alexandra barancová

The Arbiter

‘The law is produced (without showing itself, thus without producing itself) in the space of this non-knowledge.’ Derrida.

Walking to work one day, the arbiter observed a scene. The scene was nothing more, or nothing less, than a daily interaction. The details of what happened are not important. But something clicked with the arbiter then. It is perhaps enough to say that the arbiter was confronted with the arbitrary nature of humankind. An unlikely, yet every-day encounter. A paradox. This revelatory moment was bound to happen to every thousandth arbiter within a hundred days on the job, so what triggered it, is not of particular importance. Still, it took the arbiter by surprise.

What follows is a collection of thoughts, a narration of an internal dialogue if you like, that would stage itself over and over again in the arbiter’s mind. This is a story of Control confronted by the slippery nature of its own Justification.

Control stretched her stiff legs. They rarely got the chance to carry her very far from her desk. Every morning when she came into work, the material that she based her decisions on was waiting for her, neatly stacked. Although skimming through the files kept her busy all day, making judgments was pretty straightforward; the facts spoke for themselves after all. She never needed to venture far.

Today though, Control was caught off guard. Distracted by a typo, she reached for the whiteout, but at the same time insisted on finishing the long sentence she was just about halfway reading. With Control’s eyes glued to the page, the blind hand was intersected by an unforeseen obstacle. The pile of folders came falling to the floor accompanied by a dull thud. As though in slow motion, the papers leisurely drifted across the floor. To an onlooker it would have been a soothing sight. Control was furious though; someone must have misplaced her things. The folders should have been two inches further to the right. The stack should not have been in her way.

Her fury quickly transformed into helplessness, which in turn fueled her fury. All the documents were now jumbled. Without the prescribed order they were useless. She could extract nothing from them, let alone come to a balanced judgment. How was it that they needed to be arranged? She neither knew the answer nor knew where to start looking for it. The one thing she was certain of was that she wouldn’t find the answer in here, so she made it for the door.

Just outside the doorway, Control’s decisive stride was halted by an unfamiliar figure. The figure was standing in the corridor, grasping a stack of folders. The figure just appeared to be standing there, leaning against one wall and staring aimlessly at the opposite. Agitated at the sight of someone so clearly wasting their time, Control was overcome by her urge to discipline this unwarranted sloppiness. With a sharp tone she directed her gaze at the figure and began questioning. “Since when have you been here?” “As long as you could possibly remember,” sounded the response.

“That can’t be, I haven’t seen you here before—”

“Well you rarely pay attention to anything but your own self-fulfillment. Trust me, I’ve been around. Our department is always at work. I’m surprised to see you outside of your office,” said the figure plainly.

Control was puzzled, but no more convinced of the suitability of her companion’s behavior. Consumed by her duty to prove the point, her initial reason for coming out here completely slipped her mind. How could someone indulge in such a poor work ethic so shamelessly? There was no doubt that the figure worked here; the right uniform and legitimate nametag gave it away. Taking a closer look, Control noted that the tag read No Justification.

“You mean, you’ve also worked on – for example – yesterday’s ruling?” Control asked in disbelief.

“That logically follows, yes,” No Justification stated.

Unable to place it, Control interpreted the alien feeling of confusion that crept over her as anger. Control was convinced that her interlocutor was just being arrogant. Ungroundedly so. She took no time to consider the implications of what No Justification had just said. Rather, she resorted to more questions – half in defense, half to reclaim the upper hand in the conversation. “But what could your role possibly be?! What role do you have to play in any of this?”

No Justification was amused. People always got so wound up when they spiraled into these questions. Yet the answers were so evident, so simple and inconsequential. And so No Justification went on in the same calm voice, “why, we process the evidence of course. It doesn’t reach your department in the order you’re used to dealing with just like that. What else do you think you base your decisions on?”

“Surely there’s some more suited department that takes care of those things. I’d like to think that the conclusions we reach are, after all, always justified – not left to slackers like you roaming the corridors.”

“Feel free to look around, but I’m afraid it’s just the two of us in here.”

There was silence as Control paced back and forth pensively, trying to keep her jumble of emotions under check. This was the first time she stopped to think during this conversation. However hard she tried though, it didn’t make sense. Her colleague seemed impossible to her.

This unease seemed irresolvable, not much could be done about it. Quietly, No Justification began to rearrange the documents in the stack he’d been holding onto all along. Shifting his weight from one leg to the other he said, “look, I’m just here to do my job. I’m sorry if you were hoping for better company. If you excuse me, I’d better get back to work. Otherwise we’ll never make it through all the material in time for tomorrow’s proceeding.”

“You stay right here!” Control exclaimed.

Again a silence followed in which nothing but faint sounds of the crispy paper that No Justification was shuffling around could be heard. Control was agitated by the disorderly noise. She spun around on her heel and darted back into her office. Passing through the doorframe, she immediately felt relief; an ordered stack of files was waiting for her on her desk.

The questions left Control’s mind. She got back to work.

The arbiter never quite got this encounter out of her mind. On an average day at work she would turn a blind eye to it, but she couldn’t stop its echo from looping on as a background to her thoughts. She doubted whether she could ever think her way out of the underlying and, at the same time, unimaginable coexistence of the two characters she had staged in her mind. For her own sake she just chose to accept that while order makes disorder, disorder also makes order. She chose not to question it further. She went on doing her job.