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The Doppelganger Within: Severance's Retaliation Against the Self

Published onJul 25, 2023
The Doppelganger Within: Severance's Retaliation Against the Self
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“I acknowledge that, henceforth, my access to my memories will be spatially dictated. I will be unable to access outside recollections whilst on Lumon's severed basement floor, nor retain work memories upon my ascent. I am aware that this alteration is comprehensive and irreversible. I make these statements freely.”

In the first episode of Severance, Helly R. watches a recording of herself pronouncing these words. She has just requested to leave the severed floor of her employer, Lumon Industries. The other Helly - the one on the screen - tells her not to worry, that the basement floor is exactly where she needs to be. This is all part of the plan, one she agreed to, as the video-recorded “informed” consent shows. Outside Helly has undergone a procedure that de facto splits her consciousness in two, making her memories spatially dependent. Helly R. only remembers life in the office. She has no recollection of who she is once she emerges from it.

So here they are, the two versions of Helly. An “outie” Helly who lives and operates outside Lumon and “innie” Helly R, who works in the severed basement of the company. In the same basement, we meet her colleagues - Mark S., Irving, and Dylan -   who have also undergone this alteration and similarly decided to be consciously separated from their above-ground selves. 

Severance takes to the extreme the contemporary buzzword speak of “work/life balance.” How convenient, for all parties involved, if those worlds could never touch. And how potentially profitable, if such technology could enable this. In Severance, we see what happens when this is possible. 

The “comprehensive and irreversible” alteration of the self is at the core of the show, as is the splitting of identity that it engenders. While Helly has not been physically, genetically doubled, her psyche has undergone a duplication of sorts. Throughout the episodes, the Hellys haunt and taunt each other, each one aware (and not) of the workings of the other. Innie Helly R. rebels against the system she finds herself in. She is disruptive and unruly, recalcitrant to abide by the floor’s rules and procedures, and threatens to hurt herself, attempting suicide several times. Helly requests and is denied release as her outie appears to be determined to keep her going back to the severed floor.

Severance gives us a poignant critique of late capitalist labor relations mixed with the destructive effects of techno-optimism, revealing the psychological and societal wounding the system both requires and creates. But the show also says something important about trauma, memory, and the double, duplicitous relations we have with ourselves and work’s exploitation of this ambivalent alliance. What dissociations are required from us in a capitalist way of being and working? How can work function to effectively compartmentalize suffering? How many selves do we have? The figure of the doppelganger can shed light onto some of these questions.

The Doppelganger Within 

It is hard not to think about the trope of the doppelgänger while watching Severance. The doppelgänger is a figure of German folklore identifying a ghost, an apparition of a living person, a ghastly twin. The word, first introduced in the 18th century by German author Jean Paul in his 1796 novel Siebenkäs, literally means “double-goer” or “double-walker.” While the topic of much Romantic gothic literature, the figure of the double has long existed as a cultural and symbolic archetype and has been the object of much 20th and 21st century fiction and film (Vardoulakis 2010; Marcus 2013). In these narratives, meeting one’s doppelganger is usually a nefarious sign, an unsettling omen of death, a subversion of time and space.

Since the advent of psychoanalysis and Freud’s writings on the double in his famous essay “The Uncanny,” the doppelganger has also come to represent the parts of self that are negated and repressed. The idea of the unconscious allows the placing of the doppelganger within and it is our encounter and coexistence with this double that causes a sense of eerie discomfort (Vardoulakis 2006). 

Severance brings to a new level the doppelganger tradition with a brain alteration technology as addition to the canon. The surgical brain procedure leaves no physical traces, yet, it has profound effects, at once reminiscent of sci-fi future imaginaries and the grim and violent history of the treatment of mental illness (the depiction of the procedure perhaps echoing the irreversible effects of a lobotomy).

The circulation and encountering of all these doubles does contribute to the “digital uncanny,” (Ravetto-Biagioli 2019), a feeling that watching Severance elicits. Although Severance’s doppelgangers are not exactly digital, they are mediated by technology and digital means. The show asks us to consider a world of doppelgangers and our edginess in seeing the workings of innies and outies tells us something about the relation we have with our/selves and our  now pervasive digital others.

In Severance, the double resides within oneself as there is technically only “one person,” yet the mention of this strange twin creates a profound uneasiness. We see this discomfort in the show’s first episode when Mark, another severed employee, is asked at a dinner party about how he manages to live with his double. A guest cannot contain his curiosity about Mark’s innie: “I think it’s fascinating. But I would always be thinking about… the other one.” Mark reacts defensively at the mention of his doppelganger, negating his existence: “Well, there is no other one. It’s me. I do the job.” 

The question, then, is not only what Lumon achieves through implementing the severing procedure, but also what Mark and Helly - as people and workers - achieve by completing this severance from themselves.

Traumatic Splitting  

Selective spatial memory is what enables Severance’s doppelgangering. Episode 1 shows what happens in the moments of first realization of this topographical memory loss. Helly R. tirades against Mark S., her colleague and immediate supervisor, as she tries to make sense of her own being. “Am I livestock? Did you grow me as food so that’s why I have no memories?” cries out, trying to understand the reason for her spatial amnesia.

As the show progresses and we learn more about each character’s innie and outie, it becomes clear that what employees have elected to severe themselves from is their own pain.

Mark’s wife died in a car accident and his decision to sever is connected to his avoidance of grief. Irving, another severed worker, turns out to be a veteran who obsessively paints different versions of black screams on a canvas. The eerie paintings seem to be the echo of “the break room,” a place on o the severed floor where employees undergo forms of psychological torture when a transgression has occurred. Innie Irving’s traumatic experience of the break room cuts into the artistic production of his outie, who might also be haunted by the ghosts of war. Helly is a part of Lumon’s founding Eagan dynasty and likely the next in succession. While her outie perhaps undergoes the procedure as the posterchild of Lumon’s success, it is her innie that experiences the painful awareness of what her family’s project entails.

