Oprah: The Gospel of an Iconby Kathryn Lofton
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"Today on Oprah," intoned the TV announcer, and all over America viewers tuned in to learn, empathize, and celebrate. In this book, Kathryn Lofton investigates the Oprah phenomenon and finds in Winfrey’s empire—Harpo Productions, O Magazine, and her new television network—an uncanny reflection of religion in modern society. Lofton shows that when Oprah liked, needed, or believed something, she offered her audience nothing less than spiritual revolution, reinforced by practices that fuse consumer behavior, celebrity ambition, and religious idiom. In short, Oprah Winfrey is a media messiah for a secular age. Lofton’s unique approach also situates the Oprah enterprise culturally, illuminating how Winfrey reflects and continues historical patterns of American religions.
"Thoroughly researches, engagingly written, deftly weaving together major currents of US religious and cultural history, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon will hold great interest for students and scholars in religious studies, American studies, and media and cultural studies, but Winfrey's fans may also enjoy this lively exegesis of their heroine."
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The Gospel of an Icon
By Kathryn Lofton
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
The Prosperity Gospel of a Spiritual Capitalism
The long story of free markets in the West deposits us at the door of Oprah Winfrey. Even in the face of such an anesthetizing clearinghouse as Harpo, Incorporated, the nature of capitalism is too ubiquitous to say anything simple about it. Capitalism may be adjudicated on numerical grounds; it may be observed as a historical factor; it may breathe and it may beget; it may manifest and exclude; it may transfix and enchant; it may be magical, cruel, relentless, calculating, incoherent, and organizing; it may produce certain sociologies, certain anthropologies, and certain ecologies; likewise, it may be seen to have been produced by these social sciences and natural sciences; it may be gendered and racial, colonial and postcolonial, sexual and neutered; it is radical egalitarianism and imperfect hierarchy; it is the ultimate morality and the egregious immorality; it is lionized and defamed; it is liberation and it is oppression. "Capitalism—in the diverse range of needs, dependencies, affective investments, self-pathologies, and longings it promotes—gets personal," Joel Pfister has written. Capitalism is everything even as "it" is nothing—nothing singular, at the very least. It is the condition of possessing its productions (capital); it is a position of its participants (capitalists); and it is a system that produces more of itself (capitalism). Yet this generic is inadequate to the narratives of its particular. If we are to take up the structural contours in which the empire of Oprah found its footing, then this specificity must be found and named.
To approach this modern moment, we might best narrow its capitalism to the modes of life that it produces and that produce it. The easiest way to accomplish this winnowing is to emphasize the transactional character of society. Commodities are things produced as articles of commerce. Not all objects are commodities, as the category of commodity lexically marks the difference between an object and an object as merchandise. A consumer society is one in which the commodity orients social activity. "Consumption" then categorizes the conceptualization of the purchase and use of such objects. In this rendering, capitalism is the overarching narrative process, commodity is the distinguishing designation of that process, and consumption is the framework for the experience and engagement with that history and its products. To distinguish these categories (capitalism, commodity, and consumption) so cleanly is to miss, in some vital sense, the dazzling, Technicolor mess of the whole shebang. Yet scholarship tends to huddle on the flavored dynamic of this troika, trying to determine how some commodities have surpassed others, how some strategies of consumption have displaced others, and how the methods of capitalism have pervaded the rationalizing irrationality of nation-state formation, global market saturation, and the large-scale violence of labor negotiation.
Oprah presents an instantiation of the overlapping nature of these categories. She is capitalist and capital; she is a commodity and consumer. Oprah is a product, but Oprah's product is not individual objects. Her patents are not mechanical innovations or engineering improvements. She does not design fabric or copyright personal recipes. Rather, her taste is her product. Her O is what she sells. The O is her signature, her initial, and her trademark. It is a sound, a reminder of her televised exclamations: "Oh, no." "Oh, yes." "Oh, please." "Oh, I never." "Oh!" "Oh?" "Oh." Awed, orgasmic, thrilled, worried, and converted, an O is the noise of emotional presence and ready delight. Such instinctual display (what I feel right now, right here, before this new thing, new experience, or new encounter—Oh!) should not confuse the consumer with its earthy sheen. The O is never unscheduled or chaotic. It is cadence. For every girly (womanly, interviewing, ministerial, listening, awakening) "oh," there is a corporate O labeling a magazine, a book, a bracelet, or a piece of stereo equipment. The O circles her consumer selections with her emboss, bequeathing her halo upon her beloved choices. The O envelops the commodities that she has chosen expressly for herself and, now, expressly for you. She is a pitchwoman of her own consumption; her consumption is her commodity.
