Category Archives: Language

Spectres of Capital: The Political Economy of Ghostwriting

Ghost City, by raysheaf

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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Klossowski’s Living Currency

It has recently come to my attention that a quasi-economic study by Pierre Klossowski entitled Living Currency (La Monnaie Vivante) is in the process of being translated by Reena Spaulings, to be published by Reena Spaulings Fine Art. This is particularly noteworthy due to its author’s influence in the history of theory: Pierre Bal-Blanc praises the text for providing the missing link from Bataille to Baudrillard and from Lacan to Foucault and Deleuze. Living Currency was originally published in 1970, only two years prior to the publication of Deleuze & Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus and four years prior to the publication of Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy (in which the work of Klossowski plays a key role), so it will be most interesting to compare and contrast these authors’ respective theories of political economy.

Bal-Blanc (who has hosted a long-running art exhibition of the same name as the text) summarizes Living Currency as follows:

The book’s introduction posits very simply the initial perversion as the first manifestation in a human being of the distinction between reproductive instincts and voluptuous emotion. This first perversion distinguishes human from mechanism, and will later be found to be the definition of human thought. Then, ideology appropriates perversion as “false or foul thinking”—the industrial and capitalist system, in organizing the production processes towards specific and policed ends, closes them down in the same gesture as it expels everything that overruns for being perverse. For example, a tool is used for doing only one thing. It is perverse to exceed, to overrun. This is the limitation at the foundation of the capitalist division of labor. Thus the drive behind the “open form” or the “open work” becomes to explode and dismiss these limits, to multiply possibility. These practices, so typical of the 1970s, work to invert or reverse the industrial system, which borders on perversion, instrumentalizing it. One can also go back to Charles Fourier,…who tried to offer a theory of impulses be [sic] distributed in another organism, taking into account their necessary variety….

Likewise, the online poetry zine The Claudius Appbriefly describes the book in the following terms:

A magisterially paranoiac and prescient investigation of libidinal economy and economies of affect, Living Currency updates Fourier for a post-Fordist era: a para-cybernetic flowchart by Sade’s “neighbor” linking the processes and products of art and industry through their human, all too human medium of exchange. From the trade in bathos to spot-priced simulacra and the orgasms they unfailingly blow out like O-rings: enjoying your symptom means pricing your fantasm. Raise a glass with Juliette, to the open market—may it never close its legs.

The same zine has published the two last sections of the English translation, the latter excerpt serving as part of its introduction. (See above for the link.) It may be worthy of note that for the rest of his life following the publication of Living Currency, Klossowski’s efforts were near-exclusively devoted to painting, his artwork having since achieved some renown in the art world.

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The Economist Who Refuted Wittgenstein

However, in the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein abandons the idea of language as axiomatic representation of the world, and the idea of the ‘unspeakable’. Discussions with [Piero] Sraffa seem to have played their part in his abandonment of the latter. In this connection, there is an anecdote that Wittgenstein himself liked to tell his pupils, one of whom – Malcolm – recounts it thus in his biography of the master: one day, as they were travelling together on the train from Cambridge to London, ‘Sraffa made a gesture, familiar to Neapolitans and meaning something like disgust or contempt, of brushing the underneath of his chin with an outward sweep of the finger tips of one hand’.21

The gesture can only acquire a specific meaning from the context in which it is performed, thus contradicting Wittgenstein’s idea that every proposition had to have a precise place in the axiomatic order of rational language, independently of the various contexts in which it may be employed.22

21: Malcolm, 1958: 69.
22: According to Malcolm (1958: 69), the object of the discussion was Wittgenstein’s idea ‘that a proposition and that which it describes must have the same “logical form”, the same “logical multiplicity”’; according to von Wright, as Malcolm reports in a footnote, the object of the discussion was the idea that each proposition should have a ‘grammar’. In a conversation (21 December, 1973) Sraffa confirmed the anecdote, telling me that von Wright was right.

