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 universal — top-10 finishers make up only a small percentage of the overall peloton — but it was an essential element of the social formation.
This particular culture of doping emerged in tandem with a rising tide of multinational corporate sponsorship; together, they formed a win-at-all-costs atmosphere (perhaps not only in cycling, but also in baseball and other sports as well). In his interview with Oprah Winfrey, Armstrong speculated that the day his corporate sponsors all dropped him was “a $75 million day” in lost future earnings. If Armstrong as one individual could lose this much in sponsorship money, we ought to ask the question that neither Winfrey nor Armstrong raised as a follow-up: How much money in corporate profits is involved here? How much did team sponsors during the Armstrong era make through their involvement with a sport that was indelibly marked by doping? As the racing titles are now taken away from Armstrong, along with most of the other riders with whom he stood atop the podium, are there any penalties to be paid by the corporations who profited from the races, from the victories, and from the branding of the athletes? While Armstrong bears responsibility for making his own choices, it cannot be denied that those choices spring from the interpenetrating logics of a culture where branded marketing and sports iconography reign supreme.
The closer we come to moving “inside” this line of thinking, the more clearly we can see that “did Armstrong cheat?” just isn’t really the right question. Instead, we should be asking: Out of what cultural and social formation does a man like Lance Armstrong rise to be an icon? What are the conditions of possibility for his glorification (and villification)? To simply point to cheating — to breaking the rules through drug use — is to miss a much larger point.
The point is not so much that Armstrong doped but how he doped. It is in this sense that Armstrong seemed most honest, most genuine, in his interview: he understood that his worst offense was not that he took drugs, but that he attacked, bullied, dominated and sometimes destroyed those around him while doing so, and was successful at this because of the power and resources at his disposal. Armstrong used the tools available to him to play by a different set of rules, but the tools were produced by the very same culture that made him. The social formation was structured such that in 2009 Armstrong could make a media-hyped “comeback,” while his stigmatized and disgraced former teammates were not allowed to race at all.
Very little of the non-cycling reporting on the Armstrong story discusses omertà, the code of silence that operates with respect to doping. Even after USADA stripped Armstrong of his titles, few professional riders spoke out against him; most had no comment, while many defended Armstrong and repeated his own mantras about never testing positive. Omertà seems to have been broken only by those who were subpoenaed by USADA or who were already convicted of doping and banned from the sport. Thus, it would be very wrong to conclude that omertà no longer operates just because the USADA investigation included testimony about doping, and surely not because it resulted in a lifetime ban for Armstrong. Indeed, omertà has always operated in tandem with a logic of exile or banishment: no one in the peloton talks to outsiders, and those who get caught become outsiders.
Armstrong’s interview with Winfrey could do more to break the omertà and change the culture surrounding cycling and other sports than some critics might think.
His television confession was seen by many viewers and commentators as, at best, catharsis, and, at worst, a tactic of PR management and early legal wrangling; surely it was a combination of both. Armstrong was certainly not the first, or even the bravest, to break the omertà, but he was definitely the first whose confession was broadcast live to millions of viewers. It may sound counterintuitive to suggest that Armstrong’s confession to Winfrey could have more impact than testimony to national or international cycling organizations would. But omertà has always prohibited speaking to outsiders, while simultaneously encouraging internal communications. By speaking on US national television to an audience far wider than cyclists and cycling fans, Armstrong’s confession to Winfrey might prove to be the broadest break with omertà, and for that reason his words might resonate.
Of course, a social formation cannot be changed by the choices or actions of one individual; our culture changes because the norms and practices that constitute that culture change, and such transformations can therefore never be predicted. But those norms and practices are sustained through the actions and choices of individuals, with some (some individuals, some actions) having larger reverberations through the structure than others. If Armstrong’s ban and confession lead to more significant actions, such as a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the power and promise to genuinely break omertà, then real, perhaps radical change might.