Research Paper

I’ve been writing and re-writing my research paper for ages now. It’s been through several different permutations, always about the Real World/Digital World divide and about the Apple TV+ show Severance, but with a slightly different angle each time.

I believe, however, that I am done now. There are just under 3 weeks until it’s due and I hope that I don’t decide to massively re-write it before then!

In September, I gave a talk at a Metamodernism conference in Seattle- my talk was the same as my paper, but writing it as a talk complete with Powerpoint was extremely useful. Not only was the talk 15 minutes long – so a lower total word count – but I also was able to use videos along with images to illustrate what I was talking about. I realised that I used them in a very ‘television’ way. One of my pet hates from tv presenters is when they start a piece of camera saying ‘I’m here in front of this waterfall’ when you can see the waterfall right behind them. There’s no need for them to describe what you are seeing, but “bad” tv presenters do that all the time… Anyway, I used my images to illustrate what I was talking about without describing the images.

It confirmed to me that I am very much all about the visuals. It would be interesting for me to try not to use images in my papers. I certainly am not going to try that now… Maybe I should turn my talk/my paper into a video… I can think of that once my paper has been submitted.

I’ve been going back through my notes and things that I wrote before I properly started writing and found the following about Severance. Basically none of this made it into my final paper…

In Severance, people have chosen to undergo a procedure- ‘severance’- that will separate their work life from their non-work life at Lumon – a biotech corporation, founded in 1865 selling ‘topical salves’. These ‘severed workers’ have ‘home selves’ and ‘work selves’ that are mentally separated. They will work for 8 hours without any memories of their ‘home self’ (including no memories of their name nor their family) and after work they won’t retain any memories of their ‘work self’. In the parlance of the show the ‘home self’ is an Outie (outside of work) and the ‘work self’ is an Innie (inside of work) (16:18 S1E2).

From what we have seen on the show, the Innies and Outies have slightly different personalities. The Innies for the most part are slightly more naïve and earnest as they retain no memories of their outside life and experiences. Mark S is the main character whose motivation for undergoing the procedure we have learned – he became a ‘severed worker’ after being consumed with grief when his wife died. He spends eight relatively happy hours every day without the memory of her or her death.

As Innies are effectively the same age as the number of years they’ve worked at Lumon, they are treated a bit like children, controlled and guided by very restrictive rules and regulations. Innies are forbidden from attempting to communicate with anyone outside of the company, including their Outies, and the entrances to their office have ‘code detectors’ (16:44 S1E2) that can identify any written messages to prevent the smuggling of any communication from inside to outside. They are even discouraged from ‘fraternising’ with others from different departments inside the building.

They have to follow specific rules including what colour clothing they can wear and how many times per day they need to wash their hands and for how long each time (“Scrub for 20 seconds. A helpful hint: sing ‘Happy Birthday to Kier’ [the Lumon company’s founder] in your head, and by the time Keir would be ready to blow out the candles, your hands will be clean!”- The Lexington Letter, Apple Books, 2022.)

So right away we can see the echoes of the Modernist sense of alienation with workers who have not only lost all control even over the simplest of things like basic hygiene, but they have also lost the ability to join up with other workers inside their company or have a place for themselves within society at large. They are powerless and entirely under the control of their company and their bosses.

The Postmodern sense of alienation is represented as well, most evidently with the character of Helly R, a new employee at Lumon. The series starts with a black screen and the voice of Mark S asking ‘Who are you?’ The image of a woman- Helly R- lying, unconscious on a large boardroom table comes up. Again: ‘Who are you?’

Helly R doesn’t know the answer to this.

This ‘identity crisis’ isn’t easy for her to accept at all. While Mark S effectively tells her that she’s in the company now, so she might as well just make the best of it, Helly R can’t live with the uncertainty of not knowing who she is. She is given basic facts about herself – “she is 30 years old, allergic to almonds and has weak enamel” (17:02 S1E2)– which are not enough for her to form an identity around. She wants to quit her job. Her request is refused.

After threatening to cut off her fingers with an office guillotine, Helly R is allowed to make a video message for her Outie, asking the Outie to resign from the job. She receives a message back from her Outie “I know you are unhappy with the life you’ve been given, but eventually we all have to accept reality. So here it is. I am a person. You are not. I make the decisions. You do not…”

Helly R is stuck in her job without any power and without any understanding of who she is. Both the corporation she works for and her own self deny her of any rights or even the power to be self-defined.

We get regular glimpses of the cult-like nature of Lumon. Its founder Kier Eagan is spoken about as a saviour or at least the wisest of men. They do their job in order to ‘serve Kier’ (16:12 S1E1). Kier Eagan and his descendants are ‘the living soul’ (S1E2) of Lumon. They repeat Kier’s trite and verbose wisdom- memorised from the handbooks- as profound justification for their actions (when caught playing ‘Eagan bingo’ while listening to recordings of previous Lumon CEOs, Mark S justified this potentially disrespectful act by saying “Kier said ‘Keep a merry humor ever in your heart.’” 42:31 S1E3). One of the bosses on the Severed Floor has a literal shrine to Kier in her home. They use strange, stilted language, they have unusual traditions or celebrations, they face psychological torture in the Break Room when they break certain rules. They are reminded (19:22 S1E2) that ‘things like death happen outside’ of the Severed Floor. Lumon – the cult – protects them from such things.

