Category Archives: Business

Spectres of Capital: The Political Economy of Ghostwriting

Ghost City, by raysheaf

[A pdf version is available here]

Nearly every book you have read by a celebrity or politician has been written by someone else: the ghostwriter, whose name remains unknown (or else slyly inserted in the ‘acknowledgements’ section). At a moment’s thought we know this; many people would be quite offended, after all, if they thought that Barack Obama truly sat down and wrote the several(!) books under his name. Likewise, for a CEO to actually take the time to write a business book would be “widely perceived as an act both desperate and pathetic”—in a word, “it would have made him [or her] a schmuck” (Hitt, 1997). Yet, nobody thinks about this—we cling to the reified notion of The Author even as it becomes more and more separate from that of the Writer. The present essay addresses ghostwriting in all its apparitions, from celebrity ‘autobiographies’ to its increasing presence in music and online dating. We will trace out its phantasms in ancient and contemporary philosophy, from Aristotle to hauntology, underscoring its implications for both theory and anti-theory. And lastly, we will argue that increasing ‘spectrification’ of society (and the emergent spectra and spectralities arising in its wake) places deeply into question the method of ‘textual analysis’ of capitalism.

§1. “I care not who writes a nation’s laws, as long as I can write its op-eds”

In the film Ghostwriter, Ewan McGregor explains the process to a client: “I interview you and turn your answers into prose.” We might recall Molière’s bourgeois gentilhomme, who realized with pride that he had been speaking prose all his life—but writing prose is another matter entirely, as any modern ‘ink-stained wretch’ will tell you. Writing is hard, yes, but no one seems to care: surveys show that most authors earn less than $1,000 per year (D’Agnese, 2014). The task of writing is an increasingly precarious one in light of the looming prospect of speech recognition technology phasing out the writer’s role entirely (replaced by that of the editor), as well as the increasing prevalence of algorithmic journalism.

Furthermore, as of 2011 (the latest year for which data is available) the number of new books published in the US reached 292,014—the highest in the world, followed by 241,986 in China (as of 2012) and 149,800 in the UK (as of 2011). Adding up the latest data for each country yields a total of 2,200,000 (via; see also). These, moreover, are the best of the lot, the ones that managed to escape the ‘slush pile’—every publisher and agent has one—of “unsolicited manuscripts, synopses and letters of enquiry lying in wait for someone to pick them up and respond with glowing encouragement” (Crofts, 8). In short, it’s virtually impossible for an unknown writer to make themselves heard, even in the unlikely situation that they have something interesting to say.

The process of ghostwriting is disarmingly simple. Often only two or three days of intensive interviewing are needed—one interview for the synopsis, several more for the full-length manuscript (Crofts, 104, 116): maybe 50 hours in total, 20 if they’re especially concise. The ghostwriter Sally Collings gets by with 10 interviews, each an hour long, followed by about four months of writing (or up to a year for larger projects)—far less personal than one might expect (Mayyasi, 2013). In return, ghosts are able to make a steady living doing what they love. One of the more ‘famous’ ghostwriters, Andrew Crofts, quotes a passage from the narrator in The Great Gatsby: “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life” (in Crofts, 4). This, he says, “sums up the attraction of ghostwriting.” One peculiar case is Janofsky (2013), who found himself ghostwriting blog posts for an Arabian sheikh in exile; he even wrote a series of reflections on Ramadan—despite being Jewish—that were published verbatim. Culture shock is a concrete problem, keeping ghostwriters on their toes: Crofts (2004: 114) recalls writing an autobiography for an African chief who was modest to the point of nearly obscuring his actual importance in his home country, “and indeed in the international business community.” Another of his examples is ghostwriting for the Chinese billionaire Tan Sri Loy, who flew Crofts to China to meet his relatives: “there were extraordinary things about his background that he would have taken for granted and not mentioned if I hadn’t seen them for myself” (ibid, 106).

