Category Archives: Culture
[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.
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.
[I found this excellent chart in an obscure little book called Modernity & Identity, which is about modernism & postmodernism and how these permeate into different areas of culture. Rather than having it be lost, perhaps forever, I feel that it deserves some affection.]
(a) Progressive evolutionist, development of self and society and world. Deviations from this life-strategy are classified as pathological or as just plain underdeveloped and infantile, in the sense that all non-modern states are ultimately reducible to a lack of the necessary means to achieve modernity: intellectually, technologically, motivationally.
1 modernism, can be expressed in general cultural terms; in terms of political institutions conducive to democratic solutions and efficient moral governance; in terms of economic growth; and social modernization, that is, modern institutions.
(a) political debates in modernist discourse focusing on variant interpretations of the implementation of the modernist strategy; for example whether social democracy is more efficient and fair than liberalism, the role of the private vs. public sector, marxist vs. other approaches, etc.
2 Asian modernism displays most of the basic characteristics of the Western model, the main difference lying in the role of the individual as an instrument of the group rather than as an autonomous agent.
In the decline of modernist identity:
(a) cynical distancing from all identification, but an acute awareness of the lack of identity
(b) consumptionist: narcissistic dependency on the presentation of self via the commodity construction of identity. Highly unstable and can easily switch over to religious of ethnic solutions.
1 variation on the above is the consumption of roots as commodities, the creation of a life space reminiscent of a nostalgic vision or pastiche of eras based thereupon.
(a) solution to lack of identity, the failure of the modern project. The individual feels the acute need to engage himself in a larger project in which identity is concrete and fixed irrespective of mobility, success and other external changes in social conditions.
1 traditionalist refers to the general aspect of this strategy, the emphasizing of concrete values and morality, social rules and cultural practices.
(a) religious: usually traditional, fundamentalist in form, sometimes tied to ethnicity.
(i) local based, community oriented
(ii) international, mankind oriented, anti-ethnic yet concrete, i.e. species oriented
(b) ethnic: the constitution of concrete regional of historical-linguistic based identity-not so much connected to a value system as to a set of distinct cultural practices and beliefs.
2 closely connected with the traditionalist strategy is the ecological or green strategy. If the former bases itself in culture the latter bases itself in nature: the correct relation between man and the ecosystem. The overlap is clear and occurs in the evolutionist cosmology where traditional = close to nature = adapted to nature (that is, ecologically sound)
3 Third World – strategy of attracting wealth flows, strategy of attachment and dependency:
(a) state-class ranking system with chains of client in which sumptuary consumption plays a central role in defining position.
(b) strategy is unequivocally oriented to the centre as a source of wealth, and to the modern as the form of power to be appropriated and in the rank-strategy described above.
(c) strategy is thus pro-development defined not in terms of infrastructural growth but in terms of the consumption of modernity or its products that function as symbols of prestige and, as such, power.
4 Fourth World – strategy of exit from the system, the formation and/or maintenance of culturally organized communities that are self-sufficient and politically autonomous:
(a) strategies usually take the form of cultural movements for the re-establishment of formerly repressed identity and lifestyle.
(b) strategies usually reject all forms of modernity and especially the notion of universal development. They are traditionalistic, and attempt, further, to establish a functioning social order based on particular world-views and/or religious schemes.
(c) tendency to egalitarianism, since there is no basis for ranking in such movements: often local history is re-envisaged so that an original state of existence without any form of social hierarchy is posited at the beginning of time. If leadership is posited, it is invariably in the form of the charismatic leader who is the saviour or father or mother of his/her people and is the embodiment of their values.
Lash, S. & Friedman, J. (Eds.). (1993). Modernity & Identity. Massachusetts: Blackwell, in the essay “Narcissism, roots and postmodernity” by Jonathan Friedman
In those areas of the East characterized by rapid economic growth there are new forms of modernism. These have to be seen in relation to the declining dominance of the West in order to understand the difference between their particularistic cultural character and the universalistic evolutionism they embody. On the one hand they have emphasized the moral core of the Confucian order, expressed in Neo-Confucianism, an order that stresses the ethics of the bureaucratic public sphere, an abstract morality, but one extracted from the ideals of the family and elevated to a set of generalized social principles. This has been linked to the notion that the NIC (Newly Industrialized Countries) lands, for example, have some special culture that is conducive to development, and even superior to Western individualism. There have, on the other hand, been numerous discussions of the relation between Confucian developmentalism and Western models. Neo-Confucianist ideology stresses the goals of democracy and rationalist development above practically all else. The particularistic property of this self-conscious programme of modernity is related to its ethnic base in Chinese civilization. There is an interesting logic in this new modernism. It might be argued that the problem with Western mediocrity is that its individualism tends to erode the moral values that render the entire project of modernity a genuine possibility. Such a view would dovetail with [Daniel] Bell’s analysis of the dialectical contradictions of modernity that generate, all by themselves, the postmodern dissipation that has now taken form in the West. In the Eastern model with its weaker, if clearly present, individual, entirely eroded to the project of the group, such disintegration ought not to be possible.