As the charismatic entrepreneur of her consumer choices, Oprah may seem to embody the enemy of the ascetic Protestants cast in Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–5). Cashmere-coated and ribbon-ringed, the O frames a quality of abundance that Weber named as oppositional to the appearance-of-saintly-restraint component of Calvinist bourgeois business acumen. "As long as his moral conduct was spotless and the use to which he put his wealth was not objectionable," Weber wrote of that ideal Protestant worker, this man "could follow his pecuniary interests as he would and feel that he was fulfilling a duty in doing so." Protestants can, unlike their posited religious forerunners, contribute centrally to the new capitalism. They can make money and, according to Weber, they have made it incredibly well. But the manner in which it has been made and spent has determined the sanctification of the buyer (and the producer's) spirit. "Man is only a trustee of the goods which have come to him through God's grace" is a description of the limited array of goods that should come, not an endorsement of every graceful cup, chair, or pen. Weber argued that certain stripes of Protestantism have provided spiritual agency to the Western rationalization of capitalism, yet he, and his elected Calvinists, were clear: those stripes are not to be bedazzled.
If Weber's version of capital practices required faithful capitalist labor by ascetic Protestants with limited possessions, Winfrey's revision reclaims those abandoned possessions from the condemnation by Protestant reformers. Scholars have differentiated between charismatic capitalism, a capitalism that sells itself through the autonomy of direct solicitation, and millennial capitalism. Charismatic capitalism is driven by the image and reality of door-to-door persuasions, whereas millennial capitalism presents itself as a "gospel of salvation" that supersedes any storefront operator to become itself a discourse of possibility. On The Oprah Winfrey Show and in O, The Oprah Magazine, a combination of the two succeeds, as a singular door-to-door, page-to-page, day-to-day peddler finds her voice in a regular dispersal of a good news materialism. In Winfrey's capitalist modernity, this materiality is a spiritual practice. Since spirit is deployed abundantly and to great affirming gusto by Harpo, it receives its own specific attention in a later chapter. For this perusal of practices and purchasing, "the spiritual" will be deployed in the sense used by Winfrey herself, namely, that for Oprah the spiritual is uninhibited ineffability. Spirituality is the application of this ineffable pursuit of revelation, of the divine, and of your authentic Best Life through regimens of practice. That these practices are largely oriented around consumption should not be seen as hypocrisy. Spiritual capitalism is a redundancy, not an irony of history. Oprah is a component of the persistent spirituality of capital and not a spiritual mountebank in an imagined secular capitalism.
In the world of this O, little practices are little pleasures that garner direct, material connection to your spirit. "A strong cup of coffee ... going for a walk through the woods with all five dogs unleashed ... working out ... sitting under my oaks, reading the Sunday papers ... hanging out at Quincy Jones' kitchen table, talking about everything and nuthin'," these are the practices of celebrity consumption and self-servicing pleasure that Winfrey regularly relates to her audience. "The enjoyment comes from knowing the receiver understands the spirit of the gift." Winfrey's gift giving dominates her enterprise, so much so that every chapter of Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon narrates a genre of gift encircled by Winfrey's O. Distribution and the celebration of the distributive act are difficult to divide in Winfrey's world. But in this she is not alone. To divide advertisement from entertainment was never a clean classificatory effort, all the less now, as the development of commodity image is requisite for everything from novels to starlets to new vacuum cleaners. Infomercials are increasingly hard to differentiate from prime time television programming. Celebrities are indistinguishable from corporate brands. Product placements drive fictional televised plots. The line between cultural consumption and consumer culture is seemingly impossible to draw.
What separates Winfrey's work is the soul-salving signification attached to her recommendations. Much of her persistence has been premised on the unaffected joy she takes in fusing her charisma with a product's image and with connecting the message of her show to the slogan of a new brand. Her real-time economic consequences have produced a market result, as financial observers named an "Oprah Effect" to describe the market upswing resultant from any Winfrey endorsement. She recommends so that you too may consume, so that you too may share in the decadence of her self-celebrating life. Show formats ("Oprah's Favorite Things," "Transform Your Closet," "Instant Room Makeovers") and columns in her magazine and segments of her Web site ("Food and Home," "Mind and Body") recommend countless objects, from lipsticks to tank tops, honey to books, pens to sedans, computers to butter trays. These holiday and springtime Favorite Things bonanzas distribute to audience members "all the things I love to give and receive." This gifting has biographic origins preceding her fortunate financial position. "Since I was a kid," Winfrey explains, "since I was like bare foot on a red dirt road in Mississippi whatever I had always felt better to me if I could share it with someone else."