“Ghosting a book for someone,” says Crofts, “is like being paid to be educated by the best teachers in the world.” The ghostwriter’s position also lets them query their subjects in ways that would otherwise be obnoxious: it’s part of the job to ask someone how much they earn, who they’re sleeping with, why on earth they married who they married—and the client is obliged to answer (ibid, 15). This joint venture of Writer and Author is often win/win: even if someone enjoys researching, there’s no guarantee of finding a publisher for their book after the months or even years required for its completion. Given that advances are at historic lows, and that in the absence of authorial cachet, work-for-hire and ghost gigs bring the highest advances (D’Agnese, 2014), the immediate appeal is clear. The process is even qualitatively easier than writing on one’s own, since the ghostwriter needn’t grapple with their own insecurities and daunting standards: ghostwriting an entire book may well be easier than writing several blog posts for oneself (Kihara, 2014). Another consideration is that it’s easier to elicit readers’ pathos through first person rather than third person narrative (Crofts, 9); evocative tropes such as dream sequences are awkward to write in a biography of someone else. For many struggling writers, the lack of a byline is a small price to pay.

These are D’Anglese’s self-reported gross revenues; for the net value subtract 15% agenting fees from each. They were also paid in halves, thirds, and fourths.

These are D’Anglese’s self-reported gross revenues, paid in halves, thirds, & fourths. For the net value, subtract 15% agenting fees from each.

The author’s motivation is simple enough—namely, outsourcing. Many authors initially have a go at writing on their own, but find that the job involves far more work than anticipated; the opportunity cost is just too high. For a successful expert (and/or celebrity, CEO, etc.), the main appeal of hiring a ghost is saving countless hours of niggling with a pen that could be far better spent contributing to their enterprise. Ghostwriters often even perform the author’s email interviews and blog posts during the publicity run (Huff, 2013), letting the author focus on making contacts and enjoying the spotlight. In short, ghostwriting embodies the principle of comparative advantage. Ghosts are defined by the lack of opportunities on their part: their universe of possibilities is far smaller, and it is precisely this discrepancy in ‘potentiality capital’ (Guattari) that makes ghostwriting a worthwhile venture. The receipt of money from the author in turn opens up the ghostwriter’s ‘universe’ more than they could have done alone, so that both parties gain from trade. It is easy to show numerically that, provided ‘transaction costs’ are sufficiently low, there will be mutual gains even if the client is a better writer than the ghostwriter they hire, due simply to their differing relative costs. In a list of common misconceptions about ghostwriting, Deckers (2012) comments:

[People often] don’t think they have a high-enough position to need a ghost writer. They don’t think they’re that important to ‘deserve’ it. They think their company needs to be bigger, or they need to have a more prestigious position. I saw this a lot when I was doing speechwriting for a Congressional candidate in 2004. It’s not a matter of prestige, it’s a matter of having the time to do it.

Counterintuitively, it becomes clear upon researching the subject that most professional ghostwriters don’t write well. Articles on the subject are replete with gratuitous and absurd similes, purple prose, and even simple grammatical errors. Rather than a troupe of down-on-their-luck Joyces, Raphaels (or Hemingways, Dostoevskies…) without hands, and other poets manqué—many ghostwriters’ main comparative (and competitive) advantage lies in unapologetically producing dull writing. “Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers” (T.S. Eliot). In fact, this is often a selling point—as one successful academic ghostwriter boasts (Dante, 2010):

Over the years, I’ve refined ways of stretching papers. I can write a four-word sentence in 40 words. Just give me one phrase of quotable text, and I’ll produce two pages of ponderous explanation. I can say in 10 pages what most normal people could say in a paragraph. […] I think about how Dickens got paid per word and how, as a result, Bleak House is…well, let’s be diplomatic and say exhaustive. Dickens is a role model for me.

