On historical consciousness and popular pasts

This article investigates the nature of historical consciousness – conceptualizations and constructions of the past outside academic history – and the way in which this has changed in parallel with developments in historical theory in recent decades. With the increased constructivist questioning of historical narratives as somehow objectively true, academic history is seen to have lost some of its authority regarding the past. It is argued that, in becoming more aware of its nature as interpretation as well as more sensitive to its motives and consequences, history now has the potential to become more pragmatic and presentist. At the same time, some theoretical discussions have turned to the less strictly historical questions of memory and presence, thus evading the call to responsibility. By examining historical consciousness in relation to these debates, the article suggests that, in line with the liberation of the past from the constraints of academic history, historical consciousness no longer needs to be as focused on the interpretations and knowledge provided by the institution of history but can be increasingly determined by popular understandings and the needs of consumers.