What we cannot recall cannot harm us, it is true. Amnesia and lapses in memory are common after traumatic events and intense stress. The separation parts of life and self that are too dissonant to live with are aligned with both psychodynamic readings of the psyche and current research about how trauma affects the body and brain (Kirmayer, Lemelson, and Barad 2007). At the same dinner party mentioned above, we learn that Mark was a history teacher with a specialization in World War I, an interesting detail given the salience of the conflict in the cultural history of trauma and the study of traumatic experience (Fassin and Rechtman 2009). It is not a coincidence that traumatic stress is a frequent experience for those who engage in jobs that require alienation and cutting off from self to get the job done, soldiers being the most egregious example.

Mark’s choice of accepting a work doppelganger allows the parts of himself to avoid a reckoning with loss. In a larger therapeutic sense, this voluntary amnesia can be seen as an important protective strategy from the pain of remembering. In a political-economic sense, though, the encouragement of this severance is a fundamental condition for maintenance of the status quo. This injurious relation to the self is not only caused and encouraged by Lumon. It is structurally essential to the functioning of its dystopian yet all too familiar corporate project.

On the severed floor, the presence of Ms. Casey, the wellness specialist, is a key example of therapeutic labor that is not actually as beneficial as is it meant to be. Employees have dedicated time with Ms. Casey under the watchful eye of hidden cameras, where they can “destress.” The wellness sessions achieve a marginal quelling of Mark S.’s anxieties but have the sole objective to keep him productive and compliant (these sessions are creepily reminiscent of Amazon’s wellness chambers for stressed warehouse workers3). We also learn in the final episode that Ms. Casey is in fact Mark’s wife, yet his innie doesn’t recognize or remember her, proof of the seemingly iron clad separation of the selves.

The severance might be extremely convenient for powers that be in maintaining the means of production, but it does not lead to anyone being well. We cannot heal if we cannot remember. On the outside, Mark is confronted with this by various people. In episode 4, he is asked: “Don’t you think that maybe the best way to deal with a fucked-up situation in your life isn’t to just to shut your brain off half the time?” Similarly, Mark’s sister points out that forgetting about his late wife for 8 hours a day “isn’t the same as healing.”

Rebellion and Retaliation against the Self

Mark’s decision to sever himself is inseparable from the fact that Lumon Industries have made this possible. Through the severance project, the corporation finds a way to co-opt, profit from, and surveil its workers, encouraging an atomization from themselves and others. By design, in theory, the doppelgangers within never meet, never reintegrate, and therefore never rebel, neither inside nor outside. For a time, Lumon achieves the most effective technology against collective worker action: retaliation against the worker via the worker themselves, as Helly’s adversarial relation with her outie demonstrates.

But something in the machine goes awry. Petey, a former Lumon employee and Mark S.’s best friend, appears fully “re-integrated” and determined to share what he has learned. With the help of a clandestine anti-Lumon group, Petey achieves reintegration through the rejoining of his severed parts, albeit with some side effects. We see Petey suffering from migraines and brain zaps as he increasingly integrates, a series of symptoms that he calls “reintegration sickness.” 

To continue with the therapeutic motif, gaining full awareness is a painful yet necessary process that Petey initiates and one that he wants his colleagues to bring to light. His wholeness - the joining of his doubles - is in itself a threat to the system. It is this through the specter of his reintegration that the severed employees come to realize that freedom from Lumon’s oppression and exploitation can be achieved. Mark, Irv, and Helly also gain "control" over their outies: Irv goes to find his love, Mark discovers his wife is alive, and Helly denounces the conditions of the severed floor at the corporate dinner.

Severance speaks to the perils and possibility of the doppelganger, asking key (and uncanny) questions about contemporary subjectivity. It also suggests that integration with self and connection with others are political strategies of resistance. Healing doesn’t come through selective amnesia required by systems of oppression nor from individualistic wellness interventions offered by upper management. It comes through collective solidarity through “the we we are,” as the title of the season finale suggests. Some good double trouble.

References 

Donath, Judith, Alex Dragulescu, Aaron Zinman, Fernanda Viégas, and Rebecca Xiong. 2010. “Data Portraits.” Leonardo 43 (4): 375–83.

Fassin, Didier, and Richard Rechtman. 2009. The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood. Translated by Rachel Gomme. 1 edition. Princeton ; Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Haggerty, Kevin D., and Richard V. Ericson. 2000. “The Surveillant Assemblage.” The British Journal of Sociology 51 (4): 605–22. https://doi.org/10.1080/00071310020015280.

Kirmayer, Laurence J., Robert Lemelson, and Mark Barad. 2007. Understanding Trauma: Integrating Biological, Clinical, and Cultural Perspectives. Cambridge University Press.

Marcus, Amit. 2013. “Recycling of Doubles in Narrative Fiction of the Twentieth and Early Twenty-First Centuries.” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 11 (2): 187–217. https://doi.org/10.1353/pan.2013.0022.

Ravetto-Biagioli, Kriss. 2019. The Digital Uncanny. Oxford University Press.

Schüll, Natasha Dow. 2021. “Devices and Selves. From Self-Exit to Self-Fashioning.” In Digital Anthropology: Second Edition, edited by Hannah Knox and Haidy Geismar. Bloomsbury Academic.

Vardoulakis, Dimitris. 2006. “The Return of Negation: The Doppelganger in Freud’s ‘The “Uncanny.”’” SubStance 35 (2): 100–116. https://doi.org/10.1353/sub.2006.0038.

———. 2010. The Doppelgänger: Literature’s Philosophy. Fordham University Press.

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