Understood as the simplest form of unmediated communication, ostension is a primary way of expressing meaning through co-presence. Ostension functions as a form of indexicality, pointing to the thing about which one wishes to communicate.

While relatively new to semiotics, philosophers from Augustine to Wittgenstein have developed ostension’s theoretical meanings in several directions. It is typically framed as the most basic form of non- or pre-linguistic communication, relying on the directing of one interlocutor’s attention to a physically present object or action. Through this direction of attention, ostension can be used in the teaching of language. A substantial, but widely divergent, literature on ostension has also grown up over the last forty years within the discipline of folkloristics. Introduced into the field by Linda Dégh and Andrew Vázsonyi, the term was rapidly assimilated to two seemingly unrelated folkloric practices: “acting out” the content of a legend; and legend-tripping, the well-attested process of visiting places associated with legend narratives in order to experience some part of the legend (usually a supernatural phenomenon) for oneself. In folkloristic treatments, ostension emerged as a way of interacting with the truth-claims made by the legend genre.

Despite these divergences, there remain important points of contact between semiotic/linguistic/philosophical and folkloristic models of ostension. This special issue seeks to set folkloristic and semiotic understandings of ostension in productive dialogue. Potential areas of inquiry include ostension’s relationship to epistemology and notions of “truth”; the possibility of “mediated” ostensive communication; and forms of ostension that do not depend on the co-presence of interlocutors and the things/actions being ostended.

Published: 2024-04-28