They say ev’ry man needs protection
They say ev’ry man must fall
Yet I swear I see my reflection
Some place so high above this wall
“I Shall Be Released,” Bob Dylan
“I would like to make it absolutely clear that I am not in any doping process.” So said Floyd Landis on July 27, 2006. Many other denials followed before he finally admitted that he was a doper, before he took a large segment of the cycling world down with him, including Lance Armstrong. It was about this time that I lost interest in the sport.
I had been a fan of the cycling for a long time—as far back as the early 1980s, when little news of the Tour was available in American newspapers and only a few hours of television coverage came in a brief recap on Sunday afternoons. This was before American cyclists were considered a threat, before the 7-11 team surprised Europe in 1986, before Greg LeMond three Tour wins, before the Armstrong era, before one leader after another was disqualified, before evidence accumulated against Armstrong, and long before the grand confession on Oprah.
By the beginning of the Armstrong era, I read cycling magazines, followed riders as they switched from team to team, and watched all of the events leading up to the tour. I spent most of July watching tour coverage, sometimes twice a day. Then, all the doping scandals hit. Floyd Landis being disqualified was the last straw, not because I was a Landis fan, more because I finally had enough. I was tired of cheering for a rider only to have him test positive and exit the race. I just couldn’t care anymore.
Recently, I have found a new obsession—Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing, a documentary about Armstrong’s long history with doping. The film aired on Showtime then moved to Netflix, and I have been watching it over and over. At first, I thought my incantation of the film was something like self-flagellation, atonement for being so naïve as to believe that Armstrong could be that good, or therapy, a way of purifying myself, purging the resentment about being duped. But the more I’ve watched the film, the more I’ve come to believe that I am fascinated by the arc of the story: a hero overcomes adversity to captivate the entire world and then, just as precipitously, falls into disgrace. The documentary seemed to bring tragic form to events that played out on television over about fifteen years of television time. I am not really sure what I mean by “television time,” but I know it exists. I know it is something different than regular time. It has a faster pace and you constantly lose your bearings. It’s a blur on images in a seemingly random sequence.
When living through television time, we need something to make sense of the images, something to bring it all form. As I repeatedly watched Stop at Nothing, I could see something tragic about the Armstrong story. Not tragic in the modern sense of a sad story, nor tragic as Aristotle first defined the genre, but somehow, in some way, tragic.
In the Poetics, written about circa 335 BCE, Aristotle defined tragedy as being a drama about a hero who is admirable and good, also highborn, whose flaw, usually hubris, or pride, leads to his or her—don’t forget about Antigone—downfall. The hero comes to a recognition of the consequences of his or her actions, which elicits pity and horror from the audience, which leads, in turn, to a catharsis of these emotions—a release, a resolution.
In the middle ages, Aristotle’s analysis of tragedy morphed into a set of prescriptive rules for dramatists and critics alike, an extension—or perversion—of the Poetics. These rules shaped tragedies for centuries. When Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman hit Broadway in 1949, critics claimed that it could not be a modern tragedy because Willy Loman is an Everyman, not highborn. Toward the end of the play, Biff tells his father, “We’re a dime a dozen.” Miller wrote a defense of his play, arguing that a tragedy in the modern age can and should evoke pity for an ordinary man.
If Aristotle had lived long enough to see a production of Death of a Salesman, I think he might have rethought his definition of tragedy. He might have come to believe that tragedies in ancient Greece were about kings because the death of a king might endanger an entire society and that other kinds of societies would necessarily create a variation of the genre. Aristotle was, after all, writing about a genre that had emerged within his lifetime. If Aristotle had witnessed the roughly century and half of Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy, he might have agreed with Franco Moretti that this body of drama created “a ‘public’ that for the first time in history assumed the right to bring a king to justice” (Signs Taken as Wonder 42). In other words, it took 150 years of tragedy to prepare the people of England to behead Charles I.
When Death of a Salesman was written, we were in a capitalist society that relied on sales, but we were also at a point when traveling salesmen were, to a large extent, being replaced by television advertising and telemarketing. We were living in a culture for which time was beginning to accelerate. People, entire professions, began to live into an era they could no longer understand or navigate. Like Willy Loman, we were all in danger of outliving the era into which we were born.
