09/05 Author's Roundtable 2: Kathryn Lofton, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon Responses from Diana Jaher, Mimi Nguyen

Friday, December 9, 2011

posted under by Unit for Criticism
[On Monday, December 5, the Unit for Criticism held the second of its Fall 2011 Author’s Roundtables. The Unit hosted Kathryn Lofton to discuss her book Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon. The below contributions are from two respondents: Diana Jaher and Mimi Nguygen.]

Oprah Winfrey as Deus Ex Machina: Response 1
Written by Diana Jaher

James Frey on Oprah
When I read Kathryn Lofton’s chapter, “Diverting Conversions: The Makeover as Social Rite,” I was struck by how many theatre metaphors she uses to describe Oprah Winfrey’s talk show. She mentions the show’s “plot,” “performativity,” “script,” “stage,” “spectacle,” and “spectacular casting.” The confession motif that Lofton analyzes throughout this chapter takes dramatic form as guests such as James Frey, autobiographical self-embroiderer, divulge a closely-guarded secret or admit to some misdeed, repent, are forgiven, and then convert to the Oprah gospel-of-better-living through public penitence and moral transformation. Lofton describes this revelation as an “aha!” moment or the“climax” (another theatrical metaphor) of that day’s episode. She notes that the audience members – whether in the studio or watching at home – witnessing this moment of truth undergo a metaphorical purging of their own emotions and experience feelings of relief akin to those of the confessor who can finally let go of the burden of his or her secret.

"Princess for a Day" February 2003

In his Poetics, Aristotle notes drama’s ability to purge its spectators of the pity and fear they experience when watching a tragic or near-tragic situation. We also call this catharsis. And that “aha moment!” or turning point evokes Aristotle’s anagnorisis or “change from ignorance to knowledge" experienced by both the dramatic character and the audience. Theatrical metaphors also suffuse the first Oprah episode Lofton discusses in this chapter, “Princess for a Day,” which gives women living in straitened circumstances lifestyle makeovers. Each woman plays the role of protagonist; her financial setback, the antagonist; and Oprah Winfrey, deus ex machina – literally, the god in the machine – who comes down from on high when we need her the most and grants our prayers. For “Princess” Fannie Eugene, the answered prayer is a $23,700 minivan with which she can commute to work. Oprah’s divine intervention into these women’s lives turns the show into tragicomedy as she averts each woman’s potential tragedy by supplying a happy ending structured around monetary reward. Yet Eugene’s circumstances illustrate the limits of Oprah’s godlike powers for Eugene’s life continues after Oprah rings down the metaphorical curtain. In a later episode, we learn that Eugene’s home is hit by Hurricane Katrina. The minivan whisks Eugene and her large family to safety, but even Oprah, the divine icon, does not or cannot undo the federal government’s inability to strengthen New Orleans’s levees or FEMA’s incapacity to house displaced disaster victims adequately.

These episodes – which feature either confession, as in Frey’s case, or coronation, as in Eugene’s – are filled with theatrical conventions: they follow a familiar script; are staged on Oprah’s talk show set; and feature performances of abjection, gratitude, and humility. They embody the concept of theatricality. Theatre scholars use “theatricality” as an umbrella term, defining it as, for example, a necessary condition for performance, a nonrealistic mode of representation, an aesthetic style, or a (sometimes pejorative) synonym for either artifice or excess. Lofton’s book prompts us to ask what purpose Oprah’s theatricality serves. Do the guests’ performances draw us to them – allowing us to empathize with them and recognize our own emotions and experiences in theirs? Do these Oprah episodes illuminate and help us make sense of some aspect of the human condition and our place in the world – as the best theatre does? Or does the theatricality distance us by making us conscious of the performative aspects of self-presentation, making us question the authenticity of these confessions, these lived experiences, these emotions – even of identity itself by turning it into a kind of performance art? For some audience members, the answer will be the former; for some, the latter; and for many, both.

Finally, theatre events, religious rites, and Oprah episodes share one important aspect I want to conclude with: they are all dependent upon the spectators’ trust in and commitment to the performance that unfolds in front of them – or faith. And if Oprah embodies today’s religious experience, then that experience makes for great theatre.

