The Society of the Spectacle
On appearance, reality, hypocrisy and integrity: What Anna Delvey, Billy McFarland, and Elizabeth Holmes have in common
Gracious reader, this week, we’ll explore
Society of the Spectacle: reflections on appearance vs. reality
Word of the week: “spectacle” which from the Latin spectaculum, which means “public show,” and spectare, which means “to watch, view, or behold.”
An invitation: Empathy and curiosity in a digital age
Giveaway: Sherry Turkel’s The Empathy Diaries
The Society of the Spectacle
Far too often today, we are more concerned with image and appearance than with reality. One thinker has even argued that contemporary society is, when compared to past eras, to a greater extent prone to embracing simulacra over reality.
In his 1967 work The Society of the Spectacle, French philosopher Guy Louis Debord contended that we moderns have exchanged authentic relationships for false, intermediated ones.
“All that once was directly lived has become mere representation,” he wrote. Debord, writing in the 1960s, observed a phenomenon that would only become more pronounced in the age of the internet and social media. As a card-carrying Marxist philosopher, he was concerned about the increasing consumerism and obsession of acquisition that capitalism and free markets had unleashed.
Debord argued that in past eras, people prioritized authenticity, presence, and being in their social lives. The influence of a progressively consumerist culture, however, had caused people to care less about being and more about merely possessing.
And in the future, Debord contended, people would begin to care less even about having, and more about simply appearing. The society that cared more about having and appearing, for Debord, was the society of the spectacle.
People in the spectacular society care less about substance and more about style. In the spectacular society, all human relationships are expressed and mediated through objects and images. This “relationship by proxy,” Debord warned, takes a profound toll on the quality of human life, at both the individual and societal level. In a spectacular world of image-mediated relationships, everyone has a persona—or, as in our day, a brand, a social media profile—that purports the self-image that one wants others to perceive. People are no longer people, but commodities. As Martin Luther King Jr. and Martin Buber would say, what should be “I thou” relationships have become “I it” relationships.
It’s not only Fortune 500 companies or social media influencers who care about their public persona or online presence. We’re told at every turn of the importance of cultivating and maintaining our personal “brand.”
Our word “spectacle” derives from the Latin spectaculum, which means “public show,” and spectare, which means “to watch, view, or behold.” Today, we’ve become so focused on how we seem to the world, we’ve impoverished our character, and forgotten why leading authentic lives is important both for our own wellbeing, and for that of others.
In a spectacular society, our relationships are drained of their life-giving power because they are based on a lie, mediated by images and appearances instead of grounded on authentic and truth.
Debord’s antidote to the society deceived by spectacle is “to wake up the spectator who has been drugged by spectacular images.” And one way to do this is to look at some of the spectacular images of our era that have since been unmasked.
What Anna Delvey, Billy McFarland, and Elizabeth Holmes have in common
There are ample modern-day examples to support Debord’s thesis that we are a spectacular society. Our world is awash with latter-day confidence men and women. If the names Anna Delvey, Billy McFarland, and Elizabeth Holmes sound familiar, it could be because you’ve come across them in the news. You might have even viewed thee excellent biopics and documentaries on each of these figures, produced by companies such as Netflix and HBO. Either way, here is a quick refresher.
Anna Delvey arrived on New York City’s social scene in early 2010. She tipped in hundred-dollar bills, sported designer clothes, spoke in a vaguely European accent, and, as one of her acquaintances described, gave an air of being “some kind of old-fashioned princess who’d been plucked from an ancient European castle and deposited in the modern world.”
While there was some speculation about the origins of her wealth, as long as she was footing the bill at the city’s best restaurants, throwing lavish parties, and taking friends on all-expense paid luxury trips, no one was overly concerned about the provenance of her apparent affluence.
When she was asked, she purported to be a German heiress who within a few years would gain access to a trust fund of some forty million dollars. For years, Delvey led an extravagant and cosmopolitan life among the global elite—a life of luxurious travel, fine dining, art, fashion. She posted every detail of it on social media, which only heightened her allure, and made people want to be in her orbit.
No one thought too much that Anna always paid with cash, or when she began asking her friends to foot the bill for meals, taxis, international trips, and more. No one had any reason to question whether she really was who she said she was.
That is, until Anna stopped paying her bills. Over the course of several years in New York City, Anna Delvey—whose real name was Anna Sorokin—scammed hotels, banks, and friends out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Anna was ultimately arrested and served prison time for her crimes.
Anna’s full story—as outlined by journalist Jessica Pressler’s justly famous New York Magazine article on Anna, and by the Netflix series Inventing Anna, produced by Shonda Rhimes and based on Pressler’s article—seems too sensational to be true.