Lash, S. & Friedman, J. (Eds.). (1993). Modernity & Identity. Massachusetts: Blackwell, pg. 356
diagrams of intensities
at the intersection of all the scenes of the possible
choreography of desire’s throw of the dice
on a continuous line since birth
becoming irreversible of rhythms and refrains of a
I dance not in the place but I dance the place
the body weather
~Guattari, excerpt from ‘Présentation du programme de danse Buto de Min Tanaka’ (AH 159).
This and this group butoh dance are both interesting, however, if for no other reason than being sublimely fucked up. I’m not normally one to use strong language, but no other term will do. Both dances are by the troupe Sankai Juku. I’m totally pulling out these moves the next time I’m at a nightclub.
Trying to Get Immanence Out of a (Philosopher’s) Stone: Archetypes, Sociobiology, Harry Potter, and the UK Riots
There are a number of popular (i.e. non-academic) intellectual movements whose objective is to find an immanent basis for the meaning of signifiers. One such example is Jungian archetypes, which states that various symbols are innate in the human mind, and thus that symbols are “universally recognizable.” As well, the sociobiology of Desmond Morris seeks to ground social phenomena in biological instinct (once again, innate), e.g. he ascribes the tradition of women coloring their lips red to the fact that when a woman becomes aroused, her lips become engorged with blood, appearing fuller and redder; thus lipstick is a display of availability for mating, just as is the peacock displaying its feathers. A third, more contemporary instance of this tendency can be found in the Harry Potter series. In Hogwarts, students of witchcraft & wizardry are taught combinations of signifiers (e.g. a “swish & flick” of one’s wand combined with the words “Wingardium Leviosa” pronounced in a specific way) which are somehow inherently connected to their magical function. There is no talk of ‘inventing’ spells; presumably experimental wizards merely spout out Latin-sounding words in hopes that they’ll bring a result connected to their etymology. This essay will outline the three views described above; show how meaning is in fact not immanent, but for the most part purely arbitrary; and show how this immanent treatment of signifiers resonates within the UK riots, perhaps to the point of precluding any significant cultural change.
In medieval times, the opinion of the court jester was sought by royalty for his view on their decision and was listened to in an open and respectful manner. This may seem odd to some, but consider: very often the royal advisors were parasitic profiteers, disregarding the greater good in favour of their own ends. The jester was given permission to parody any royal proposals made, revealing their absurdities and disadvantages―in effect, expounding a disinterested point of view. The jester was an invaluable asset to the royal courts, and we Canadians have a fitting equivalent.
Rick Mercer may be looked down upon by some as being superfluous to society, yet his impact on the scope of Canadian culture must not be underestimated. As he himself has said, more Canadians receive their information regarding Canadian politics from his show than from CBC News. Now of course, some may view this statistic as shameful, as evidence of the deteriorating intellectual fabric of our generation. When considering the hectic lives of Canada’s citizens, however, can one really point a finger? After a day of work, caring for children, and the vast array of obligatory duties which each Canadian must inevitably endure, must society also expect them to submit to the operose dronings of bleak, one-dimensional propaganda? Rick Mercer provides a genuinely entertaining self and societal deprecation as well as informative news outlet; an effective multitasking for a stressed population which might otherwise be tempted to tune in to one of the surfeit of inane alternatives. Mr. Mercer provides accommodation for the vast demographic which might otherwise remain uninformed of Canada’s perspective of world events as well as its own political ineptitudes.
Truly, Rick Mercer is one of the great Canadian social critics, and is an invaluable blessing to Canadian culture.
: Oech, R. (1983). A Whack on the Side of the Head. New York: Warner Books.
: I’m not sure of the specific episode on which Mercer says this, but I saw it myself.
: This is extreme, of course, to the point of being bombastic, but at the time of writing I had just watched an documentary on Fox News which seemed to justify such sentiments.
Since writing this, my thoughts related to Mercer have become more articulate, though I doubt I could compress them into 300 words. Read the rest of this entry