Roncaglia, A. (2000). Piero Sraffa: His Life, Thought, & Cultural Heritage. New York: Routledge, pg. 23, endnotes pg. 44.

For a brief skeptical discussion of whether Wittgenstein was really refuted, see here.

The Stakes of Grammatology

The well-known quarrel between Lacan and Derrida over Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” did not come from nowhere. Consider in this regard Lacan’s formulation from “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious,” that one is to grasp the letter à la lettre, that is, literally, and Derrida’s counter in the title to section one of his Of Grammatology, “Writing Before the Letter,” in French, avant la lettre, that is, before the fact, before, that is, the literal. Never to shirk a provocation, Lacan responded in the points edition of the Écrits by instating that his insight into the “instance/agency of the letter preceded any grammatology.” This in turn appears to have prompted The Title of the Letter: A Reading of Lacan by Derrida partisans Jean-Luc Nancy and Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe. The titular phrase, le titre de la lettre, might also be rendered as “the deed to, or rank of the letter.” Here is not the place to elaborate the stakes of this face-off, but suffice it to say that at issue is the nontrivial problem of whether philosophy can think the general economy of signs that conditions the possibility of language, whether spoken or written.

~John Mowitt, in Lyotard – Discourse, Figure, Editor’s Introduction, pg. 397, endnote 7.

McLuhan on Structuralism

Before looking at the English evidence for the same concern with regularity and uniformity among printers and print users alike, it is well to remind ourselves of the rise of structural linguistics in our day. Structuralism in art and criticism stemmed, like non-Euclidean geometrics, from Russia. Structuralism as a term does not much convey its idea of inclusive synesthesia, an interplay of many levels and factors in a two-dimensional mosaic. But it is a mode of awareness in art language and literature which the West took great pains to eliminate by means of Gutenberg technology. It has returned in out time, for good or ill, as this opening paragraph of a recent book84 indicates:

Language gives evidence of its reality through three categories of human experience. The first may be considered as the meaning of words; the second, as those meanings enshrined in grammatical forms; and the third and, in the view of this author, the most significant, as those meanings which lies beyond grammatical forms, with those meanings mysteriously and miraculously revealed to man. It is with this last category that this chapter will endeavor to deal, for its thesis is that thought itself must be accompanied by a critical understanding of the relations of linguistic expression to the deepest and most persistent intuitions of man. An effort will further will further be made to show that language becomes imperfect and inadequate when it depends exclusively upon mere words & forms and when there is an uncritical trust in the adequacy of these words and forms as constituting the ultimate content and extent of language. For man is that being on earth who does not have language. Man is language.

~McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, pp. 230-1

84: R.N. Anshen, Language: An Enquiry into its Meaning & Function, vol. VIII, p. 3.

Trying to Get Immanence Out of a (Philosopher’s) Stone: Archetypes, Sociobiology, Harry Potter, and the UK Riots

Click the picture for a more detailed explanation of the notion of signifier/signified.

[To make the parallel of Harry Potter & the Tottenham riots seem less farfetched, see here.]

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.

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Introjection and Science: Beyond Subjectivity & Objectivity

In the documentary Fractals: The Colors of Infinity, Benoît Mandelbrot describes how after discovering the eponymous ‘Mandelbrot set’ and working with it for two or three days, he noticed that the strange new object he was dealing with had begun to seem uncannily familiar, as if he had known it all his life. From there the documentary segues into a brief introduction to Jungian archetypes and how patterns similar to fractals often appear in ancient art, then goes on to explain how fractals are ubiquitous throughout nature, from crystals to cauliflower to the prices of cotton throughout a century. It is somewhat disturbing to observe such otherwise rigorous scientists descending into groundless speculations about fractals as archetypes, but they are not completely to blame for this, since the connection between a transcendental mathematical shape and a transcendental archetype seems too obvious for them to resist. I will argue, however, that Mandelbrot’s uncanny feeling is better explained by the psychoanalytical phenomenon of introjection, and that this relation to objects provides new insight into the relation of scientists to their work, perhaps even allowing for something close to objectivity.

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