When I first read Pressler’s article several years ago, I couldn't put it down. Despite being was horrified, I read it into the morning hours. So shaken by this parable of the perils of a society that glorifies money and spectacle above all—even when all that truly exists is the appearance of affluence—I could not sleep after.
The wealthy and powerful people she was able to deceive, the amount of money she was able to procure with no collateral, and the sheer length of time that she was able to get away with it is almost not to be believed.
We see a similar arc with the story of Billy McFarland. Billy was the brains behind the now infamous FYRE (pronounced “fire”) festival, “the greatest party that never happened,” as the eponymous Netflix documentary is subtitled. Billy, a marketing genius, sold FYRE to potential attendees as a luxury music festival in on the glittering white sands of a remote private island in Exumas, Bahamas—which, the festival’s promoters bragged, was once owned by Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Reminiscent of what Deboard called the “shimmering diversions of the spectacle,” videos advertising the festival —featuring supermodels laughing, dancing, and drinking on the beach and on yachts in bikinis—were plastered across Instagram. See the trailer of the festival here.
They promised prospective attendees “the best in food, art, music and adventure.” The promotional campaign captured the aspiration, imagination and desire of luxury entertainment tourists everywhere. The festival was promoted by rappers such as Ja Rule, supermodels such as Emily Ratajkowski, and Instagram “influencers” such as Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, Hailey Baldwin Bieber, and others. But the FYRE festival was, in reality, just smoke and mirrors.
After paying up to thirteen thousand dollars per person to be there, attendees arrived on the Bahamian island eager for an opulent getaway with live performances from famous bands and plush accommodations. They were instead greeted by utter chaos: the scene lacked any organization or direction, with carelessly assembled FEMA disaster relief tents to house them, and warm, limp cheese sandwiches to eat. It was a far cry from the glamorous experience they had been promised, and had been expecting. Fortunate travelers found accommodation in the shoddy tents, while many others slept on towels on the ground. And with everyone deciding to escape the depressing scene at once, there were not enough outgoing flights, which meant some were stranded on the island for days.
There remains a debate over whether the catastrophe was the product of either genuine fraud or mere incompetence. Perhaps it was a bit of both. More important for our purposes is how easily the calamity was sold—glistening images on social media made it easy to imagine the gathering as a once-in-a-lifetime event. But the festival ended up being nothing more than that: merely an image that captured imaginations.
As Deboard predicted, images had supplanted the real.
Finally, consider the story of Elizabeth Holmes. Homes was CEO of Theranos and the subject of the award-winning 2019 book, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, as well as the 2019 HBO documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley. Homes was an attractive, young CEO who claimed to be at the forefront of a revolution in blood testing and medical treatment.
She consciously modeled herself after, and cultivated the appearance of, disruptors, inventors, and innovators before her, going so far as to dress in the all-black turtlenecks of Steve Jobs and to name her signature blood-testing device after Thomas Edison. She grew her start-up, Theranos, to what became a nine-billion-dollar company at its peak.
She had the backing of some of America’s most powerful and influential men on her board, from George Schultz—economist and diplomat, and one of only two people to have held four different cabinet-level posts—to former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, from former Wells Fargo CEO Richard Kovacevich, to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
When Jim Mattis was asked what drew him to Holmes—what caused him to throw his weight behind her and project—he answered: “integrity.”
Yet Holmes was also attractive and charming with an air of self-confidence. Henry Kissinger told a reporter that Holmes had an “ethereal quality… she is like a member of a monastic order.” In the end, however, Holmes’ claims about what her blood-testing technology could do eventually came under scrutiny. Her assertions were ultimately proven to be untrue, and a federal jury eventually found her guilty of defrauding her investors of hundreds of millions of dollars.
What ties these disquieting stories together? Several things. Each figure was remarkably charismatic. They had a knack for winning wealthy, influential, and powerful people to their side. They were visionaries with great ambitions. And they were willing to cut corners in order to succeed.
Mostly importantly, however, each of these figures relied on spectacle to succeed.
At least, to almost succeed.
Our spectacular society—where people elevate appearance over substance—enabled Anna Delvey, Billy McFarland, and Elizabeth Homes to defraud and deceive the thousands of people they encountered. Each of these figures led their lives with a “fake it ‘till you make it” logic.
They kept up the semblance of success—which people happily accepted—but in truth the success was a mirage. In other words, each of these people relied on hypocrisy, not integrity.