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Parkinson’s Law and the Neoliberal Theory of Bureaucracy

mc-escher-relativity-

The main prescription of New Public Management (hereafter NPM)—that public administration should be operated similarly to a business—is the brunt of much criticism, while at the same time gaining many faithful adherents. Liberals such as Inwood (2004: 321, 389, 408, 410-1, 414) view NPM as little more than facile economism, and pine for a return to Keynesian policies. Nevertheless, such curt dismissal ought to be the cause of some suspicion: it may well be, after all, that Liberalism proceeds from such radically different premises than NPM that the former must necessarily oversimplify the latter in order to say anything about it at all. This, as will be shown below, is indeed the case. Through an examination of the policy area of human resource management, it will be argued that NPM policy possesses a sophisticated theory of subjectivity (as manifested in its capacity to deal with matters of knowledge management) which may prove flexible enough to supersede controversial issues such as affirmative action.

The most common view of the role NPM in human resource management is to identify redundant staff members and work practices which can be cut without damaging performance capacity. Yet, a strong reply to this is that the structure of bureaucracy may be more intricate than appears at first sight, relying on uncodified (and perhaps uncodifiable) practices—known as tacit knowledge—in order to implement whatever policy is important at a given time. According to a quantitative study of knowledge management in the workplace (quoted in Smith, 2001: 312), “99% of the work people do is knowledge-based” and furthermore, “90% of the knowledge in any organization is embedded and synthesized in people’s heads” (ibid., 311). This presents significant problems when it comes to measuring workplace performance, since firing any particular worker risks altering the tacit workplace dynamic. As well, the key role of tacit knowledge in the workplace presents a trade-off between unhindered intra-organizational ‘flow’ of knowledge and the ‘democratic’ introduction of special interest groups into the decision-making process (Wiig, 2002: 228). Such problems, insofar as they are uncodifiable, present seemingly insurmountable problems, pointing toward persistent expansion of bureaucracy for fear of endangering the system, contrary to the prescriptions of NPM.

When viewed in terms of C. Northcote Parkinson’s theory of public administration, however, the prescriptions of NPM may be seen to be quite sensible. He takes as a premise his eponymous ‘Law’ that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” (Parkinson, 1957: 2). This is due to two “almost axiomatic” motive forces: “(1) ‘An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals’ and (2) ‘Officials make work for each other’” (ibid., 4). As he makes clear in subsequent chapters, this law may be generalized such that instead of ‘time’ only, it applies to resources of any sort. This is often viewed as facetious, but can be interpreted in an entirely serious light: in fact, in addition to Parkinson’s own data (ibid., 7-12) taken from military records, Klimek, Hanel, & Turner’s quantitative study (2009: 3939) of the formulae derived by Parkinson from his eponymous Law concludes that they “hold empirically to remarkable levels of significance.” Parkinson’s conceptual innovation is to take the quality of work as a constant, while leaving as variables the amount of resources available for the work’s completion and the degree of the work’s ostensible complexity. This assumption is legitimate in the case of public administration, since much of the work (e.g. paperwork) can only be done so well; in the terminology of economics, the marginal productivity of effort spent on a project drops to (or, at least, toward) zero at a certain fixed point.

Following Laruelle (2000), it can be said that NPM views the matter of budgets as a “unilateral duality”—defined as any scenario where from the perspective of x, both x and y exist, but from the perspective of y, only y exists. To illustrate, Laruelle’s main inspiration here is Marx, whose base-superstructure model posits that in the last instance, all elements of society are determined by the relations of production (cf. Inwood, 29-30). So according to NPM’s Parkinsonian logic, all the incidental details comprising the completion of a project are effectively epiphenomenal, since they are determined-in-the-last-instance by the budget.