We could come up with a number of explanations about how Death of a Salesman is a new form of tragedy, but now we are already in a different time, a new economy, a new culture, a new millennium. It’s not much of a stretch, I think, to consider Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing as the paradigm of our new tragedy, just as Hamlet was the paradigm for a new tragedy in the 16th century and Death of a Salesman was the paradigm for a new America tragedy in the 1950s and 1960s. And, like the body of Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy, like Death of a Salesman, the Armstrong documentary demands that we reinterpret Aristotle, redefine tragedy.
One way to redefine tragedy would be to go through the elements of Aristotle’s definition and shift the meaning a bit to fit our times. Aristotle says that tragedy deals with good and noble characters, a king like Oedipus. In our time, as an antidote to our post-Freudian age, the hero needs to present an image in mass media that appears above the common, and beyond self-knowledge. Our heroes speak of themselves in third-person, as if their media image is more real than their flesh. And so we have common folk rise to international fame, receive lavish praise in the media, and then fall amid a series of scandals, a narrative arc that sometimes unfolds in a few months.
It is the connection between fame and capital and the acceleration of time that most clearly mark our era and the new tragedy. In the late nineteenth-century, robber barons accumulated wealth and then became philanthropists. Capital generated fame, slowly, over the course of a lifetime. In our era, Kim Kardashian becomes famous for some unknown reason and then uses her fame to generate capital. And she seems to burst into our consciousness in a moment, fully formed.
Through hubris, Aristotle says, the hero is led to a fall. The hero recognizes the error (Oedipus plucks out his eyes), which elicits pity and fear from the audience, and the audience experiences catharsis. When the Armstrong story hits its climax, during the Oprah interview, she asks him, “Have you lost everything?” He answers, in part, “I don’t even want to think about it. . . . That was a seventy-five million dollar day.” Oprah’s face seemed to register pity and fear, but I am not sure the television audience felt the same. The Armstrong image collapses and his wealth evaporates. Oprah seems to say to herself, “This could happen to me.” Armstrong seems to recognize his loss of fame and wealth, but not much else.
In an article for the Houston Chronicle, Doni M. Wilson, who teaches literature at Houston Baptist University, wrote about the Armstrong story as an unsatisfying tragedy:
Armstrong defies our notions of the tragic because he denies the significance of his flaws, so there is never any catharsis, only frustration. When you read a tragedy, the tragic hero gives us a lot: as in, Learn From My Mistakes. With Armstrong, he makes us try to understand him, but then we say, eventually, “I Give Up.” He won’t follow the script. We cannot control what we want him to be, and it is depressing, because deep down, we want him to succeed, turn it up, turn it around, be the comeback kid.
From Armstrong, Wilson writes, we have never received a sincere apology. I wonder if it is possible for a celebrity to give a sincere apology when following the advice of a publicist, who in turn is following the social science research on how to repair a damaged reputation, research mapping the ups and downs of public figures and the most effective way to repair a media reputation.
In our media-saturated culture, the hero seems fixed. We don’t have many stories of a good person who is tested in a crucial moment and fails and is transformed by that failure. Rather, the hero attempts to create and control a media image and then learns an image released into media is beyond control. It is the media image that changes, not the person. We don’t pluck out our eyes. We don’t even confess to a priest. We hire a media consultant and then go on Oprah to redeem our humanity.
The swirl of media stories cannot possibly provide the viewers with the emotional release of a tragedy. We need something else for that—something like a documentary.
With millions around the world, I watched the Armstrong story play out on television—during the coverage of the Tour, during the nightly news, during specials about Armstrong, and during interviews. As it unfolded over years, the story seemed coherent and familiar. A single mother raises her son, the Golden Child. He experiences early success but then faces adversity when he is diagnosed with cancer. All is threatened. He overcomes the disease and returns to his sport, achieving unimaginable success against all odds. He promises to change the world by conquering the disease that almost ended his life. Then it all falls apart, seemingly in the span of a few hours. After following the story for years, I was left, as I assume many others were, not knowing what to feel.
How could we make sense of it? The scope was too vast, the time sequence too long, the plot too cluttered for us to process it—for us to aestheticize it. And we are a part of it. The media through which we viewed these events is part of our reality. We are not just the audience in the seats of a theater; we are also on stage. We—the audience, the fans—are playing the role of a theatrical chorus. We are the ones who feel the direct impact of the events, a blow to the face that is felt in the moment. We are not in a position to make sense of it.
