Saturday, March 26, 2011

Kathryn Lofton's "Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon"

Kathryn Lofton is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies at Yale University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, and reported the following:
Can an icon make a mistake? This is where page 99 of my book finds us. The answer, it turns out, is an absolute no. An icon cannot make a mistake. Icons incorporate every hiccup, confusion, or missed step into their definitive ubiquity, so that potential “mistakes” transform into additional signs of their incorporative brilliance. Here we find Oprah Winfrey trying to recoup her iconic decency through her iconic confessional formats as she grapples with the lying memoirist James Frey. Of course, to some the phrase “lying memoirist” may seem an oddly redundant indictment, but when the crisis of Frey’s factual fudging emerged, Oprah lost no time, sermonizing almost immediately on the importance of Truth.

I use the James Frey episodes of The Oprah Winfrey Show also to elaborate a broader argument about the modes of “evangelical disclosure” (a phrase other scholars have used to describe the compulsively exposing revelations on talk show television) Oprah utilizes. Every chapter of the book links aspects of O programming with formats, theologies, and idioms from U.S. religious history. In other chapters I take up comparisons between her work and scriptural interpretive communities or global missionary projects. In this chapter, “Diverting Conversions: The Makeover as Social Rite,” I show how her discursive set-up repeatedly brings sinners to climactic—even orgiastic—release through her cajoling and absolutist solicitations. James Frey becomes then not a singular moment in the Oprah empire, but a powerfully indicative one: how even when she consumes something that causes her some emotional food poisoning, she is still able to use that suffering to her hermeneutic perpetuation. “It made me sick inside,” she shares, speaking about her reaction to his deceptions, connecting her very personal reaction to a set of products (her TV programs, magazine, web site, and nonprofit organizations) bent upon transfiguring the uniqueness of her spiritual insides to a commodity purchasable for your nursing survival.
Learn more about Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue