Dysfunction Junction, What's Your Function?

February 1, 2006

About 10 minutes into last week's now legendary episode of Oprah (the show that made it to the front page of newspapers; the one that left "memoirist" James Frey on the verge of confessing that he possibly made up his own name, but couldn’t be sure), one part of my mind was riveted to the tube while another part wandered off to conduct an intensive seminar about the whole thing, complete with Power Point slides containing extensive quotations from Foucault’s late writings on the "technologies of the self."

This happens a lot, actually. What Steve Martin once said about philosophy also applies to cultural theory: "When you study it in college, you learn just enough to screw you up for the rest of your life."

Well, it turns out that a certain amount of my seminar was just a repetition of work already done in the field that we might well call "Oprah studies." It has a substantial literature, including four academic books and numerous journal articles, most of which I have read over the past few days. Some of it is smart and insightful. Some of it consists of banalities gussied up with footnotes. In other words, it's like Shakespeare criticism, only there isn't as much of it.

Though there's plenty, to be sure. I've now spent more time reading the literature than I ever have watching the show. Some of it has been very instructive. There was, for example, a journal article from a few years ago complaining that other scholars had not grasped Oprah's postmodernity because they had failed to draw on Mikhail Bakhtin’s work on dialogism.

What important results follow from applying Bakhtin? Well,  the concept of dialogism reveals that on talk shows, people talk to one another.

We may not have realized that before. But we do now. Scholarship is cumulative.

Indeed, by 2003, there were grounds to think that Oprah was not postmodern, but an alternative to postmodernity. So it was revealed when the first book-length study of the daytime diva appeared from Columbia University Press: Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery: An Essay on Popular Culture, by Eva Illouz, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"Far from confirming Fredric Jameson's view that postmodern culture lacks emotionality or intensity because cultural products are disconnected from the people who produced them," writes Illouz, "Oprah Winfrey suggests that both the meaning and the emotional intensity of her products are closely intertwined with her narrative authority." Her programs, books, movies, magazine, and other cultural commodities all add up to "nothing less than a narrative work [able] to restore the coherence and unity of contemporary life."

For an example of this redemptive process in action, we might turn to the program from six years ago called "Men Whose Hair Is Too Long" -- during which, as Illouz describes it, "Oprah brought to the stage women who told the audience of their desire to have their sons, lovers, brothers, or husbands change a ‘hairy part’ of their body (mustache, hair, beard)." The menfolk are briefly “exposed to the public” and then “taken to a back room” – from which they later emerge with “a change supposed to effect a spectacular transformation.”

Such transformations are part of the Oprah metanarrative, as we might want to call it.

“The ‘hairy parts’ are exposed as a transactional object in a domestic, intimate relationship that is constructed as contentious,” as Illouz explains. “The haircut or moustache shave provides a double change, in the man’s physical appearance and in his intimate relationship with a close other. The show’s pleasure derives from the instantaneous transformation -- physical or psychic -- undergone by the guests and their relationships, which in turn promote closer bonds.”

This all sounds deeply transformative, to be sure. It made me want to go get a haircut.

But something about the whole argument -- Illouz’s reference to Oprah’s “narrative authority”; the framing of makeover as ritual of self-transfiguration; the blurring of the line between intimate relationship and televised spectacle -- is really frustrating to consider.

It is hard not to think of Richard Sennett’s argument in The Fall of Public Man: On the Social Psychology of Capitalism (Knopf, 1977), for example, that we have been on a long, steady march towards “the tyranny of intimacy,” in which every aspect of the social conversations gets reduced to the level of the personal. “It is the measurement of society in psychological terms,” as Sennett put it. “And to the extent that this seductive tyranny succeeds, society itself is deformed.”

But no! Such worries are part of an “elite” cultural discourse, according to Sherryl Wilson’s book Oprah, Celebrity, and Formations of Self, published by Palgrave in 2003. A whole raft of theorists (the Frankfurt School, David Reisman in The Lonely Crowd (1950), the arguments about the rise of “psychological man” and “the culture of narcissism” in the writings of Philip Rieff and Christopher Lasch, and so on) have treated mass society as a force creating an almost inescapable force of consumerism and privatized experience. The fascination with celebrities is part of this process. Their every quirk and mishap becomes news.

