sisyphus in the mail room

Circumstances drain into their surroundings: the dull beat of repetition, the place becomes synonymous with its use. A movement traced again and again, you know – it forms a symbol, an ideogram – it displaces the input and output: displaces the movement, hardens it all like dead fat in a living artery.

…and what, more to the point, does that symbol resemble? What does it represent?

At my current workplace, there is a windowless room that I imagine is mirrored in some form or other – maybe even with the addition of windows – at any law firm you could have the displeasure of strolling in to. It is a nameless nook of raw office matter, attached to the mailroom but apart from it.

Apart from the banalities that serve to demarcate an office from a dead, bland room – a slight demarcation, obviously: a humming terminal, a fan of pens and markers, a fine patina of discarded, twisted staples – no objects signify this space, nothing reaches in and picks it out from the backdrop, converting it into a place of happenstance. Vivid colours fade in this environment, sharp objects grow blunter and blunter until finally they are soft and indistinct: a parrot to a pigeon, a keen blade into a lump of soft, indeterminate, grey stuff – just matter, items in the general sense, no further specifications, etc.

In this way, bearing a slight analogy to the gut, the bowel, the room’s function is revealed less through its contents, but rather through their flux. Nine in the morning, two in the afternoon: the room is full of paper: boxed, bound, collating in hot stacks from the printers – it takes a couple of shapes, but it’s all the same, really: A3 to A5 with an emphasis on the 4. One moment it clogs every surface, sullied white piles leaning against each other, tilting faintly – a vague rustle beneath the A.C –

Then soon enough, it’s all gone.

This dull node would be entirely unremarkable were it not for the dual functions it fulfils in this grinding wax and wane of paper. The first function – the literal, physical one – would indeed barely qualify it for mention: it is the locus of the court-copyist and the archivist, jobs lowly paid and non-therapeutic. The former position – that of copyist – involves a daily foot-slog to court – District on Goulburn, Administrative Appeal on Market, Workers Compensation on Oxford…occasionally even a visit to the sombre and necrotic Dust Diseases Tribunal, the tear stained and quivering Land Rights court, the Family Court, etc. – and here’s the repetition of a dynamic anyone who has ever paid for a cup of tea on a train will be familiar with: the absolute monopoly on supply and the ensuing luxury of high costs and low quality. Four bucks for a styro cup of hot water and a Lipton bag. The youthful copyist who has yet to start stuffing bundles of confidential documents up their shirt and strolling them down to Officeworks is forced to pay an usurer’s sum for the privilege of reproducing on-site: hunched over a smouldering Lexmark X860DE, the sole stimulation coming in an adjustment of settings between single- and double-sided – a task that when mechanised will lay off about thirty thousand.

The pain incurred by spending over two week’s theoretical pay on scanning a box full of, say, hospital charts – it’s evened out slightly by the pleasure inherent in the automated montage of documents flashing before your eyes, a once in a lifetime display: detail of stool, limb, erectile dysfunction, injuries, mental deteriorations, vices, bullying, violence, incest, etc., etc. Remember this the next time you’re chucking out the subpoenas: your documents will be kept highly confidential, carefully and discreetly handled by the courts and parties, conveyed swiftly to and from the personnel directly connected to the matter, and the utmost care will be taken with this sensitive material.

…unless the low-paid copyist happens to look a couple of inches down to the pages they’re scanning, of course. Oh, the giggles, the ways to make a long day fly by! The things I’ve seen, the secrets I’ve clocked. Even the repetition of the act can’t completely kill the curiosity: even forty or fifty cases of nervous muscular tweaks don’t extinguish the joy in discovering the next seam of dirty laundry. It’s the great legal equivocator, the gaze of the copyist. “My god!” you’ll hear someone shriek, and the whole room will go swarming towards the clerk. If the gossip is good, you’ll see them climbing up on the machine, pages scattering around them, fist clutching a juicy sheet while the others claw at their brogues.

“More Psych evaluations for ol’ Hopkins, and the bastard’s still pissing himself!”

“Some Bruchner’s only gone and filed an account of his Oedipal dreams!”

“Remember Lawsy from way back? I could have guessed he was deformed!”

“…but you’d never have guessed where!”

“Harris has been smashed to death by a lorry!”

…and the whole room’s roaring with laughter, literally clutching at the machines, rolling amongst the papers, court staff rushing in to get a sniff of what’s good for a chuckle, boxes full of paper are upended and fanned out and mixed up and stuffed into whatever old file comes to hand. Shove in some corpse snaps on the divorce hearings! In with the blueprints where the x-rays once were! Shred a couple just for the fun of it, for the confetti! And the papers go flying and the machines whir and grind and the smell in the air is of hot ink and hot paper, and the floor glitters and shines with a million discarded paperclips –

Oh, and how we laugh, how we laugh. The yuks come cheap at the District Court of Sydney City, and you get them where you can.