Moreover, Parkinson’s Law possesses an interesting sophistication in that it posits an asymmetrical distribution of possible amounts of resources to assign for a given project: while there is an obvious limit in terms of parsimony, there is no limit when it comes to abundance—thus accounting for stereotypical bureaucratic wastefulness. What the concept of unilateral duality contributes to our understanding of budgets is this: since allocating more resources to a project than are strictly needed causes the knowledge networks related to the project grow more and more complex, this redundancy can be deliberately managed in order to create intellectual capital for use in future projects related to the present one (cf. Wiig, 2002: 232; Taleb, 2012: 72-3). This idea may be expressed rather clearly in the distinction made by Clausewitz (1909: bk II, ch. 1)—which should obviously be taken figuratively—where “tactics is the theory of the use of military forces in combat” and “[s]trategy is the theory of the use of combats for the object of the war.” Rather than budgets progressively increasing, according to the Parkinsonian view budgets should be steadily decreasing as the ‘learning-by-doing’ allowed by each project increases administrators’ productivity. By use of Parkinsonian logic, then, NPM is capable of overcoming cynical views of bureaucracy as wasteful—instead, by means of ‘strategy’, NPM is able to reflexively redirect the inflationary tendencies of bureaucracy toward productive ends. IBM consultants, for instance, were able to encode their personal heuristics for proposal writing into a database, which subsequently “cut proposal-writing time from an average of 200 hours to 30 hours” (quoted in Smith, 2001: 312-3). So, in much the same way that Taleb (2012) recommends that institutions be set up in such a way that they gain from volatility, from Parkinson’s Law may be gathered a prescription of purposively making use of redundancy.

It is now possible to return with a critical eye to the arguments about knowledge management raised above. Although Parkinson’s Law precludes any arguments about ‘ruining’ the tacit knowledge dynamic of the workplace, there is still the problem of the trade-off between ‘democratic’ participation and uninterrupted flow of information. To address this problem, the subtopic of affirmative action will be discussed initially, and its conclusions applied to remaining subtopics. As Inwood (2004: 295) notes, the education requirements for administrators are becoming increasingly stringent, to the point where schools intended specifically for training management workers have been opened. As Schmidt (2000) argues, the main purpose of professional education of this type is twofold: to instill standardized knowledge and practices for practical use in the workplace, and to impart specific modes of thinking and dealing with problems. Qualification criteria are expressed in standardized tests, and grades are thus viewed as positively correlated with merit. Since affirmative action policies relax the grade requirements for minority applicants, there is resistance to affirmative action on the grounds of a trade-off between inclusion of minorities and overall benefit to society. Looking at the matter in terms of tacit knowledge, however, Schmidt argues that this dichotomy is a false one. The problem is simply that qualification criteria have limits: “a professional is more than someone with technical knowledge” (2000: 108). In many cases, Schmidt observes that there are many instances in which professionals draw upon tacit knowledge related to their socioeconomic background in order to relate to clients, make causal inferences to diagnose problems, and to make ethically informed choices; he uses the example (ibid., 108-9) of a doctor who realizes that a patient’s illness is psychosomatic, that is, brought about by his or her work conditions, and is motivated to take steps to try to bring about change—as opposed to ‘mechanistic’ and palliative treatment of an isolated body part. Schmidt’s conclusion is that despite Wilsonian objections as to the objectivity of public administrators, the decisions made by professionals of all types are inherently political.

mc escher - square limit

So the prescriptive conclusion that we should draw from the above points in conjunction is as follows. Considering that “[n]early two-thirds of work-related information that is gradually transformed into tacit knowledge comes from face-to-face contacts, like casual conversations, stories, mentoring, internships and apprenticeships” (Smith, 2001: 314-5), efforts should be made to facilitate interdepartmental communication in an attempt to transmit tacit knowledge among departments. One workable idea is provided by Smith (2001: 317), who describes the online ‘social tactical system’ developed by Xerox:

Technicians write up ‘war stories’ to teach each other how to diagnose and fix machines. Service reps access over 5,000 tips a month for a 5 percent saving on both parts and labor. Field service reps create and maintain the tacit knowledge base by contributing and renewing all the tips and information and maintaining the system. Each time reps contribute a tip, their name goes on the system.

