THE ASHTRAY by Errol Morris


(or the Man Who Denied Reality)
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America’s favorite myth-buster settles an old—and very arcane—score.

In 1972, Morris (Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, 2011, etc.) was nearly brained by a flying ashtray; his would-be assailant was the physicist Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The two were at odds over James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of the displacement current, but the dispute went much deeper: whether truth is real (Morris) or relative and beholden to “paradigm shift” (Kuhn). In the years since, Morris has become the lively documentarian who obsessively follows the strange paths truth can take (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War, Tabloid, Wormwood et al.), and he has taken similar investigative trails in several books. Through it all, the Kuhn contretemps has apparently continued to gnaw at him; this book is his attempt at putting the matter to rest. For Morris, Kuhn’s legacy is little more than a general distrust of words and history. “For Kuhn, the meaning of words is endlessly in flux,” writes the author. “Changing your paradigm is not like changing your oil. You end up with a completely different set of meanings—except maybe you can’t know it, because the meanings are inaccessible to you.” Morris charges that Kuhn has likewise contributed to the “devaluation of scientific history” by arguing that truth isn’t so much discovered as created. The book can be tough sledding for readers a little shaky on modern trends in linguistic theory or historiography, and the constant digressions—Morris chases one rabbit after the next in footnotes stacked in the margins—can get annoying. One also senses a missed opportunity: In the era of fake news and alternative facts, the author might have made a stronger connection to the relativity of modern life.

The book may prove illuminating for patient readers, but Morris the scorned student is not Morris the filmmaker: He makes you work.

Pub Date: May 22nd, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-226-92268-3
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2018


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