The Atlantic. Do you locate Oprah in that milieu? Do you think the kind of neoliberalism she preaches is basically delusive, even dangerous?
KL: Oprah is a passionate advocate for a kind of prosperity gospel, insofar as she believes in a correlative relationship between one’s disposition and one’s materiality. However, to conflate her with the current market crisis would be to oversimplify the knotty doctrines of her empire. Her advice is ruthlessly pragmatic, even if it’s wrapped in mystical dreams of the miraculous Secret. 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.
NS: So all else becomes subservient to the commercial?
KL: Her reply would be that, no, all else becomes subservient to the spirit. The first question everyone should ask is, “What is my spirit telling me to do?” How do you tap into your spirit? How do you re-enchant your spirit after being pulled upon, tugged upon, by the false pragmatism of men, family, work? The replies to that are frequently flattered by the commercial, but not solely comprised of it.
NS: And religion? Is she “spiritual but not religious”?
KL: Oprah is a hearty critic of religion, and her criticisms of religion echo a lot of people who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious.” She worries in particular about all the ways women are structured and institutionalized, religious and otherwise. Against such straps, she insists on “spirit” as some liberation from those strictures. I think, in the end, that my book is in part a study of the commercial contours of that sort of discourse—for Winfrey and, I argue, much of American religion. In the language of spiritual liberation I think a lot of other prison houses are encoded. “Spirit” silences almost every other kind of structural thinking. Not just religious thought, but also political, sociological, racial, and gendered thinking. For Oprah’s critics, she often comes across as this nouveau-riche spiritual mountebank: the endless decadence, the soft pillows, the candles, the overwhelming brocade. But what I’m more interested in is why this soft place?
NS: Your prose reads as scholarship inflected with rhapsody, as if you’re acting out—or even experiencing—the effect of Oprah. Does rhapsody count as scholarship?
KL: For me, the scholars that have been the most exhilarating and maddening have been these who were absorbed enough by their material to communicate its logic to the reader with an equal commitment to discipline and affective disquiet. I think, here, of Lauren Berlant’s astonishing trilogy on national sentimentality; of Robert Orsi’s intimate articulations of Catholic piety; and of the fiction and nonfiction of David Foster Wallace. While I could speak academically about a lot of academics, on the subject of Wallace I’ll probably quickly become obsequious. Suffice it to say that I think the best humanism pursues some version of what he accomplished in his Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. So, to answer your question, I think rhapsody—passion—is something obsessively detailed, careful, and devotedly disturbing. If rhapsody is another way to describe the orgiastic demographer, then yes, I think it is scholarship, and I’m signed on. I will always cajole students to map their own objectivity as an important conjure, and to find ways to invite their imagined readers into the real, systematic, trickster-work of knowledge production.
NS: What would Oprah think of your book?
KL: 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?