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The We You Are: Severance and the Zeitgeist of Post-Postmodernity

Milchick sits readings Ricken's book, The You You Are, in Severance
Courtesy of Apple TV+

Why is Severance as popular as it is, or at least so immediately gripping to so many of us?

I think it has something to do with how it lands precisely in our historical moment, not in the sense of the pandemic or ever-increasing political fractiousness, but in something of a broader sense pertaining to the zeitgeist of our times. I’m not sure if that’s postmodernism or if perhaps we’ve moved into some kind of post-postmodernism, or if this kind of terminology is even helpful.

Regardless, by now I think the distinction between semblance and reality has well and truly broken down. Authenticity may continue to be lauded, but it’s as though we have no way to distinguish between the appearance of authencity and authenticity itself.

Ricken’s book is at once insipid and sparks meaningful change in the innies who read it. Lumon is exploiting severed workers but conceptualizes them as family. It is not that they pretend to care about the well-being of their employees when actually all they care about is profit. The terrifying thing is that they actually do care. The wellness sessions are sincere, at least from the perspective of Lumon, as is their aim of making the world a better place.

An animated Kier Eagan takes flight from a mountaintop
Courtesy of Apple TV+

We might dispute that they care in the sense of having the best interest of people in mind, dispute their ideas of psychological well-being, and object to their plans for the world, but all of this lands so viscerally because in the real world we’ve lost the confidence to judge things from something like an objective point of view.

If the spirit of postmodernism involved some kind of cynical or ironic detachment, we’re beyond that now. Corporations claim to care about us, and they really do, or at least we’ve lost the means to distinguish appearance from reality. It would almost be more comforting to be exploited by someone who views you as a cog in a machine and to know that their paeans to your value amount to so much empty talk.

This isn’t what we get in Severance. Mark’s boss moves in next door to him to keep an eye on him because she cares about him. But that doesn’t mitigate the exploitation involved in all of this; it only makes it cut deeper and into matters of the soul.

Harmony Cobel gives a stern look from behind her desk, a three panel painting of a stormy sky behind her
Courtesy of Apple TV+

From the get-go, I approached the problem of personal identity in Severance through the lens of early modern thinkers like Rene Descartes and David Hume, but what I forgot (and what we’re all so prone to forget) is that the very notion of the individual they’re grappling with has a history. It’s not some eternal concept that has always existed, but a specific framework of thought about human existence that really comes to the fore in modernity.

The individual is conceived as a coherent unit, taken to be internally consistent. You might embody various roles and do various things, but you are responsible for all of it because it was always you who did it. Look at your signature on the dotted line that proves that you promised.

Helly walks away from a screen that features a picture of herself smiling
Courtesy of Apple TV+

This consistency of self is not so much a given as a presumption. In Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy it is both that and an ideal to strive for. It’s never quite matched with lived experience, where the you you are now might lament the you you were when you agreed to the contract.

This hasn’t stopped the presumption of individuality from structuring our laws and institutions, but increasingly these feel out of step with social reality. The signature is meaningless, or at least pro forma. What matters are passcodes and biometrics—pieces of self detached from a broader context.

Already in the 1990s, Gilles Deleuze was describing us as “dividuals”—partial selves and larval subjects in the process of becoming, engaged in always differing spaces, with differing modalities. If that was true then, it’s even more true now.

We present ourselves always in fragments, one way on social media and another at work, along with a third way at home and a fourth way out at the bar…nothing is so simple as contrasting the me I pretend to be from the me that I am. All of this is the we we are—dividuals without some unifying factor that makes the disparate parts hang together.

This is potentially terrifying, of course, but in this regard Severance is not science fiction so much as an incisive portrait of post-postmodern life. There are no grounds for saying that the outie version of Mark is the real Mark, other than lingering prejudices in our concepts, and Severance makes that all the clearer with Helly, whose innie is a delight while her outie evokes disgust.

Helly looks at a cube, with a picture of herself on one side and on another the words "Helly. a severed story"
Courtesy of Apple TV+

Is this a disgust at one who is well adapted to the zeitgeist? Maybe, but then precisely we should note that it is a part or aspect of Helly that is well adapted: this dividual, who is a face on a screen and cannot even be taken to be the whole of the outie Helena Eagan. There is no whole; that’s the point I’ve been trying to drive home.

If we are, as Jean-Paul Sartre would put it, condemned to be free because there is no pre-given essence to humanity or the self, Severance takes us a step further—there is no pre-given self. This doesn’t stop us from engaging in bad faith and attempting to distract ourselves from the gaping abyss where our souls should be.

Lumon’s cult of Kier is an example of this, but it is paralleled by movements in the real world to do things like strip Buddhist meditation of its substantive elements in order to present its form as a supplement to late capitalism. Mindfulness increases productivity. The corporation cares about you and your mental health, and the real horror of this is that they really do, not that they are merely pretending to.

Of course, there is a form of control at play, not just in the corporation but through society at large, and it will not recognize certain desires. But don’t you agree that those desires are problematic? Think about Milchick in the Break Room and the repetition of lines of atonement. He keeps saying that he’s not sure he believes they mean it, and that’s the thing—Lumon is interested not merely in their workers going through the motions of apologizing; they want them to truly feel sorry. But it’s not some depth of self they are getting to through this process so much as permutations on the surface. At a certain point, the line between pretending and meaning it for real breaks down.