That’s that.

So much for the copyist, then.

The papers come back to HQ, they fill the room, the heat slowly evaporates, cooled stacks are trussed in rubber bands or pink string and then shuttled off somewhere else, trundled down slate corridors on trolleys with groaning wheels. The long and boring journey of the documents is far from over, but from here their circulation leaves the realm of the purely banal (or rather, the pure banal) and enters into a sphere of dissemination more dry and technical, one less suited to our vague metaphorical import. We abandon them here, and safe to say that many greasy fingers will have fondled over them by the time we glimpse them again: holepunched and bookmarked, underlined, spat on, shuffled and dog-eared – maybe gone interstate, interoffice, or across town, who knows – who cares. We will see the papers only once more, at the end of their journey:

…thus, the archivist. Sun rise, sun set.

Each day the boxes come, stacking on and under the desk, against the walls, spilling into the corridor, bloating into the lobby, tumbling down the fire-exits: lift doors spring open and papers gush out, swirling, floating –

Each box is checked and marked and filed, barcode slapped on and stuck down and then on to the next. The papers generate inside the boxes almost spontaneously, and they retain none of their photocopied glow this far down the line – months, years on. They’ve been sullied somehow, and not just by the physical handling: slimy trails of eyesight have dragged across them, up and down, wearing down the ink – staining the file grey. It’s disturbing to see, almost uncanny, and the sooner they’re boxed and out of sight – the better. Best of all when they go, out, off the premises entirely – the cycle complete, the figure traced. If you like.

We’d all breathe easier to see the back of them – if it wasn’t for the next lot, that is: more boxes, more papers.

And the final destination of the boxes, the great resting-place? Third parties have it covered. Held for seven years in a dusty warehouse, then incinerated in a great legal blaze: that’s that. Flame arrests the metaphorical development as well as the physical.

That’s that.

(I knew an archivist a while back that woke in the middle of the night after exactly seven years on the job: seven years and a day. He woke up screaming and tearing at himself, clawing at his skin and hair.

“Chan”, he screamed and sobbed at his wife. “Chan v Maritime Union, 2004.”

“What on earth are you talking about?” she had probably replied, to which her husband had beat his head even harder, even faster, slumping down into the pillows:

“They’re burning Chan” he said. “An indistinct furnace on the Southern Highlands. The box is licked by flames…the celluloid scans are curling and smoking, they’re…”

We never heard the end of it. It had been his first box.

He didn’t sleep much at night afterwards.

They always burn the files in the middle of the night.)

Furnished with a literal description of the room’s function, it seems needless to go much further. The symbolic purport of the whole thing seems as neatly contained in the literal as if it too were manifested in the fleshy, physical makeup.

This seems fitting to me, as the symbols and signs I have in mind are ritualistic and leaden: grounded in stuff, inanimate matter and meaningless repeated gesture.

There could be some justification in accusing me of overdramatic simplification, drawing obtuse conclusions from nothing more than physical mass of documentation: I’d cop that, sure. Hard to deny it, but it’s equally difficult to shake my convictions of literality. Legal implications are up for debate, interpretation waxes and wanes, even the photocopied word is contestable – physical mass, however, stacks and stacks of paper: that’s tangible, that’s hard to deny.

There’s only so much time in the day, you know, and even less for the extraction of meaning. You get tired sometimes: I know I do. Sometimes it’s just easier take it as it comes, let the symbols wash over you, save your energy and your eyesight for something else. Mass comes in and mass goes out, paper blooms and withers and explodes into flame. The serpent not really eating its tail but gnawing lazily at it, grown fat on itself.

Ultimately, the whole process is not without some indistinct, paradoxical elegance, and I dream of a world where the ritual is stripped entirely of meaning: not just in the minds of myself and those that perform the task (that’s a done thing already) but in its stated function. Imagine it: just pushing an unread stack of papers down a desk to get burnt: none of that nonsense in between. The statement and re-statement of the sign, that’s all – scrivening and archiving at last become holy, taking on a new gravity of motion, a new dynamics of reduction.

Reduced, or rather elevated to this crystalline example of form, the process of the copyist and archivist would be seen finally in its balancing duality, its allegiance to flux. Bathed in this Sisyphean perpetuity and banality, the symbol would surely be in the image of some god or other.