Truth-Spots: How Places Make People Believe

Truth-Spots: How Places Make People Believe

by Thomas F. Gieryn

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We may not realize it, but truth and place are inextricably linked. For ancient Greeks, temples and statues clustered on the side of Mount Parnassus affirmed their belief that predictions from the oracle at Delphi were accurate. The trust we have in Thoreau’s wisdom depends in part on how skillfully he made Walden Pond into a perfect place for discerning timeless truths about the universe. Courthouses and laboratories are designed and built to exacting specifications so that their architectural conditions legitimate the rendering of justice and discovery of natural fact. The on-site commemoration of the struggle for civil rights—Seneca, Selma, and Stonewall—reminds people of slow but significant political progress and of unfinished business. What do all these places have in common? Thomas F. Gieryn calls these locations “truth-spots,” places that lend credibility to beliefs and claims about natural and social reality, about the past and future, and about identity and the transcendent.

In Truth-Spots, Gieryn gives readers an elegant, rigorous rendering of the provenance of ideas, uncovering the geographic location where they are found or made, a spot built up with material stuff and endowed with cultural meaning and value. These kinds of places—including botanical gardens, naturalists’ field-sites, Henry Ford’s open-air historical museum, and churches and chapels along the pilgrimage way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain—would seem at first to have little in common. But each is a truth-spot, a place that makes people believe. Truth may well be the daughter of time, Gieryn argues, but it is also the son of place.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226562001
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/22/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
File size: 395 KB

About the Author

Thomas F. Gieryn is the Rudy Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Indiana University Bloomington. He is the author of Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt


Oracular Tourism

Being shown how to locate, to place, any account is what does most toward making us believe it, not merely allowing us to, may the account be the facts or a lie.


Not long ago, I visited the oracle at Delphi, in Greece, to consult with the Pythia about my prospects for writing a book on how places lend credibility and legitimacy to beliefs and claims. Following custom, I first cleansed myself in waters gushing from the Castalian Spring, beneath the "shining ones" (Phaedriades) on Mount Parnassus. I climbed the Sacred Way, passing by treasuries and monuments built by the great city-states (Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes) to recognize the prophecies they received, and with their gratitude. I arrived at the Temple of Apollo, and waited my turn — as a non-Greek, at the end of a long line. At last, there was the Pythia before me, seated on her tripod, holding laurel leaves and sacred water, with the omphalos nearby and also the two golden eagles of Zeus — intoxicating vapors emanated from a little fissure at her feet. I put my money down, and a sacrificial cake, which was promptly burned on the altar.

I got no immediate response from the oracle, and sensing that the priestess might need a little background, I recited the passage from Eudora Welty that works as an epigraph for the book. Still no prophecy. Maybe the Pythia needed examples of places that have become truthspots: pondside hut, wild nature, botanical garden, university lectern, outdoor historical museum, art institute, pilgrimage destination, courthouse, commemorated birthplaces, laboratory. Silence. Oh yes, I continued, then there is the oracle at Delphi — indeed, it is the Mother of All Truth-Spots. Now obviously ecstatic, the priestess began to speak, channeling Apollo himself. I had hoped for something like "#1 on the nonfiction bestseller list" or "hit series on public television." Instead, she told me this: "To be read, the book must be written." Her attendants smiled with satisfaction at the prophecy, and I left the Temple content with what I surmised as oracular encouragement to write on.

* * *

What was it about Delphi — as a place — that made ancient Greeks believe that prophecies received there possessed predictive accuracy? What is it about Delphi today — as a place — that affirms the ordinary tourist's supposition that such oracular consultations really did happen on this very spot way back then? Delphi as a place consists of three essential and inseparable ingredients:

• a unique location in geographic space: Delphi is precisely here (latitude 38°28¢452 N, longitude 22°29¢362 E) and not there, rising 1,837 feet above sea level, near to some places but far from others, with inevitably elastic and porous borders

• material stuff gathered at this spot, both natural and human made, objects and geological features made or found there that give the place a solid physicality

• narrations, interpretations, and imaginations that give the place distinctive meaning and value

Take away any one of these ingredients, and Delphi ceases to be Delphi — indeed, it ceases to be a place at all. The premise of this book is that place matters mightily for what people believe to be true. We can better understand why some assertions or propositions or ideas become for some people credible and believable by locating them somewhere on the skin of the earth — and by asking what things are to be experienced at that spot and how this place is culturally understood.

To locate an account is to return it to a place where it was discovered or manufactured, where it is displayed and celebrated, where it gets enacted and reproduced, where it is contested or obscured. Such places may become truth-spots — and the place itself is not merely an incidental setting where some idea or assertion just happens to gain credibility, but a vital cause of that enhanced believability. To be sure, the acceptance of a claim as true (or its affirmation for oneself) is never a matter of place alone. Whether or not someone is perceived to be speaking the truth is an upshot of many factors, including the qualities he or she brings to the judgment: pertinent expertise and training (especially if accompanied by institutional "insignia of affiliation," like academic degrees and professional recognition), a history of integrity, absence of a dog in the fight. My suggestion is that perhaps these many determinants of credibility are modulated or inflected in various ways by the places where an account and a potential believer intersect.

