Stand-in Labor and the Rising Economy of Self


Anteby, Michel, and Nicholas Occhiuto. 2020. “Stand-in Labor and the Rising Economy of Self.” Social Forces 98 (3): 1287-1310. Copy at

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Ghostwriters represent a form of labor aimed at producing someone else’s self, or what we label “stand-in labor.” This growing workforce sits at the intersection of critical developments in today’s neoliberal economy: the rise in self-branding, the growth in outsourcing of the self, and mounting income inequality. This article explores the experience of stand-in workers and its implication on the economy of self. Relying on 72 interviews with ghostwriters and publishing industry insiders, we show that ghostwriters face recognition estrangement because they are often asked to stay out of public view for the crafted selves to prove “authentic.” As creative workers with a high degree of investment in their work, ghostwriters are quite sensitive to this form of estrangement. They manage this tension in a unique way: they claim a professional need to disappear in order to properly put forth a subject’s “true” voice, yet emphasize their active contribution to the crafting of a subject’s public self that differs from the subject’s “true” self. In doing so, ghostwriters alter the subjects they impersonate by creating a distance between the subjects’ crafted and “actual” selves. Our study therefore uncovers a paradoxical dynamic—namely, taking professional pride in disappearing, yet reappearing in the act of altering others’ selves—that we posit might prove inherent to the performance of stand-in labor. More broadly, we suggest that many stand-in workers engaged in this growing economy of self might alter the people they impersonate, thus leading to a situation where calls for authenticity breed adulteration.

Last updated on 02/12/2020