They used politeness—the techniques of polished image-enhancement—to allow themselves to present a façade of being good, honest, and virtuous. And they lacked civility, which gets to the character of a person whose heart is genuinely oriented towards others. (For more on the different between civility and politeness, see my forthcoming book from St Martin’s Press, from which this essay is adapted.)
We’re left with several important questions. What is the responsibility and complicity of those who were defrauded in these stories? To what extend did the those who were defrauded want what they saw to be true, and therefore chose to be deceived? Relatedly, to what extent did Anna Delvey, Billy McFarland, and Elizabeth Holmes become subjects of the deception of their own delusions.
A recurring chorus from those who knew each of these people is that they were able to so convincingly with other to their cause because they truly believed what they were saying. Instead of charlatans, were they merely true-believers who had fallen prey to their own spectacle? After all, by some accounts, if certain stars had aligned or if the timing had worked out just slightly differently, we might not be calling these people con artists or fraudsters at all, but instead brilliant businesspeople and innovators.
The world is rife with pretenders. Consider this man who posed as a British aristocrat to get free hotel stays, scamming hotels in London out of thousand of pounds. Or this man who pretended to be a Duke.
Or see this comprehensive list of imposters from across history which shows there is no shortage of people cultivate the image of something they are not. This is not new—although our tools that enable us to create a self image that diverges from reality, such as social media, are. This information asymmetry in social life has always existed, and it always will.
At the end of the day, when it comes to discerning whether to place our trust in others, all we have to go on is what people say and do. We can never know with complete certainty the state of someone’s soul or character. But we should pause before placing our faith in those who rely primarily on charisma and charm alone to achieve their ends—it is far too easy for such people to deceive others, and possibly either themselves, along the way.
Personality ethic vs. character ethic
In his classic self-help book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey makes a distinction between two types of people: those that rely on personality ethic and those that rely on character ethic. The personality ethic relies on charm, methods, techniques, and spectacle. This sounds like politeness, doesn’t it? Character ethic, by contrast, depends on deep changes within each of us, and a proper orientation of the heart. It relies on integrity—and civility.
Personalities are what people can see on the surface. They are what, and how, we present ourselves to the world. They include how we speak, such as the affected European accent Anna Delvey adopted; how we curate our image on social media, such as Billy McFarland did; and how we dress, such as Elizabeth Holmes’s black turtlenecks. Personalities are only skin-deep. If they are different from our true, core selves, the result is hypocrisy.
Character is deeper, and is composed of our values, our motivations, and our disposition toward others. Character is one of those things that people cannot see, at least not directly. Yet character cannot remain completely invisible forever. As Covery puts it, living life without character is like trying to navigate through Chicago with a map of Detroit. It doesn’t matter how skilled you are at the techniques of map reading. It doesn’t matter how polished your personality ethic is. Without a good map, or a solid foundation of good character, you will be limited in where you can go and what you can achieve.
Each of these figures— Anna Delvey, Billy McFarland, and Elizabeth Holmes—relied on personality ethic to succeed. With all of their many talents and attributes, who knows what they might have accomplished if they had instead cultivated, and relied on, character ethic to see them through their endeavors?
Ideally, in our own lives we will strive to close the gap between appearance and reality. As we define and clarify our first principles and values, and strive to live them out more fully, we pave the way for both to our own personal psychological tranquility and to healthy relationships grounded in authentic and trust.
What d you think? Are we more prone today to elevate appearance over reality? To what extent are those who are deceived responsible for being deceived?
I’d love to hear from you. Write to me directly at email@example.com with your thoughts.
The above is an adapted excerpt from by book manuscript on civility, forthcoming spring 2023. I’d love your feedback on whether you found this content interesting or useful. Please reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts!
Here are some great lines from Debord’s Society of the Spectacle that you might find of interest:
“The spectacle is not a collection of images, rather, it is a social relation among people, mediated by images.”
“The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images… In a world which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false.”
“Celebrity [is the] the spectacular representation of a living human being… Being a star means specializing in the seemingly lived… Celebrities exist to act out various styles of living and viewing society unfettered, free to express themselves globally.”
“[The spectacle] says nothing more than ‘that which appears is good, that which is good appears.’ The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance.”
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Invitation: Community, curiosity and empathy in a divided and digital
It's no secret that we live in a divided age: politically, culturally, socially, all.
Many argue that social media, and our digitally mediated interactions, have only made our divisions worse.
What promise might curiosity and empathy hold for remedying the ills of our divided and digital age?
Join this conversation with two experts on curiosity and empathy: Mónica Guzmán of Braver Angels, the largest grassroots organization dedicated to depolarization in America, and Sherry Turkle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a leading voice about the promise and perils of modern digital communication.
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Giveaway! The Empathy Diaries
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