Given that flexible boundaries for budgets, according to Parkinson’s Law, only serve to motivate unnecessary complexity, these are to be avoided. In short, in order to run the government more like a business, finances must be tightly controlled from the top down. Affirmative action is to be encouraged (though not necessarily to excess) among departments, though this need not extend to executive positions, whose qualifications typically depend on traditional standards of competence more than do other administrative positions (cf. Inwood, 2004: 281). Such policies as described above are quite similar to those which currently obtain under NPM (cf. Inwood, 2004: 70-1), or are at least within the horizon of its potentiality. Future examinations of the Parkinsonian model of NPM in less parsimonious, and perhaps more quantitative, terms may prove fruitful, though this is beyond the scope of the present essay.

References

  • Clausewitz, C.; Graham, J.J. (trans.). (1909). On War. London : N. Trübner.
  • Inwood, G. (2004). Understanding Canadian Public Administration, 2nd Ed. Toronto: Prentice Hall.
  • Klimek, P.; Hanel, R.; Thurner, S. (2009). To how many politicians should government be left? Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications 388(18), 3939-3947
  • Laruelle, F.; Smith, A.P. (trans.). (2015 [2000]). Introduction to Non-Marxism. Minneapolis, MN: Univocal Press.
  • Parkinson, C.N. (1957). Parkinson’s Law, and other studies in administration. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Smith, E. (2001), The role of tacit and explicit knowledge in the workplace. Journal of Knowledge Management 5(4), 311-21.
  • Schmidt, J. (2000). Disciplined Minds. Lapham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Taleb, N. (2012). Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder. New York: Random House.
  • Wiig, K. (2002). Knowledge management in public administration. Journal of Knowledge Management 6(3), 224-39.

“Keep Your Fucking Work/Life Balance.”

Though the video itself is quite silly, it helps to give an idea of the system of values in which Wall Street bankers operate.  I post this here as a plea for protesters not to attribute the origins of financial crises to concrete, humanistic causes (namely, the greed of bankers) alone, but to emphasize that the main problems are abstract & systemic ones. The video underscores (sacrilegious as it may sound to devoted Leftists) the fact that most Wall Street bankers are not exempt from the askesis displayed by those providing their testimonials here.

These bankers are caught in a wicked paradox where they can have all the wealth they could want, on the condition that they cannot enjoy it.  It is not uncommon for investment bankers on Wall Street to work 70+ hours a week (mostly on Excel or Powerpoint), nor is it uncommon for them to turn to ‘uppers’ (including cocaine) to boost their stamina in order to get through their work week, which may include multiple all-nighters.  Their bodies deteriorate from lack of exercise just as their minds stagnate from having no other stimulation besides basic mathematics, as well as from their lack of sleep; it is no wonder, then, that in their 3 hours of free time per week, investment bankers turn to alcohol, prostitutes, and superfluous purchases of luxury goods to make themselves feel as if they have some standing in the world. They have their basic needs taken care of, yes, but only on condition that they give up everything else, just as with the rest of the 99%.

Simple Introduction to Lagrange Multipliers

A classic problem in economics is how to maximize utility despite limited resources, such as time and money. The Lagrangian method uses a technique from calculus to mathematically measure how consumers can achieve maximum satisfaction and businesses can maximize profit (or minimize costs) within given limits. (Source)

The person in the video isn’t me, by the way. I’m just so overjoyed to find an accessible introduction to the Lagrange method that I am sharing it with the world.

On World Population, Hydroponic Cucumbers, & Milk

Countries of the world proportioned according to their populations as of 2010

I just found an excellent video on CBC News. Apparently, “the world prepares to welcome its seventh billion inhabitant sometime this year.” Its eighth billionth is projected to appear in 2025, but world population is expected to settle at 9-10 billion by 2100. As well, India is projected to become the most populous country by 2050.

