Category Archives: Media

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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Rick Mercer & Canadian Identity


[I wrote this for a writing contest a few years ago, with the theme ‘the greatest Canadian’.]

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.[1] 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[2]. 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?[3] 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.

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[1]: Oech, R. (1983). A Whack on the Side of the Head. New York: Warner Books.
[2]: I’m not sure of the specific episode on which Mercer says this, but I saw it myself.
[3]: 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.

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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

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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Why The French Treat Their Intellectuals Like Americans Treat Their Rock Stars

It will strike the average person as fairly odd that France and America have such different forms of cultural icon, and that seemingly opposite values can prevail among youth of different cultures at the same point in history. Though I am not a historian of French or American culture, McLuhan’s media theory offers a satisfactory answer based solely on formal concerns, since the content of a medium (as McLuhan expertly shows) is auxiliary to the true reason for its popularity, i.e. its purely formal attributes.

Around roughly the same time period (around the 1950s, give or take a decade), the youth culture of both France and America took a drastic turn from what preceded it. McLuhan explains that American culture since its formation was traditionally literate (i.e. raised on newspapers, literature, etc., and concomitant linearity & compartmentalization of thought), as opposed to the culture of France, which was traditionally oral. From this basic description is the key to understanding this divergence. For whatever reason, the younger generation decided to rebel against the predominant media in their cultures. In doing so, these two cultures exchanged media forms, so to speak. While rock stars exemplified the nonlinear, erratic thinking of electric culture to the Americans, intellectuals (Sartre, say, or Camus) exemplify literate thinking by their sustained themes (angst, absurdity), their emphasis on lebensprojekt* (or better yet, whatever the inverse of this would be, but retaining its lifelong, linear manner), and their general abstruseness (i.e. one must read their work closely, whereas in oral transmission of information clarity & ease are essential).

Desmond Morris, in his book The Naked Ape (pg. 105), explains that the sociobiological reason for young women to scream and go into hysterics at music concerts (“They not only scream, they also grip their own and one another’s bodies, they writhe, they moan, they cover their faces and they pull at their hair”) is that they (unconsciously) desire to show their peers how they have matured to the point of being able to process complex emotions. As evidence of this thesis, he notes that if a teenage girl were to confront a rock star while on her own, it would never occur to her to scream at him. It is not at all difficult to switch the medium around in this case, and to see that reading (mainly literature, and perhaps some philosophy) could justly serve this end, provided that enough conspicuous consumption (or discourse about what each youth has been reading lately) occurs that one’s choice of reading material can be adequately broadcast to one’s peers.

Thus we see that youth possess a sociobiological need to display to their peers their developing emotional maturity, which must be satisfied one way or another. Looking at American and French culture from a purely formal perspective, then, we see that their situation is the same. Each culture merely had a different historical situation (in America, mass literacy, in France, oral culture) to rebel against.

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*[German] Work to which one has devoted one’s whole life.

TL;DR

  • It may seem strange that the youth of these two cultures could have such different interests, but actually they’re not as different as they first seem.
  • As Marshall McLuhan shows, exposure to different types of media motivates different types of thought. People raised on books will think in a linear, compartmentalized, and mechanistic manner. People raised on television and music will think in a more nonlinear, transdisciplinary, and ‘organic’ manner.
  • Traditionally, America was characterized by its ‘print culture’, whereas France was characterized by its ‘oral culture’.
  • Around the mid-20th century, the youth of both cultures rebelled against the traditional mindsets of their respective cultures. 
  • Music in America and literature/philosophy in France fulfill the same need, i.e. for teenagers to display to peers their ability to process complex emotions.

Media Ecology in the East & West

Efei Wang has recently published an excellent post summarizing the differences between the Asian and North American schooling systems. The difficulty level of Chinese schooling has risen dramatically: Chinese elementary school students are taught algebra, science, and literature; calculus is an opening high school math course in China, whereas in North America calculus is not taught until grade twelve; in short, North American education is quite obviously inferior to that of Asia. The disparities between the two continents are eerily dramatic, and undoubtedly fuel the paranoia of those who suspect that the era of American world supremacy is drawing to a close. The following is a brief summary of how North American students’ seeming inferiority may disguise significant assets of North American habitus which will likely contribute to the persistence of American hegemony.

Marshall McLuhan was an extremely influential media ecologist in the mid-20th century. He noticed that since the popularization of the television, a distinct break could be noticed in people’s patterns of thought (patterns which were shaped by the predominating “sense ratios”). He also (controversially) denied the importance of content, in favor of the nature of the medium itself. He came to separate ‘print culture’ (marked by its intensification of the visual sense, which led to modes of thinking focusing upon uniformity, linearity, and breaking things into their component parts) from ‘audial-tactile’ culture (marked by nonlinearity, mulitiplicity, and emphasis upon difference).

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