The experience of one’s first day as a severed worker – when they have no memory of who they are – seems to always be a fraught one. Mark recalls that on his first day he threatened to kill the person who ran his orientation. We see Helly R throw a desktop speaker at Mark S’s head while he is doing her orientation. We also eventually see Helly self-harm and attempt suicide. Needless to say, not knowing who you are- being self-alienated- is disorienting and distressing. As we saw during the postmodern era, one who is self-alienated may find comfort in high-control groups,

Severed worker Irving B, talks about the Lumon cult of personality surrounding the founder and CEOs as well as the 9 Core Principles of the company as ‘providing deeper meaning’ to their work experience, they are the reason ‘why we are here’. (25:15 S1E2). Does he mean ‘why we are here at Lumon’ or does he mean it in the more existential sense of ‘why we are here at all’?

The Innies are analogous to our Digital Selves. They aren’t the ones who pay the bills or fix the plumbing in Your house when it goes wrong. They aren’t the ones who face the grief or loneliness or shame that You deal with. They can be whatever They want, which is often different to You.

Innies do not work for money. When an Innie passes a milestone in productivity at work, they are rewarded with non-monetary ‘incentives’, the kinds of things that wouldn’t seem out of place as rewards for school kids – completing 10% of their work is rewarded with an eraser; 25% is rewarded with a blue ‘finger trap’; 75% is rewarded with a ‘music/dance experience’ and upon 100% completion of your task they receive a ‘caricature portrait’ of themself. This is analogous to our getting ‘friends’ and ‘followers’, ‘likes’ and ‘up voted’. We receive rewards for being on a website for a year or for making 100 comments or for being ‘verified’. Our brain interprets these rewards as pleasurable and releases dopamine. Our Real Self receives the benefit of the work our Digital Selves do.

Outies in Severance receive the paycheck and the subsidised housing from the work the Innies do. The Innies’ work effects the Outies’ lives. The only way the Outie affects the Innie’s life is by stepping into the elevator to the Severed Floor at work every morning… If the Innie finds themselves at work again, it is because their Outie has chosen to put them there. If the Outie quits their job or retires, the Innie effectively dies. The Outie must exist for the Innie to exist. The Outie must enter the Severed Floor for the Innie to exist. The Outie is ‘real’, the Innie is…? Well… the Innies feel like they are real, but for all intents and purposes, they do not exist in ‘the real world’. If the Innies are injured at work, they are considered to have injured the Outies’ bodies (who are then given a perk by way of apology). In effect, the Innies don’t even own their own bodies. Innies ONLY exist on the Severed Floor of Lumon’s office. Yet, they believe themselves to be ‘real’. Innies, like our Digital Selves, exist only because You put them there. Time and time again.

The Innies’ world before the series started, sounds like it was very simplistic. They seemed to follow the rules, they did their work, they received their erasers and their finger traps, they felt like ‘a family’. They had no interest in their Outies’ lives.

We meet one character from this era – Petey – who has left Lumon just before the series started. We learned that he has ‘reintegrated’, that is, the border between his Innie and Outie selves had been breached. His Innie and Outie lives were starting to merge. It is implied that he had assistance from ‘someone’. This reintegration, however, does not go well for him and he dies relatively soon after he has left his job. Though as this series is full of mystery and intrigue, it is likely that we don’t yet have the full story and will be learning more about this in the next series.

As the Innies don’t know that Petey has ‘reintegrated’ – they only know that he left his job and know nothing of what happens on the outside – they don’t know the possible dangers that come with attempting to reintegrate their inner and outer lives. For various reasons- all to do with newly discovered emotions surrounding friendship, love and family- the Innies become interested in both the structure and background of the inside world of Lumon and in who they might be in the outside world.

They inadvertently stumble upon a self-help book that was left in an empty meeting room by one of the bosses. The book, titled ‘The You You Are’, is full of inane and unintentionally comical ‘wisdom’, which the Innies – being the innocents that they are – take to be life-changing and profound: “Our job is to taste free air. Your co-called boss might own the clock that taunts you from the wall, but, my friends, the hour is yours.”

The characters in Severance, in both their Innie and Outie forms, represent our Real and our Digital Selves as well as serving as Modernist and Postmodernist representations of alienation.

Our Real Self is subject to separation from society due to the dehumanising nature of corporations, however we interact with them – either via work or the services we need. We are assigned a ‘customer number’ that we have to include in all correspondence; we can’t seem to cancel our services easily and when we try to contact them, we are unable to speak to a human being (“Press 3 to hear your balance”); it takes us months to get a freelance invoice paid, but we are contacted within minutes of a company unsuccessfully receiving a payment from us. We are held prisoner, too, by the clock on the wall. We get paid by the hour. We have a 40 hour working week. Time is money. We spend our time working. We are behind schedule. We’re working against the clock. We have deadlines.

Our Digital Self is separated from ourself merely by existing outside of the material world. Digital You is a person who has true, deep and real relationships with others and yet exists only in a non-physical space. There is no specific place that your Digital Self resides.

What will happen to us when we try to ‘reintegrate’ the real and the digital worlds? Already our digital selves are having a huge effect on the real world. Our digital selves awash in fake news, echo chambers, algorithms, social media are changing laws, electing leaders and ending treaties which is having a material effect on the world. Real people have died because of this stuff… and our digital selves still seem to be content with our own version of erasers and finger traps and caricature portraits, unaware that they only exist for as long as our real selves need them to…