A Shadow Economy of Power: Monica Eppinger on Technology and Power

By Emily Erdmann

On Friday, April 5, the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies continued its International Young Researchers’ Conference on “Technologies and Narratives of Truth and Power” with a keynote lecture from Dr. Monica Eppinger.  Eppinger is an associate professor of Law at Saint Louis University. Her extensive CV includes experience in the Foreign Service as well as her research expertise in ethnography and the anthropology of law. In her lecture, Eppinger proposed a means for us to understand the post-Soviet world and its remains through what she titled “Conspicuous Equipment & Repurposed Technologies: Hackers, Cannibals, Zombies, and Others of the Relic-World.”

Eppinger began her lecture by placing German philosopher Martin Heideger and French statesman Nicolas Fouquet into a conversation.  She used Martin Heideger to define equipment as a material encoded with a time and a context for usefulness. She used Fouquet to define technology as a subset of equipment, viewed more so as a practice as opposed to a synonym for equipment.  With these definitions in mind, she went on to evaluate three separate entities that have populated the late socialist and post-socialist landscapes: hackers, referring to Soviet biologists working in the organizations Enzyme and Biopreparat; cannibals, referring to inhabitants of collective farms; and zombies, referring to the Party of Regions’ “protesters” in Ukraine.

The biologists, denoted by Eppinger as hackers, were well aware of the advancements being made in the West with respect to gene splicing. They longed to make advancements of their own but required funding in order to look at pathogenic agents through Enzyme and Biopreparat. This funding was procured through rather roundabout means, but the scientists nonetheless found a way to manipulate the traditional channels of the Soviet system to meet their own needs in the pursuit of greater scientific discoveries.  In doing so, Eppinger argued, they became hackers of sorts.

The case of the cannibals is more of a story on subsisting rather than advancing. When collective farms were in full swing, technology to work the fields was distributed. As the years went by and the collective farms ceased to operate in the same capacity, machines were not replaced, and residents resorted to disemboweling some of them in order to use the parts to restore operationality to different ones. In this way, one machine might absorb or cannibalize another. Similar to the hackers, the farmers’ needs were not being met directly by the post-Soviet state. Through their own ingenuity, however, these farmers were able to get by using the equipment left by the system.

The zombies differ from the previous two categories in that they themselves were the equipment being manipulated. They merited the nickname “zombies” because they, seemingly like mindless sheep, allowed themselves to be used as supporters by the pro-Russian, Ukrainian political party. On the outside, these organized demonstrations seemed to convey mass support for said party, but on the inside, it was evident that looks were deceiving. The demonstrators allowed the external perspective to remain what it was, because by playing through the system, they were able to procure money for having participated at all. Eppinger’s ethnographic research implied that many, if not the majority, or even all of the people present in these crowds were there simply for the money awaiting them at the end of the day on the bus ride home. Therefore, just like the hackers and the cannibals, the zombies, too, played by the system so as to meet their unmet—in this case, monetary—needs.

In each case, whether they were the agents using the technology or the actual equipment being used, each group found a way to satisfy their own needs by manipulating the state to find a malleable, gray middle ground. Even though power was designed to disseminated from the top-down, the everyday Soviet citizen and post-Soviet citizen were able to repurpose the technology and equipment of the system in order to exercise their own degree of power to fulfill their own personal interests.

For more information on this subject matter, Eppinger is presently working on a material culture book project and you can look for her release in the near future. For additional information on the conference itself, you can see the itinerary here; and for information on other, upcoming Havighurst Center events, see here.

Emily Erdmann is a senior majoring in French and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

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