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Form Follows Conception. Representing Non-Linear History through Multimodal Hypertext

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Speaker: Christian Wachter
Event date: Wednesday, 29 March 2023 02:00 pm - 03:00 pm
Place: Online

Hands on History lecture by Christian Wachter, Bielefeld University.

How do historians shape conceptions of history? How do these conceptions structure narratives and argumentation? And how do historians represent these structures by the design of their publications?

Traditional text formats seem to favor the representation of linear progression: Text flows from beginning to end, mostly sequentially. Chapters and sections serve as means of hierarchization. This structure resembles the flow of time in history, on the one hand, and the logical ‘architecture’ of academic sense-making, on the other hand. However, complex conceptions of history like global entanglements, time layers, or spatial history resist the linear logic of the text. The same applies to data-driven research, when DH scholars present their interpretations, refer to data and visualizations, and discuss methodology. All these matters are too intricate to be expressed conveniently by linear progression.

There are only a few attempts by historians to respond to this challenge by crafting hypertextual publication formats. Here, information is interlinked in a non-linear way. While most hypertext research has advocated hypertext as a complex web with users freely navigating through its nodes and edges, pre-defined navigation pathways seem more promising. They guide users through complex yet coherent pieces of historiography. Users gain further orientation when this multi-linear design is visualized – for instance, as a graph. The resulting multimodal format offers unique possibilities to express complex narratives and argumentation in a way traditional text cannot.

Christian Wachter will discuss this matter mainly from a theoretical perspective, underpinning the potential of hypertext with references to semiotics, multimodality research, and epistemology. He will also discuss publication examples that lead the way and show, as Klaus Krippendorff states, “Design is making sense of things.”1

Christian Wachter is a postdoctoral research fellow of Digital History at Bielefeld University. His research and teaching focus on theory and methods of history, digital multimodal historiography, and digital techniques of historical research. After studying philosophy and history at the Universities of Hamburg and Goettingen, Christian Wachter received his PhD from the University of Goettingen in 2021 for his thesis on hypertext as a medium for digital historiography. In a current research project, he conducts digitally-assisted discourse analysis, examining political discourse in early twentieth-century Germany.


1 Krippendorff, Klaus (2006). The Semantic Turn. A New Foundation for Design. Boca Raton: CRC Taylor & Francis.

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Hands on History