To the “elitist” eye, then, Oprah might look like just another symptom. But according to Wilson (who is a lecturer in media theory at Bournemouth University in the UK) the Oprah phenomenon belongs to an altogether different cultural logic. It is a mistake to regard her program as just another version of therapeutic discourse. It draws, rather, on feminist and African-American understandings of dialogue -- the public sharing of pain, survival, and mutual affirmation -- as a necessary means of transcending the experience of degradation.

The unusually intense relationship between Oprah and her audience would probably have impressed a stodgy old Marxist like Theodor Adorno as evidence of alienation under advanced capitalism. Wilson regards “the apparent closing of the gap between the star self and the personal self” as something quite different.

“Rather than the participants seeking to transcend their ‘ordinariness’ by emulating the personal of a celebrity,” writes Wilson, “it is the ‘ordinary’ and everyday experience of Oprah which works to validate the personal stories recounted by the guests. In other words, those who speak on the show, and who participate through viewing at home, do not position themselves within the aura of a personal anchored in a glamour that for the majority is unattainable; rather, empowerment is located within the realm of everyday life.”

While the star does possess an undeniable charisma, Oprah’s is the glamour of simple decency. “Irrespective of the topic of the day or the treatment through which the topic is handled,” as Wilson puts it, “Oprah’s performance is guaranteed to be inclusive, (generally) nonjudgmental, (often) humorous, and (almost always) empathic.”

How that amiable persona then generated certain massive effects in the literary sphere is a matter addressed in the two scholarly volumes devoted to analyzing the Oprah Book Club.

Reading with Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America, by Kathleen Rooney, a writing instructor at Emerson College, was published in 2005 by the University of Arkansas Press. The previous fall saw the appearance of Reading Oprah: How Oprah’s Book Club Changed the Way American Reads (State University of New York Press) by Cecilia Konchar Farr, a professor of English and women’s studies at the College of St. Catherine.

Each book has a defensive quality; the authors seem to want to defend the book club, nearly as much as they do to analyze it. “From its inception in September 1996,” notes Rooney, “OBC was commandeered as a rallying point around which both cultural commentators and common people positioned themselves in perpetuation of America’s ongoing struggle of highbrow versus lowbrow. Both sides made reductive use of the club to galvanize themselves either as populist champions of literature for the masses or as intellectual defenders of literature from the hands of the incompetent.”

But Rooney contends that a closer look at the club, and at the books themselves, suggests “that there exists a far greater fluidity among the traditions categories of artistic classification than may initially meet the eye; that we needn’t shove every text we encounter into a prefabricated box labeled ‘high,’ ‘low,’ or ‘middle.’”

Farr’s argument in Reading Oprah converges with Rooney’s -- finding in the conversational praxis of the book club something like a down-home version of Barbara Hernnstein Smith’s Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Literary Theory (Harvard University Press, 1988).

The book club has embodied “contingent relativism,” writes Farr, “constructed not in the absence of truth, but in the context of many truths, negotiated truths, truths that people arrive at in conversation with others and with their own often contradictory values.” Hence the need to discuss the reading, to embed the books in a conversation. They need to “have a talking life” so that so that readers can “explore and work their way through the myriad of possible responses.”

Given their interest in giving Oprah’s aesthetic and ethical stances the benefit of the doubt, it is all the more striking when either author admits to feeling some reservations about the program. While doing her research, Farr recalls, she “tuned into a pre-Christmas program” that proved to be “an hour-long consumer frenzy.”

This was an “O List show” which is evidently a major event among the Oprahites. The celebrity “gives away literally hundreds of dollars worth of free stuff to every guest in her audience,” writes Farr. “Pants, candles, shoes, electronics – you name it. If Oprah likes it, she’s giving it away on this show....I watched open-mouthed, both appalled and envious. Was this incredibly tacky or unbelievably generous? Did I want to run screaming from the room or do my best to get on the next show? Both/and. It was a moment of genuine American ambivalence.”

The protocols of the book club were also grounds for concern, at least for Rooney. “Once the tape started rolling,” she writes, “neither Winfrey nor her readers seemed permitted to remark critically on the selections, or to advance beyond any but the most immature, advertisement-like, unconditionally loving responses to every single novel they encountered.”

What made last week’s program with James Frey so fascinating was the sudden revelation of another side of the Oprah persona. Gone was the branded performance as “inclusive, (generally) nonjudgmental, (often) humorous, and (almost always) empathic.” Her manner had scarcely any trace left of its familiar “I’m OK, you’re OK” spirit.

