Ontogeny, dammit

I’m not going to lie: one of the reasons I wanted to start blogging again was to pimp my book. And for those just joining us, that book is Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture. And oh look, the “look inside” thingy on Amazon is working now, so you can read a bunch and make an informed decision to buy it.


Nice cover, eh? A straight-up homage to the early-1960s Blue Note cover-art etudes in typographic abstraction.

I’m a little excited. I’ve never published a book before. It’s all new to me, which means that I’m flipping out over stupid stuff that happens to everyone. Like, for example, finding errors after the book has gone to press and it’s too late to do anything about them. Yesterday I discovered, to my horror, that in name-checking the discredited evolutionary-theory saw “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” I wrote “ontology recapitulates phylogeny,” which makes no sense.

Perhaps “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” doesn’t make sense either. Let me explain. The phrase means that the development of an individual embryo (ontogeny) reproduces in due sequence the stages of that organism’s species evolution (phylogeny). So an individual human fetus (the argument goes) will start out showing the gill slits of a fish, and will subsequently show features reminiscent of reptiles, birds, etc. as it grows into its proper human shape.

This is bad science but can prove surprisingly useful when we’re talking about works of the imagination. I use the phrase to get at something interesting I noticed about Norman Mailer’s The White Negro, which I discuss at length in the fifth chapter of Dig. I looked at Mailer’s draft notes and sketches for The White Negro (the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas has all of Mailer’s stuff) and one thing I discovered was that it was first titled Dialectic of the American Existentialist. The title hints at what Mailer was originally trying to do in this essay: to create a synthesis of Marxism (the influence of Mailer’s friend Jean Malaquais is felt here) and Existentialism. Mailer wanted to establish himself (in the pages of Dissent, no less) as a heavyweight intellectual, someone who could go toe-to-toe with the sluggers among the New York Intellectuals, and here was his chance to put the cultivated intellectual language of the midcentury literati in an American vernacular. So he made out the hipster (then relatively new to the American scene) out to be a kind of dialectician-in-the-raw and treated hipness as a kind of philosophical critique that the hipster had naïvely recreated for himself. And it’s true, hipness had something of the quality of a philosophy, but (this is one of my book’s main points) it was not itself a philosophy, nor yet a political critique or aesthetic movement or style fad or (for that matter) any one thing at all. It was, rather, a stance or sensibility that preceded and gave rise to a characteristic philosophy, politics, style, etc. That sensibility was one oriented to immediacy and sensation-in-the-moment; the hipster launched his critique of the planned society not through dialectical critique but through his very being. Mailer came to understand that the hipster does not critique, he digs. Not the same thing at all. As Mailer re-wrote “The White Negro” (as he soon retitled it), his successive draft stages show this dawning awareness, just as intellectual critics more generally came to understand, before and after, that hipness is something more than one of the -isms they learned about in college. The ontogeny of “The White Negro” recapitulates the phylogeny of hip culture more generally.

That’s what I meant to express. However, I didn’t, because I wrote the nonsensical “ontology” instead and never noticed the error until too late. Why didn’t I catch it in proofs? Because (and those of you who have struggled through article or book proofs know what I’m talking about here) after a while you can hardly see your own writing anymore. When you’re reading something you wrote, it’s as if you aren’t seeing the words, but a more abstract glyph that stands in for the words, or even for the thought that lies behind the words. So all the times I had a chance to fix “ontology” to “ontogeny,” all I saw was “onto-[something with a Y and a G],” or even just “O…..” I complained about this on Facebook and my scholars friends were like, well, yeah, that happens. Still mad, though.

The only way to make this right is for all of you to buy a copy of my book the moment it comes out, August 13, first thing in the morning as you drink your coffee, don’t forget now, so the first print run sells out and we have to do another. Then I can fix it. Then it will be perfect. I’m sure.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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2 Responses to Ontogeny, dammit

  1. jonathanbellman says:

    Cartoon image: Phil with lightning bolts coming out of his head.

    Yep, this is how it is with books. I remember seeing Leonard Ratner at Stanford at one point, and he asked what I was doing. “Going through book proofs with a fine-toothed comb,” I told him. “I’m getting rid of all the errors.” He looked glumly empathetic, and said, “Oh, no. The errors you’ll find *after* it’s in print.”

    Congratulations! If we’re going start engaging “hip” again, we’ll need to discuss how the meaning has changed (degraded?); apparently the term is thrown around in a much looser fashion now, especially by Those Dratted Young People.

  2. registeredmusictherapist says:

    Welcome back! Just found out you two were back – and just got your book and am into the first chapter. Back on the old blog was sometimes disconcerted to see my youth treated as an historical topic (I’m 64), but have since gotten used to being a relic of a former age and am enjoying your elucidation of it.

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