Not all truth-spots visited in this book will work just like Delphi: the combination of those three ingredients (location, materiality, and narration) into a fount of perceived truth never follows the exact same recipe. Walden Pond as a place gave credence to Thoreau's pronouncements via pathways that are different from how an ultra clean laboratory did the same for Clair Patterson's factual assertions about human-made sources of lead in the environment. These diverse pathways to the probable — exactly how places make people believe — will become the target of our explorations.

* * *

Somehow in Delphi ... what is here, one feels, is intact in its purity. ... Perhaps today the oracle is due to make its re-entry into the world. If it did, if from the heart of the rock we heard one of those terrific and yet ordinary judgments upon the world of affairs, would we be ready to receive it, act upon it?


The ultimate question about an oracle ... is not whether it tells the truth but what we will allow to count as the truth.


Delphi's very existence, then or now, as something more than a forgotten unvisited peasant village hung on the side of Parnassus depends crucially on its success as a truth-spot. Through the last twenty-six centuries or so, diverse allies have worked hard to make it so. Between the sixth century BC and the fourth century AD, the actual residents of Delphi, leaders of distant Greek city-states, invaders from Macedonia, conquering Persians, Roman emperors, and ambivalent Christians variously sustained the place as the center of the universe where mortals could receive divine wisdom. After the late nineteenth-century AD excavations of the site began in earnest, classical archaeologists, the restaurateurs, hotel owners, and shopkeepers of Delphi, the Greek National Tourist Organization, and countless travel agencies and tour-bus operators keep alive the belief that what happened at the oracle at Delphi is real history and culturally important.

The spectacular landscape of Delphi has always been remarkable, and for that reason it has never been unnarrated. Vincent Scully finds there "a very conscious drama between the natural and the manmade ... calculated to embody the eventual victory of Apollo over the earth's cataclysmic power": the orderly columns of his Temple stand defiant against the menacing horns of the Phaedriades looming above, with all their instability and force (Parnassus is indeed prone to earthquakes). The earliest stories about the origins of the oracle and sanctuary were written centuries after cultic activities began there, as later archaeological evidence would suggest. But these accounts should not be disqualified as inaccurate simply because their authors were less interested in historical verisimilitude than in legitimating Delphi as the superior source of divine guidance and sanction. Legends do as much to make a truth-spot as stone, raw or dressed. Delphi figures in tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and in Herodotus's Histories from the fifth century BC, and still appears in the first century AD with Plutarch, who lived there for a time. The tales are tall. Delphi was home to Gaia, Earth Mother, one of the primordial Greek deities — which extends the cosmic significance of this spot back to the beginning of everything. Or, if you prefer a celestial origin myth, Sky Father Zeus, seeking the location of Gaia's home, is said to have released two eagles from the ends of the earth — and flying toward each other, they met exactly above Delphi, where Gaia's belly button (omphalos) was taken to signify that here was the navel of the world.

Pride of place among the deities celebrated at Delphi goes to Apollo, son of Zeus, who wanted Gaia's precinct for himself. The place had been guarded by her serpent or she-dragon, which Apollo slew, leaving its carcass to rot in the sun on the mountainside among mortals; "to rot" in Greek is pytho, hence Apollo Pythios and his priestess medium, the Pythia. Once liberating the place from the snake, Apollo needed humans to populate it, whose life mission would be his veneration. According to the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (seventh–sixth centuries BC), he assumed the form of a dolphin (delphis in Greek) and pushed Cretan sailors toward the northern coast of the Corinthian Sea, getting them to land quite unexpectedly at a spot just below Parnassus. At landfall, Apollo assumed human form, and told the sailors to climb 600 meters up the mountain and build an altar where humans could consult the God of Truth and Prophecy. Upon arriving at a cleft between the peaks, the sailors suspected that Apollo had surely made a most ungodlike mistake: the stony mountainside was barren, offering no viable means of livelihood.

But of course Apollo's moment of Eureka! was well founded. In the Homeric Hymn, Apollo is seen wandering around looking for the perfect spot for his Temple, rejecting one place because it is rich with wheat and forests, rejecting another because it has no footpaths or roadways, and rejecting a third as bothered by "the clattering of the swift horses and of the mules." But on a "ridge of the mountain; ... underneath snow-covered Parnassos; ... is a slope that is turned toward the west wind; high up above is hanging a cliff overhead, and beneath it runs a deep valley, hollow and rugged," Apollo found a spot just right: bereft of natural resources, somewhat accessible (to mortals) and tranquil. After the Cretan leader reminds Apollo that "this is a land not pleasing for vineyards or good for its pastures," the god responds: "Simpletons truly you are ... if in your right hands each of you taking a knife were to slaughter sheep incessantly here, unstinted the victims would all yet be, so many the glorious nations of mankind bring me"— or, if you play by my rules, the hordes of worshippers making the trek up the mountain will bring more sheep than you could possibly raise yourself (eternal sustenance will be no problem).

