The harpsichord fad of the 1960s and early 70s provides a roadmap for assessing the strengths and limitations of actor-network theory. The 60s harpsichord was a constellation of heterogeneous material and discursive effects; its impact on changing genres, like pop, soul, jazz, and new music, was broad but not deep. As such the harpsichord fad shows that notions like actor, agency, and affordance can be too strong: too reliant on clarity of function, too confident in their capacity to assess success and failure, and ill-equipped to handle the microdynamics of aesthetic experience. Lingering instead over questions of economy, temporality, and ontology—what is the harpsichord doing where, when, with what, and with whom?—can stop us from drawing premature conclusions about what is acting on what. This paper thus considers the 60s harpsichord as a matter of interrelated political economy, musical economy (the disposition and role of elements in musical textures), and what might be called ‘ethical economy’: the distribution of ethical regard in a social system. Focusing on ethical economy—who cared about the harpsichord and its stakeholders, how, how much—gives a truer picture of the ways that musical fads and genres hang together: partly through aesthetic experience, music’s multitemporality, and respect for the interiority of others.
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- Actor-Network Theory
- Ethical Economy
- Musical Economy