The Gospel of an Icon:

De-provincializing Oprah

posted by Manuel A. Vásquez

In Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, Kathryn Lofton holds up a lustrous mirror to the polymorphously perverse dynamics of boom and bust, surplus and lack, and redemptive optimism and paranoid anxiety that characterize America (and much of the world) at the turn of the twenty-first century. A particular strength of the book is its capacity to embed Oprah in contemporary cultural, religious, financial, media, and “therapeutic” fields of production, circulation, and consumption, highlighting her multiple roles as a collectively imagined self who allows each of us, as individual viewers and consumers, to gain a measure of empowering authenticity and stability. This is Lacan for our electronic age: the mediated omnipresent icon as the abundant Other that enables us to view ourselves as wholes, to transcend our own lacks.

And yet, while Lofton is very skillful at contextualizing, she rightly refuses to reduce Oprah to a mere fetish, a mere epiphenomenal expression of social realities. The causal arrows do not point in a single direction, from base to superstructure, as the geological model of society that modernist social scientists persistently use when dealing with religion. As Lofton writes, “Oprah encompasses more than a therapist’s couch, or a woman’s purse, or the revival preacher’s bench.” If there is anything that names the surplus that Oprah’s “flexodoxy” entails, it is the intra-activity between the materiality of the spirit and the spirituality of materiality in late, thoroughly-mediatized capitalism. Through her careful product recommendations or her selection of particular books for her reading club, Oprah spiritualizes materiality, saving us from drowning in the seemingly inexhaustible profane sea of commodities and images that assault us virtually 24-7. In Lofton’s words, “[i]n the loneliness of daily disconnection and the paralysis of abundance, Oprah pervades with selective, incorporated, reliable, ritual regularity. She soothes and she sifts.” The purchase and consumption of these products, in turn, allow for the materialization of spirituality, whether in the achievement of financial success or a good sex life, as befit a fully realized self.  This is precisely what Lofton aptly calls a “spiritual capitalism.”

Here Lofton takes us beyond Weber and his notions of disenchantment and elective affinity that are still predicated on a dualistic understanding of spirit and matter, religion and society, and the sacred and the secular. Again, Lofton puts it well: “Oprah offers to us a way to see a mechanism, up close, strings demonstrably exposed, of how contemporary mass culture convinces us of its conveyances. Is it a religious culture? A mass consumer culture?  Simmering beneath the particulars of this study is the proposition that to force a difference between the two is to compel a false distillation from a quagmire of commingling processes.” Or, more dramatically, “I have found that whatever distinguishing marks we make between commodities and religion, they are, for all practical purposes, arbitrary.”

This insight into the intense and extensive contemporary intra-activity of materiality and spirituality is a powerful explanatory tool. For example, it helps explain the explosive growth of global Neo-Pentecostal networks and cultures, which operate through mass media and popular culture to spread a gospel of health and wealth based on the notion that spiritual salvation, economic success, and physical well-being are mutually implicative. In my work on Brazilian transnational Neo-Pentecostal churches, which—along with Nigerian and Ghanaian churches—are spearheading the growth of the gospel of health and wealth, I have referred to this spirit-matter nexus as “pneumatic materialism.” It is a non-reductive materialism that has emerged through an intense cross-fertilization of non-dualistic autochthonous traditions and a global postmodern re-enchantment of the world, most dramatically expressed by the challenge to the “metaphysics of presence” posed by rapid changes in communications and transportation technologies.  I use the term pneumatic, which comes from the Greek word pneuma, meaning literally “breath,” the spiritual force that animates matter, not only to characterize forms of Christianity that make the Holy Spirit central to the experience of the sacred, but also a diversity of global religions, ranging from Spiritism and Santería to Neo-Shamanism and Neo-Animism, which deal with a variety of seen and unseen agents that are not reducible to narrow parameters of rational naturalism.

Latin American and African Pentecostalisms are not only pneumatic but thoroughly materialist, in the sense that they reject the European (Cartesian) dichotomy between soul and body and its denigration of the latter. Drawing from indigenous traditions that link natural forces with the spirits of ancestors, these Pentecostalisms see the world in non-dualistic terms: the “supernatural” realm of the spirits is not other-worldly; it does not stand separate from or above the natural world. Rather, spirit and flesh are constitutively intertwined, as are transcendence and immanence. For these non-dualistic vernacular Pentecostalisms, individual salvation operates through a personal relation with God and is manifested in this-worldly health and wealth. Conversion entails a new, highly malleable “spirit-matter” nexus, a holistic re-articulation of the self and its surroundings. This new pneumatic materialism is able to bridge, in multiple contexts, the tension between the seen and the unseen, among the personal, the local, the transnational, and the cosmic. This accounts for the great portability of Latin American and African Pentecostalisms.

The notion of pneumatic materialism has obvious connections with Lofton’s spiritual capitalism. Both terms seek to express complex, fluid, power-laden-yet-open-ended relations that constitute practices and discourses that have come to be constructed as religious and/or spiritual in our present age. But what does it mean that Brazilian or Nigerian Neo-Pentecostalism share a common epistemology and modus operandi with Oprah and Harpo Inc.?  While Oprah provides a particularly striking example of the spiritualization of materiality and the materialization of spirituality, she is but one expression of a global polymorphous hyper-animism that is emerging out of the ruins of Western modernity, particularly out of the crisis of overproduction and overconsumption in contemporary “casino capitalism,” as Jean and John Comaroff term it.

I would thus argue for the need to de-provincialize the U.S., to rephrase Dipesh Chakrabarty. We need to resist the trap of American exceptionalism that has dominated the study of American religious history. Lofton takes an important step in this direction with a perceptive chapter on Oprah’s missionary forays into Africa. Lofton is mindful that Harpo Inc. is a global player, “superseding the provincial borders of Winfrey’s native nation-state, foisting the O brand as a circulating object of the new international economy.” This is surely a good starting point, but it is not enough. In order to understand the specificity of Oprah’s iconicity, it is necessary to place her within global religioscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, ideoscapes, ethnoscapes, and financescapes (to draw from Arjun Appadurai), alongside other pneumatically materialistic phenomena. Otherwise, we risk replaying the old provincial narrative of “only in America,” a narrative that, with the rise of alternative poles of economic, cultural, and religious production, such as Brazil, India, China, and Nigeria, has become increasingly myopic. The great virtue of Lofton’s book is to give us tools and insights to study the intra-activity of religion, popular culture, media, entertainment, and economics, not only in the U.S., but in this new polycentric cartography.

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