I might be agnostic about whether Apollo ever existed or ever issued those exact words — but sociologically, he was on the money. This location (and its bleak but awesome natural geographic features) turns out to be exactly the right place for the job of an oracular truth-spot. I suspect that when Apollo sought a tranquil place, he had something more on his mind than clattering hooves. Delphi is tranquil because it is located away, far enough from the noisy Greek city-states rising in the archaic period (roughly, seventh to early fifth centuries BC), and thus (at least initially) not attached to or owned by any one of them. The place could become neutral and autonomous territory, where Greeks from all over could come to seek Apollo's wisdom without worry of trespassing on the turf of a rival city-state. Moreover, no city-state would covet the immediate territory around Delphi because, as Apollo insisted, it had no natural resources to exploit. At least until the oracle was up and running, there was little reason for any mortals to be especially interested in the place for economic or strategic reasons. An unproductive spot far from anybody's immediate control allowed Delphi to find its legs as a politically independent home for Apollo — which did wonders for the perceived credibility of the Pythia's prognostications. How so?

The sacred sanctuary at Delphi managed to last, with varying intensity of oracular activity, from about the seventh century BC until roughly the fourth century AD because of a permanently precarious symbiosis between the Delphians who actually lived on-site and the city-states, ethnic peoples, and empires from around the Mediterranean who valued the place. This mutually beneficial interaction depended upon Delphi's position as a truth-spot, a place that afforded credibility to the oracle's messages. Inhabitants of Delphi hoped to gain their own freedom as a town and protection from conquest, but most important they needed a steady flow of resources (e.g., sheep — and emphatically, it was "no fee, no consultation") in order to survive on the tough mountainside — and these would be provided by seekers trekking to worship there and, later, to participate in athletic competitions and artistic festivals. Visiting devotees and inquirers, in turn, hoped to enjoy unimpeded access to the site and to the priestess whose pronouncements had to be unsullied by ulterior motives or distracting interests. Delphians, in effect, traded objectivity and believability for edibles and prosperity. Supplicants provided protection and resources in exchange for prophecies accepted as legitimate because barren and remote Delphi was initially beyond anybody's outside control and thus free from suspicions that its predictions were politically motivated or constrained. Smart guy, Apollo: by encouraging those Cretan sailors to put their altar at inhospitable and distant Delphi, he insured that believers from everywhere would come to venerate him at a spot so neutral that his wisdom came through mortals whose only real stake was to preserve a reputation for clean hands.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Greeks from far and wide beat a path to Delphi, despite significant vertical challenges for those arriving at sea level, starting in the late eighth century BC. Pottery shards show stylistic signatures of objects made to the north in Thessaly and also from the south in the Peloponnese, suggesting that Delphi sat on a developing north-south trade route whose traffic would intensify as the oracle's legitimacy and utility grew. The place was accessible. Leaders of the city-states had increasingly good reason to consult with the Delphic oracle. Classical historian Michael Scott suggests that Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and the rest were just beginning to develop processes of deliberative decision-making that were potentially accountable to their citizens. Oracular advice was sought to guide or legitimate decisions about whether or not to colonize new settlements or to initiate war against a foreign power or a rival Greek city-state. The prophecies were ambiguous: typically they lacked decisive yea/nay recommendations and instead offered a range of possible interpretations for city leaders and citizens to mull over. However fuzzy or unfalsifiable their substance may have been, Delphic predictions were ascribed credibility so that they could be used effectively in arguments over what course of action to take and later to justify eventual outcomes. "The ritualized environment in which divination takes place helps to confirm its validity."

In a world rife with competing oracles, Delphi assiduously protected its brand of superior wisdom — straight from Apollo, and no cajoling. Although scholars continue to disagree about so much of what may have happened at Delphi long ago, "what is not in dispute is the position of pre-eminence it achieved and sustained." The words of the faraway Pythia possessed a greater legitimacy than those received from a local oracle around the corner because of her assumed independence of mind ("no prophet has honor at home"). So important was the protection of Delphi's autonomy (and objectivity) that the Greek city-states came together in a rare moment of Panhellenism to defend the independent sanctuary against a would-be usurper. In the late sixth century BC, residents of the town of Crisa (located on the fertile plain below Delphi) were ripping off travelers heading up to the oracle and even had the temerity to attack the Delphians themselves. An association of Greek cities and states known as the Amphictyony (led, in this instance, by Thessaly, Athens, and Sicyon) came together to crush Crisa in battle — seizing booty and declaring that the fertile plain between the Corinthian Sea and the base of Parnassus would remain forever uncultivated (and thus neutral ground traversable without risk).


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Table of Contents

1              Oracular Tourism
2              Ground-Truthing at Walden Pond
3              Linnaeus’s Credibilizing Transit
4              Ford’s Potemkin Villages
5              Trapdoor to the Transcendent
6              The Whole Truth and Nothing But
7              Obama’s Three Birthplaces
8              Ultra Clean Lab


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