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The Happy Worker's Guide to Severance

Published onJul 25, 2023
The Happy Worker's Guide to Severance

In view of the rich anthropological literature deconstructing corporate personhood, we might appreciate the TV series Severance as more than pure entertainment, as more than severance or disconnection from our own ordinary days. We might consider that the project of decoding corporate entertainment is a project of thinking creatively about banal signification: a struggle to possess the drawings and diagrams that describe even the most mundane areas of corporate life: its archives, its reward systems, its protocols. Its maps. In what follows, I trace the movement of the TV series from happiness to disconnection to argue that digital creatives like the show’s knowledge workers use mundane objects such as maps and passageways to transform their happiness into discontent, and their discontent into collective action.

The Happy Worker

In the opening half-hour of Season One, the main character, Mark S., discovers a hand-drawn map on the back of a photo. Created by Mark’s former office mate, Petey, the map provides a clue to the mystery of “Lumon’s” underground facilities. Mark hides the map in the storeroom. Discovering it later, Mark’s co-workers, Dillan G. and Irving B., laugh at Mark’s secrecy. Mark minimizes the ridicule but, back at his desk, returns to ponder the map’s mystery. This opening scene encapsulates a dialectic between action and reaction that delicately, if shakily, renders office revolt and upheaval possible. By describing, interpreting, and deciphering this dialectic, we can begin to observe how workers somatically experience and question their own complicity in reproducing corporate oppression—as well as their potential for dismantling it (Benson & Kirsch 2023; Kirsch, 2014).

The premise of Severance is that the happy worker needs to be—and indeed “wants” to be—separated, or “severed,” from life outside of work. This “happiness ideology” undergirds real-world industries, where collective and emancipatory labor politics compete with “you should be glad you have a job” corporate speak. Indeed, as AWR’s editors recently wrote (Jegathesan, Bedi, and Delgaty 2022), talking about real life, “the happy worker must not support unionization or collective rights and should enable rather than challenge the mechanisms that lead to their exploitation in exchange for wage, rank, and fleeting markers of success.” Happy workers want to go home, unbothered, at the end of the day, even though workers who perform being happy are not happy. Not in real life, where “faking happiness at work can make you ill,” nor at Lumon, where collective action is out of the question because there is no sense of collectivity: Lumon implanted “code detectors” in employees, preventing all unauthorized communication.

At first, Lumon's employees appear to govern themselves. They play games, throw parties, win prizes, and work. They are goal-oriented and stay on track. Time is predictable, décor minimal. Even Lumon’s surveillance architecture fosters corporate happiness. Its fresh bright hallways symbolize simplicity. Although windowless and circuitous, the office complex is clean and restful, seamlessly creating continuous motion, a lot like an Escher drawing. Workers work in groups of threes and fours, not unlike kindergarten “learning pods,” designed to instil discipline by rewarding self-management. With minimal oversight, workers can do two activities at one time: they can reproduce their own subjectification, and they can produce and increase annual profits for the company’s shareholders. On occasional days when workers fall short of meeting board-imposed quotas, Lumon’s management reassures them that what they are doing is meaningful, that there is no better place to be than at Lumon.

But below the surface, Lumonites are not happy. The Lumon corporation takes everything to an extreme. Objects and people are perfectly placed; everything is a symbol to the extent that the constructed environment becomes hyper-real. Workers are cut off, manufactured. The show exaggerates the world we’ve become: severed from reality. At Lumon, workers experience anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, sensing that their work is both meaningful and meaningless, important yet trivial.

Lumonites’ alienation begins as a feeling, the individualized sense that something is not right, the presence of something more than meets the eye. Dylan perceives black goo overtaking him. Irving re-reads office policies searching for bottom-line rules. Even the floor manager, Seth, who is part of the unsevered system, tunes in to his sense that workers are restless, agitated. Meantime, Helly, who replaces Petey and whose feisty disposition catalyzes change and initiates collectivization, learns to "feel" her way through her new job’s tasks. Literally, she and other Lumonites eyeball fuzzy computer screens and somatize numeric data they feel to be out-of-place, then slam the illicit and dangerous numbers into a digital basket. The work is both stupidly dull and then suddenly nerve-racking. Helly tries to die by suicide as a paradoxically effective way to communicate with her outside identity, attempting to hang herself in an elevator. Her actions seem to say that severance is death; working at Lumon is the end of life.

But Lumon’s workers cannot contain their own individualized sense of uneasiness. They begin to feel one another’s anxieties. Trouble is collectivized. Dylan tells Irving to go to hell and shut up. Mark tries to keep the peace but alienates Helly and enrages Seth. Their feelings contribute to an already unbearable workplace madness. Office mates appropriate and pick apart one another’s sensitivities and, in so doing, begin to denaturalize the workplace and their places in it. They decode the regulations, question one another and look beneath the level of corporate ideology at the way specific “maps of meaning” operate, what lines they trace, what departments they block, what people and offices they disconnect. Channeling collective anxiety, Lumon workers transform their confused reactions into organized action

Work as Wizardry

In watching Severance, it is hard not to think about Jean Baudrillard’s essay Simulacra and Simulations, Marx’s German Ideology, and Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Writing well before the AI-digital age, Baudrillard argued that objects and their representations fold into one another; representations become “real” and “originals” become representations, like, he said, the Empire and its maps. He called such a reduplication of signs and their significations “hyper-reality,” pointing to Disneyworld as another prime example where (fake) pirates become (really) real. He also argued work had become hyper real. “Everybody still produces, and more and more, but work has subtly become something else”: a “wizardry,” a “trompe l’oeil,” a “dramaturgy,” he called it (p. 181), arguing specifically that workers’ strikes in fact reproduced work, that it was “work” to go on strike and that “strikes” occurred all the time at work, through slow-downs and absences.