Oh, and by the same institution (Agence France-Presse): Malthus, anyone? No, to invoke Malthus is to be overly pessimistic; I think that hydroponic growth sounds quite promising, especially if we can manage to do such farming in multiple floors of skyscrapers, which would provide a more efficient use of space than our clumsy acre system, and the lack of wasted resources would allow the world’s poor to be fed with little to no extra water and nutrients used (which is especially pertinent given the looming water crisis). The main problem is accumulating energy cheaply enough to make these projects profitable…

Hydroponics allows an indoor (i.e. weather-independent) means of growing foods with no waste of water & nutrients; with every variable known & controlled, hydroponics epitomizes the modernist project.

In 1988, The Newfoundland government (Canada) donated $13 million of taxpayers’ money to build a “space-age greenhouse” which would hydoponically grow cucumbers which would sprout to full size within six days. Unfortunately, because of the market being flooded with cucumbers, the company, Enviroponics, had to sell their cucumbers at $0.55 wholesale, while each cucumber costed them $1.10 each. According to a survey near that time, the average Newfoundlander ate only half a cucumber a year, and Enviroponics could not export their cucumbers at a profit, so surplus cucumbers flooded Newfoundland’s market, and its dumps (reminiscent of the semi-recent European milk crisis, except less morally ambiguous and more inept; point your mouse at the links for explanation). In 1989 Enviroponics went bankrupt, selling its facility to another company for $1. A total of about 800,000 cucumbers were produced, and the cost to taxpayers per cucumber was $27.50, compared to 50 cents for cucumbers produced out of province and sold in Newfoundland grocery stores. This “boondoggle” (i.e. fiasco) has since become a symbol of foolish government spending. (via)

Close-up of a hydroponic apparatus (cf. the diagram above)

Just a little history lesson. Nevertheless, it’s been 20 years, no? Surely hydroponic science has progressed a bit further since then. At any rate, however, the world is in no state to revolutionize farming methods anytime soon. Still, hopefully the above has suggested that the modernist dream of ‘mapping’ every variable of the world is still going strong, despite the postmodernists clamor. But then, social science is still in its infancy compared to the mass progress of the natural sciences (as Imre Lakatos asserts, with whom I more or less agree), yet it’s precisely this latter field that will most likely give representatives of the modernist project a run for their money (hopefully in the literal as well as the figurative sense).

A Primer on Neuromarketing


Neuromarketing is one of the latest paradigms making itself felt in the sphere of marketing. Its premise is simple: given the vast amount of inaccuracy in data-collecting methods (e.g. disparities between stated preference in surveys & revealed preference in purchasing), a more objective means of assessing consumer responses is to use neurotechnology to get straight to the heart of the consumer. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Electroencephalography (EEG) are used while exposing consumers to products and advertisements, and their cognitive responses are recorded and interpreted. Significant progress has been made, but due to the current expense of neurotechnology (not to mention the legal issues surrounding it, as in the case of France), neuromarketing companies are relatively scarce, with 13 worldwide as of 2007. One of the more prominent companies, NeuroCo, charged $90,000 per study in 2005 (Mucha, 2005: 2-3). Nevertheless, many powerful companies have begun to enlist the service of neuromarketers, such as Hewlett-Packard, Frito-Lay, Google, Motorola, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Nestlé, Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, L’Oréal, and Fox, for issues ranging from the optimal color of packaging to the effectiveness of movie trailers. Inevitably, the widening availability of such technologies has lead to much bombast and panic, particularly fears about locating a ‘buy button’ in the consumer’s mind, forcing them to buy things they don’t need or to eat until they’re obese. In this essay I hope to briefly explain the technology in use by neuromarketers, to address some of the fears (groundless and justified) about neuromarketing, and to highlight some cases of neuromarketing in practice.
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