To experience the Armstrong story as tragedy, we needed a slightly different medium—we need a documentary. Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing is an hour and forty minutes long, and it unmasks the entire Armstrong story from the beginning, chronologically, with the tragic end folded over as a layer of judgment. The director already knows how this story will end. So does everyone viewing the documentary. We know many—though certainly not all—of the facts already, but we haven’t experienced them in a meaningful way. Within the framework of a documentary, we are able to experience the facts in sequence, to view the entire story in what was once called the “unity of time,” which was one of those medieval rules that defined tragedy.
When we come to Stop at Nothing, what we are looking for is meaning, and we can find that meaning in an hour and forty minutes. The clips we had already seen on television and the clips from interviews with Betsy Andreu, Greg LeMond, and others, shape what had been an amorphous string of information. If we are to learn anything from this story, it will come from the documentary, not from our now vague recollection of the television coverage.
Tragedy can serve as a kind of “public therapy,” as Terry Eagleton says in Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic. If the ground of our new tragedy is mass media, especially television, and the “public therapy” comes with documentary, then what kind of pathology are documentaries like Stop at Nothing attempting to purge?
If we are not naïve about the basic messages of television, if we are capable of critiquing a commercial that tells us the right deodorant is going to bring us love, we are still vulnerable to the repetition of messages on the tube, the familiarity of its images as a part of our environment, the intimacy of its icons as they speak just to us, in our homes, when we are most unguarded. The documentary tells us, “You have been fooled once again. Learn something. Don’t get fooled again.”
Sadly, we have not even been fooled by a noble figure who, at a crucial moment, made a bad decision. We were fooled by someone who seemed to have always made bad decisions. Armstrong did not suffer a moral fall. He was revealed, unmasked. Then he suffered a media fall. Watching Stop at Nothing, I learned that Armstrong paid off competitors, early in his career, to ensure a victory. I learned that he was a vicious bully. I learned that those around him supported his lies because they benefitted from his success. How could I have missed all this?
I would like to think that I am above being duped by media. I am a college professor. I teach my students the art of cultural critique. But, like others, I wanted to believe. I ignored the cracks in the narrative, and there were certainly cracks. A few journalists wrote that Armstrong was doping, but none of their stories seemed to gain traction. When I first saw photos of Armstrong lying in a hospital bed, his head shaved, bearing visible scars from brain surgery, I remember thinking: Did he ask someone to take this photo? Was he already crafting a grand comeback narrative from the moment he was diagnosed with cancer? But I pushed such thoughts aside. I willingly accepted the lies.
The Armstrong story is tragic in some sense, but it is not very satisfying, which might have something to do with why I keep watching it. In some ways, I feel like I am eating one bland store-bought cookie after another, hoping the mass of empty calories will add up to something if I cram enough of the damn things into my mouth at one time. I am not saying that Stop at Nothing is flawed. It’s a great documentary. It’s the new tragedy that is not very satisfying.
So, what does this new tragedy signify, if anything?
Part of the answer might be found in the very network of media that created the Armstrong we thought we knew. The Armstrong story played out on television, not just any form of television, but television in an age dominated by reality shows that are filled with manufactured drama, without a narrative arc, without resolution. When we are wading neck-deep in this crap, we crave a simple story of hardship, overcoming, and victory.
In the chaos of reality television, we were drawn to the media image of Armstrong. Fans were sucked in. Even most reporters were sucked in. Even the people who are supposed to keep the sport clean were sucked in. Then, “it got too big,” as Armstrong told Oprah. It all fell apart. We thought we had a story, and all we had was just another reality TV show, this one as sordid as the rest.
We are living in a culture saturated with mass media. Every room has a television. We can watch television at the gas pump. In elevators. On phones, and tablets, and laptops. To fill all the channels, we must have stories. Stories about sports heroes who beat their wives, stories about couples who yell at each other in the toilet paper aisle of Walmart, stories about empty-headed celebrities who are famous for being famous.
If there is a bigness to these stories, it is the bigness of a media the drives our entire economy. If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that we shouldn’t be fooled by any of it. Unfortunately, it is a lesson we need to learn and relearn, over and over.