Milchick sits wearing headphones, words on a screen in front of his face read, in fragments, "this world. actions but"
Courtesy of Apple TV+

In some regards Severance might get too outlandish to feel realistic with regard to its pseudo-religious elements, as with the Waffle Party (as much as I love it), but even here (or especially here) we can see the move to subordinate desire to the corporation not by repressing it but by channeling it in a certain direction. How is this different from what Freud called sublimation? From religion?


It makes sense that those who oppose severance seek reintegration, but that didn’t go so well for Petey. Indeed, to have a separate consciousness thrust into one’s own feels like a violation in its own right, even if you signed up for it. And from the point of view of modern individualism, many things (both in Severance and the “real world”) can only be conceived along these lines—as a failure to respect one’s own autonomy.

It’s a defining tension in Kant, and if you’re interested in this I recommend reading Alenka Zupancic’s Ethics of the Real, but it’s also something that has never quite made sense. If autonomy lies in my capacity to determine myself (and this is freedom), how can a free choice that I make violate my own autonomy?

We only have to look to Severance for an answer, the starkest of which lies in the attempts to defend the severance procedure through an appeal to the free will/consent of the person who has decided to undergo it. But if that doesn’t create a wholly separate person, it creates an aspect of self ripe for exploitation. One could argue that Mark exploits himself.

Mark stands in the elevator with the word "dust" appearing on screen above him in parentheses
Courtesy of Apple TV+

This is nothing new, either, and should take us in the direction of contemplating Marx’s claims about alienation. Insofar as my labor is an expression of my being, the way in which capitalist modes of production serve to separate me from the product of my labor alienates me from myself. It makes this aspect of the self something other than me and takes it away as something I never even own.

And this product does not have to be some manufactured good. Capitalism is perfectly happy to commodify time. In wage labor, I sell a portion of my life to serve someone else’s ends quite literally, which may not be an objection to the practice in principle, but surely feeds into the origination of Severance’s premise. Who hasn’t, while working a terrible job, wished that they could forget that part of their lived experience or enacted, to whatever degree possible through mere force of imagination, a separation between their work persona and who they are “in real life”?

Do you view those hours you spend at work as a part of your life?

If you work from home you may enjoy the freedom, but you are also always at work. Deleuze suggests this difference between a disciplinary society and a society of control—in the former, one moves from one space of enclosure (school, barracks, factory, prison, etc.) to another, whereas in the latter, one is never done with anything. There is no outside. There is freedom in this (and not just the illusion of freedom), but it is the freedom of a parolee wearing an ankle bracelet. Everything is under control.

Severance is striking in how well it presents this world. It’s funny because it’s true.

Selvig sits on a couch
Courtesy of Apple TV+

By making the separation between work self and non-work self literal, Severance makes manifest the way in which our tendency to practice self-alienation ought to disgust us. This isn’t just because we are to some extent still moderns, but because the partial subjects we are do hang together in a kind of metastable unity. That is, these dividuals do constitute the we we are, but this is a multiplicity. The mistake lies in presupposing a coherence of the self in a consistent and constant substratum—some pre-given essence, akin to the religious notion of the soul.

No, rather we have to recognize that individuality, such as it is, is an achievement, a will to become who we are, in the sense of bringing about a consistency that forms the basis of what we may well call an identity. But almost no one achieves this. It’s easier to not try, less risky to simply go along and avoid the problem as Mark does.

Mark sits across from Ms. Casey, with a table between them
Courtesy of Apple TV+

Reintegration is dangerous, as the mind struggles to put inconsistent pieces together—at least this is how I interpret Petey’s ailment and eventual demise, as though reintegration literally made his head explode—and maybe it isn’t even a reasonable goal in this post-postmodern world. The dividuals that form the we we are aren’t consistent with one another. But why should we value consistency? Why not value instead the freedom of processes of becoming that shoot out in multiple directions?

The point is that none of us are integrated selves in the first place. At some level, Severance recognizes this, as in the differences between Ms. Cobel and Mrs. Selvig or the persona Ricken adopts as an author in contrast to how he is in day-to-day life. Nonetheless, the politics of Severance will depend on how it grapples with the question of reintegration.

Drawn figures on cards gesture, with arrows around them
Courtesy of Apple TV+

Various things are possible on this front. A restoration of self enacted by technological means that restores a kind of pre-severance normalcy would look like a happy ending, but be rather disappointing. Worse, though, would be if the outies “learned a lesson” from the experience, reducing the innies to mechanisms of that growth while erasing their distinct status as persons. Even worse than that would be the narrative assertion of some inexplicable and thus unexplained substantial identity between innie and outie—some real essence in contrast to innie and outie defined in terms of mere appearance. These options aren’t mutually exclusive.

It may seem as though I am getting pessimistic about Severance, but I’m actually hopeful in the wake of Season 1 that it will avoid the above pitfalls and remain true to its insight that there precisely is no substantial self beneath these differing personas. Innie and outie may be appearances, but it’s appearances all the way down—a post-postmodern phenomenology of spirit.

I can’t tell you how Severance should resolve its central problem any more than I can provide the solution to 21st century political life or give you a guidebook on how to live. But perhaps there are possibilities for liberation in embracing our dividuality and becoming the we we are. And perhaps Severance is on the track of finding them.

A man in a suit sits feeding a baby goat with a milk bottle
Courtesy of Apple TV+

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

Caesar non est supra grammaticos


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  1. Thank you so much for this which brings substantial insight along with new paths of discovery (via links) for further pondering: a true gift for those of us not quite so gifted.

    • Hey, thanks for your kind words on this! I guess I forgot to reply last year, but I really do appreciate it

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