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The 'New Sites' of Feeling: Response 2
Written by Mimi Thi Nguyen

Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Brian
In the introduction to her talk last Monday, Kathryn Lofton invoked Oprah Winfrey’s “embodied endurance” as key to her now-ritualized story of suffering, survival, and salvation. As Lofton observes, Oprah is about moving you--her viewer--from one state to another. On “Celebrated Photos of Our Time,” an episode that aired in 2000, Oprah stages a scene of racial reconciliation between Elizabeth Eckford, famously photographed as the black high schooler being escorted through a mob of angry white youth, and Hazel Brian, whose contorted, snarling face had become a touchstone for their hateful expressions. The tremendous violence that met the occasion of desegregation –the dramatic upheaval of the racial order of the human after a Jim Crow century— is performed as now redressed by the intimate encounter between victim and perpetrator. Years later, as the two women recount on the show, Hazel confessed her sins and asked for forgiveness, and Elizabeth obliged – and they are now friends, which, we are led to believe, is the consummation of justice.

This follows the “common narrative trajectory” Lofton discusses in her chapter about “reading religiously:” “a woman experiences an enormous trauma,” “the remainder of the plot follows the character as she manages the psychological, material, or social aftereffects of this trauma” (163). Oprah’s “personalization [of every story] exists to encourage yours” (176). What does this mean for considering histories of social death or injury? From this story’s provocation, I follow from scholars including Sianne Ngai, Elizabeth Povinelli, Sara Ahmed, and Lauren Berlant about the culture of true feeling, which hangs upon suffering as a human commonality, and organizes ethical sociality accordingly. If Eckford’s story as a champion of healing, love, and forgiveness can be understood as a lesson for fostering a tolerant liberal-racial collectivity, the consequences bring home, as it were, an empire of intimacy – to reflect upon, as Berlant urges, the ways in which “this mode of sentimentality takes up the Enlightenment project of cultivating the soul of the subject toward a visceral capacity to embody, recognize, and sanction virtue, and it expands it into the collective activity of compassionate cosmopolitanism, which places affective recognition at the center of what binds strangers to each other. Yet sentimentality’s universalist rhetoric gains its authority not in the political domain, but near it, against it, and above it: sentimental culture entails a proximate alternative community of individuals sanctified by recognizing the authority of true feeling—authentic, virtuous, compassionate—at the core of a just world” (34).

Lofton observes that the “anxiety couch” (as it were) of Oprah’s show bears an analogous structure to the Protestant conversion narrative, “moving from contcontrition to humiliation to exaltation” (93). Analogy operates here through a logic of equivalence of feeling, thus articulating a proliferating series of (hoped for) comparable phenomena or social formations. In this instance the analogy is not located in the "visible" or substantial similarities, but as Foucault argues, in a "more subtle resemblance of relations. Disencumbered thus, it can extend, from a single given point, to an endless number of relationships" (21). In doing so, analogy extracts each element as independent of historical processes and also from interactions with each other, such that complicity and complexity disappears or fades into noise.

In the proliferation of stories of pain, we thereby find both the recognition of great particularity, on the one hand, and universal similarity, on the other. Or as Lofton observes so well, “Participants [in Oprah’s world-building] agree on the universality of suffering, of secrecy, of generational disappointment. They persist despite these downtrodden sentiments because of the opportunities for connection and the possibility of the lightbulb” (186). In this light, and that of the story told at the start of my comments, how might these analogies also cohere around the Christian dimension of forgiveness, as a personal journey of authentic self-making that nonetheless bears political resonance?
I ask this question as someone whose work is especially concerned with forgiveness and its often-times troubling resonance for settler colonial states; postcolonial regimes; after-wartime atrocities; civilian massacres; or racial violence including apartheid, Jim Crow, and other forms of deliberative social death? For Jacques Derrida, writing in the historical context of forgiveness as an ever-expanding idiom in law and diplomacy (especially after atrocity), genuine forgiving must denote the impossible – the unforgivable, the “crime against humanity.” This juridical concept, first formulated in 1907 at The Hague Court and subsequently institutionalized in the U.N. Charter and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for Derrida “remains at the horizon of the whole geopolitics of the pardon…furnishing it with a discourse and legitimating it” (30). It is the geopolitics of the pardon that is for him contaminated by calculative reasoning, or the theater of pain. Indeed, Derrida insists that a rigorously ethical forgiveness must be heterogeneous to the order of politics and against historical finality, lest it become mere calculation, or worse still, normalization.

So, I’m interested in exploring further Oprah as a machine through which a politics of sentimentality --which as Lofton demonstrates so well borrows heavily from religious analogies of confession, ritual, and witness-- instrumentalizes the further extraction of supplement and surplus from a violated or abject body, which is also a body historically subject to religious or civilizational conversion (and which as Lofton also demonstrates, is part of the show’s appeal to transformation, to “moving on” through progressive time), through the incorporation of two supposedly “ennobling” moral obligations—confession by a perpetrator and forgiveness by a victim— into the circuit of Oprah’s gospel.


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