This is the differentiating mark of Winfrey's parceling process. She gives not just to display the gifted product but also to encourage other practices of self-appreciation. She gives to remind her selected viewers that their spiritual election correlates to their donating abilities. The right goods, according to Winfrey's advocacy, encourage self-indulgence and relaxed reflection among individuals who spend too much time on others, not enough on themselves. This is how products become practices in the land of O. Every product of Winfrey's empire combines spiritual counsel with practical encouragement, inner awakening with capitalist pragmatism. Although in this chapter the practices of purchasing, buying, and shopping will be emphasized, the enjoinder to practice—practice anything collaborative with her middlebrow ambitions—covers a far wider swath of habits. "Behave your way to success" is one of the oft-repeated maxims recited by Oprah Winfrey and her cohort of guest psychologists, columnists, and spiritual gurus. Any study of the products of Harpo, Inc., reveals that prescriptive behavior dominates the substance of Winfrey's message. "Live Your Best Life" columnist and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg wrote in O, The Oprah Magazine, "To be able to make an intense effort—to heal, to speak, to create, to alleviate our suffering or the suffering of others—while guided by a vision of life with all its mutability, evanescence, dislocations, and unruliness, is the particular gift of faith." Viewers and readers are told to follow slogans that instruct them to "make the connection" and "get with the program" in an effort to "change your life" or "live your best life." Such connections are made, programs are designed, and lives are changed through Oprah's multimedia advocacy of specified, routine practices.
After watching an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, leafing through the magazine, or scanning the official Web site, one finds it imperative to do something. Inevitably, the stories of triumph make you wonder why you haven't; the endless precise advocacies (eat breakfast, spot prevaricators, write more letters, choose a better dentist, employ more flora as a decorating strategy) and psychological counsel (discover your relationship sin, reconcile with your estranged relative, find your dream, love realistically, work passionately) make you decide to vow to do something—even if its something small—somehow better.
For example, saying "thank you" becomes, in the world of Oprah Winfrey, not an act of reciprocal etiquette but a demonstration of communion, a gift to someone you love."I am Miss Gratitude. I preach gratitude, I live gratitude, I am gratitude, I am Oprah 'Gratitude' Winfrey," she comments. Gratitude doubles as a practice of healing and a practice of purchase. Responding to a New York City police officer who was at Ground Zero, Winfrey offered a gift: "When we heard that you were writing in your gratitude journal at Ground Zero, I wanted to give you this. This is my favorite writing journal that I created for myself. And this is one of my favorite pens from Rebecca Moss, that store that carries beautiful pens." Closing with a recommendation of Sarah Ban Breathnach's Simple Abundance, Winfrey binds it all together: "We see how we're all connected." The connection emerges from the fusion of genteel revival (say "thank you" more), regular practice (record your gratitude daily), and purchased garnish (these fine pens, those better notebooks). The product is a practice, and her practice is her product.
Winfrey's voice pervades throughout these instructions, modeling her suggestions through the order of her singular life. It is her face peering from the corner of every Web page, from the cover of every magazine, and from the center of every television screen. This cajoling omnipresence reminds the viewer that the teleology of these practices is no abstraction; the end is in her. She is the paradigmatic result of her prescriptions: it is her body, her business, her couture closet, her favorite novel, and her latest breakfast marmalade that stand as the ideal demonstrations of the successful enactment of her advice. The message is made manifest in each of her media modes: here's what to do; here's some sage testimony as to the utility of your newly chosen habit; here's where to go to get it done; and here are some smart products to assist and decorate your process of self-realization. And in case you don't remember all Winfrey has told you to do, she provides three modes of reminder (televised, print, and Internet). The point of this media assault is clear. Don't just watch, do. This advocacy of action replies to the practical attentions of her viewers, since they turned to her in the beginning for some story, some answer, and some commiserating community that their own lives had not yet found. The products of her empire are the trail pointing her audience to the correct path back to her success.
Not only does Oprah programming incorporate an avalanche of practical encouragement, but her episodes and articles also serve as paradigmatic articulations of the spiritual practice of a capitalism simultaneously millennial, charismatic, and relentlessly quotidian. By leaning so heavily on a reading of Winfrey's consumer injunctions, I may seem to offer an undifferentiated materialist critique of her enterprise. Yet the supposition of her encouragements is never merely to acquire but also to transform. "If it is true that the grid of 'discipline' is everywhere becoming clearer and more extensive," Michel de Certeau has explained, "it is all the more urgent to discover how an entire society resists being reduced to it." Gathering the prescriptions of Oprah points us to those moments in which ideology feeds action, in which her rhetoric of change might manifest in individual lives.
Excerpted from Oprah by Kathryn Lofton. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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What People are Saying About This
"A fascinating new perspective on a media icon."Booklist
"Budding and active scholars of cultural, popular, and religious studies will read with interest."Library Journal
"If you read it [Oprah], you won't think about the connection between religion and consumer culture the same way again."Patheos
"A unique analysis of the talk queen's multimedia empire."B.l.a.c.
Meet the Author
Kathryn Lofton is the Sarai Ribicoff Associate Professor of American Studies and Religious Studies at Yale University.
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