Oprah was angry, and Frey was some very considerable distance from OK. She was also indignant to discover that the publishing industry makes no real effort to enforce the implicit contract between reader and writer that goes with a book being shelved as nonfiction. This seems terribly naive on her part. But no doubt most of her audience shared her surprise. (“She wants publishers to fact-check their books?” I thought. “Hell, they don’t even edit them.”)

Remarkable as the spectacle was, however, it did not come as a total surprise. Perhaps I will give myself away as an “elitist” here, in the terms that Sherryl Wilson uses in Oprah, Celebrity, and Formations of Self. But at the end of the day, the therapeutic ethos is not antithetical to a deep yearning for authority (a craving then met by the stentorian Dr. Phil, who scholars have yet to analyze, oddly enough).

Nor is there any deep discontinuity between the conspicuous consumption of an “O List show” and the completely uncritical attitude towards whatever book Oprah has selected for the month. If anything, they seem like sides of a coin.

In search of a different perspective on the matter, I contacted Cecelia Koncharr Farr – whose book Reading Oprah seems, on the whole, an endorsement of the “individual pluralism” of the show’s ethos. What did she make of l’affaire Frey?

“It seems apparent to me,” Farr told me by e-mail, “that Oprah started out with a viewpoint that most experienced readers would have in this situation, that the facts aren't as important as the more general truthfulness of the story in a novel or memoir. Most readers surely took some of Frey's aggrandizements and exaggerations with a grain of salt from the beginning, while still enjoying the character he was constructing, still enjoying the story, and still finding the book powerful and interesting.....

“My guess is that the righteous indignation we saw on last week's show comes from Oprah representing the less experienced readers who needed Frey's memoir to be true in a journalistic sense. Her chastisement of the publishing industry was the first real exertion of her authority I have seen beyond her selection of books. She's earned that authority, certainly, but it was surprising to see her use it. Still, I believe she used it on behalf of her readers.”

I was, to be honest, dumbfounded by this response. I printed it out, and read it a few times to make sure Farr had actually said what she seemed to be saying.

Her contention seemed to be that Oprah’s audience had become upset from mistakenly reading the book as “true in a journalistic sense” -- which was, somehow, a function of readerly inexperience, not of authorial dishonesty.

And from her account, it appeared that Frey’s  memoir contained a "general truthfulness" -- one it would be naive to expect to be manifested at the level of occasional correspondence between the text's claims and ascertainable facts.

So I wrote her back, checking to see if I’d followed her.

“I think theorists and critics, especially, but also seasoned readers, read memoirs without an expectation of ‘correspondence between the text's claims and ascertainable facts,’” she responded. “Memoirists creatively construct characters and situations with a lot of license -- and readers and publishers have tacitly allowed that license. That's not to say Frey didn't take this license to its very limit. His constructions at times lose an even tenuous connection with ascertainable facts. When Frey pushed the limits, he drew intense attention to the slippage this connection has seen in recent years. But he wasn't the first to take such license, nor is he responsible for the larger changing perception of what ‘memoir’ (or ‘creative nonfiction’) means.”

Perhaps those terms now just mean “whatever you can get away with” -- though that seems vaguely insulting to honest writers working in those genres. (There is a some difference, after all, between the tricks played by memory and the kind that a con man practices.)

Why the furor over Frey? “I think the vilification he has been subject to in the media is extreme,” writes Farr, “and probably stems from some larger discomfort about dishonesty from sources who are (and ought to be ) culturally more responsible to the ‘ascertainable facts.’"

There may be something to that. And yet it begs any number of questions.

The man has made a small fortune off of fabricating a life and selling it -- while loudly talking, in the very same book, about the personally transformative power of “the truth.” Oprah Winfrey endorsed it, and (at first anyway) insisted that mere factual details were subordinate to a larger truth... A personal truth....A truth that, it seems, is accountable to nothing and nobody.

Suppose this becomes an acceptable aspect of public life – so that it seems naive to be surprised or angered by it. Then in what sense can we expect there to be institutions that, in Farr’s words, “are (and ought to be ) culturally more responsible to the ‘ascertainable facts’”?

Let’s leave that topic for the Oprah scholars to consider. In the meantime, remember that her next selection is Eli Wiesel’s Night, a memoir about surviving the Nazi death camps. It might be an interesting discussion. Especially if the book club takes up the idea that there are forms of truth that, in the final analysis, have exactly nothing to do with self-esteem.

Bio

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

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