AS A SOCIAL AND POLITICAL THEORIST, I don’t study presidential elections or congressional behavior, foreign policy or state interactions. The “object” I study is not an empirically given thing; I can’t point to it, or look up data on it. Instead, the object is itself constituted by my theoretical work — produced through my thinking and writing.
My current object of study is the “social formation,” a concept that indicates a combination of discontinuous and overlapping domains — including the economic, the social, the cultural, and the political — that we often take to be separate or separable. To study the social formation means to see these areas not as distinct spaces, but as interpenetrating logics, as intermixed, porous domains that constantly infiltrate one another. A social formation is therefore also a political order, a complex and always changing entity that can never be fixed or held in place.
We can only capture snapshots of the social formation as it continually reorders itself (and therefore the world). Like photographs of human beings and the world, the snapshot arrests, but only temporarily, a scene that is always in motion. Yet even within the snapshot, we catch sight of the rhythms of our time — in government, society and culture at large. To expose a snapshot of the social formation is not to unmask something hidden, but rather to make a certain sense of the kind of society in which we live, and the nature of the way we both live it, and get lived by it.
One way to experience these snapshots is through a particular cultural rupture that grabs our attention. Consider the story of Lance Armstrong.
The story about Armstrong so far has been: he cheated to win (and lied to cover it up) and therefore was not the athletic champion and role model we thought him to be. It’s true: Armstrong clearly violated the formal rules of international cycling by taking performance-enhancing drugs during all of his Tour de France victories, and by several accounts, he bullied, intimidated, and manipulated anyone who threatened to reveal the truth. Left at this, the story is simplistic: a man cheated his way into the history books and into the hearts and minds of those who believed in him, and is therefore a fallen hero to be judged by a moral society that he betrayed.
This frame of the story, which largely comes to us from the media, is of course a perfectly intelligible way to look at Armstrong. But it is a myopic look at best, since it tells us little to nothing about the social formation at stake here. To account for it requires that we move beyond powerful partisan media frames that reduce the story to a common morality tale, and look instead to the historical, political and economic nexus out of which that story is born.
In Armstrong’s case, this nexus is far more complex than a mere question of right and wrong. Advances in doping in the late 1980s dramatically outpaced advances in testing, such that by the late 1990s (the Armstrong era) the advantages of taking EPO, testosterone (and then later, blood transfusions) — estimates of the benefits of doping in cycling range from 5% to 15% performance improvement — far outweighed the apparent risks of getting caught. Thus, from 1991 to 2010, almost every rider who placed in the top 10 in the Tour de France has, at some point in his career, either confessed to doping, been accused of doping by teammates, or failed a drug test. Doping was far from u...read more