Severance brings to a new level the hyper-reality of work. But it prompts deeper reflection on the meaning of work as the division of labor, labor itself, and social relationships of power and exploitation producing profit. Whereas Baudrillard analyzed work’s symbolic recursivity, Marx focused on work for producing profit, referring, in The German Ideology, to profit as “unpaid work” that cannot be bracketed from social institutions such as education or the family.

Severance underscores that Baudrillard’s “meaning” and Marx’s “materiality” are part and parcel of the other, as indeed many have said. Lumon managers conceal the meaning, the significance, of the company’s operations with the effect of severing workers’ knowledge of founders’ empire. Employees in turn reproduce the exploitative relations that constrain them. Sometimes those relations are monetized, sometimes they are embedded and reproduced in relationships of kinship and filial piety, as is the case of Lumon’s corporate founder’s daughter, Helly, who is “severed” from real life to support the technology’s legalization (late in the series, Helly sees that her outside self is part of the Lumon dynasty). But always, work’s fuller outcomes and aftereffects are ambiguous. Work is made by those in power, yet, as feminist scholars have long pointed out, Marx missed how it is made by those who are not.

Revamping Marx and shoring-up Baudrillard, Birmingham Cultural Studies scholars reminded us, also years ago, that the dialogue between worker and management/owners is most shakily recorded on the plane of aesthetics: in the design of work spaces, patterns of speech, dress, comportment and manners—all differentiating markers of social class (Hebdige 1988; Willis 1977). Patterns of revolt and acceptance between workers and managers emerge around some of the most ordinary of objects. In Severance, a handbook, a toaster, doorways, wall art, and so on, attract a range of meanings. The map behind Mark’s photo signifies containment but also a portal out of Lumon’s architecture. Likewise, the “family” of goats and kids approximating an indoor workers’ play space models “appropriate” but confusing generational behavior. The company's Wellness Room, where workers consult with therapists to reduce workplace incivility, re-establishes the management's view of healthy behavior.

These spaces and technologies carry a double inflection: ordinary yet extraordinary significance, meanings that, expressed in code, subvert the order that subordinates workers. By episode five, Lumonites question the common-sense meanings of office architecture. Co-workers repurpose some of the "corporate social technologies" that straightjacket them. Mark shows Helly the unauthorized map. Irving and his new adoring friend Burt, in Optics, admit they have been lying to one another. Dylan and Irving have expanded their definition of workplace life to include anger and disagreement as productive emotions. When Lumonites pull themselves together, emotionally, they rupture the system's social power dynamics. By the end of the series, the whole construction of office life begins to become dissevered, revealing the distorted, interior, affective infrastructure of the company.

An Apple for the Teacher

Patterns of meaning and acceptance between workers and managers are mappable in Lumon along the lines laid down by management. However, objects—and work itself—can be reappropriated, expressed in code. To uncover the double inflection of work, we—like Lumon's employees—might disentangle the codes through which work-as-entertainment is organized, codes that cover the face of work and render it simultaneously meaningful and meaningless. Then we might take those decodings and reinscribe them, afresh, into the world.

Such a project is greatly aided by existing anthropological analyses of corporations’ branding of current and future employers, promulgation of a sense of identity and “social responsibility,” and deployment of myths about origins and operations that are themselves in flux (Gershon 2014; Ho 2009; Rajak 2011).  Such work uncovers the vigor and fragility of corporate personification and documents how corporations use “corporate oxymorons” (like green fossil-fuel technology) to conceal the harms they cause (Benson and Kirsch 2010; Shever 2023). Likewise, this anthropological research might be expanded to consider corporations’ production of work as entertainment that furthers viewers’ own social dislocation from social life.

For example, in watching a show about alienation, we might ask whether viewers, too, are digital and professional creatives like Lumon’s knowledge workers, captivated by a “wizardry,” a “trompe l’oeil” that re-enlivens the object the show sets us up to critique: corporate infrastructure and ideology. Apple, Inc. like Lumon, fosters unarticulated ideological assumptions that viewers somatically experience. Severance appropriates everyday aesthetics that mutate and extend art and life into one another. Tapping into Industry 4.0 at the end of a long (and most likely digitally mediated) working day, series’ viewers tune in, tune out, and fall into a show in which the reality of work becomes hyper-real.

Corporatized entertainment doubles the corporatization of work. So, too, does collectivization. Through Severance, we might, like Lumonites, begin to question the corporeal monotony of corporatized “fun.” We might begin by focusing on the mundane objects and infrastructures that got us to sign up for a streaming company in the first place. Like, how did the humble fruit, the apple, become the symbol of Apple, Inc., the world's largest digital technology company? We might re-enchant the icons and images that reinscribe our own leisure in the shadows of corporate life, and we might map the passageways to places that appear to, but may not, help us debrief from anxiety and stress.  Could, for instance, Apple TV have become our own away-from-work “wellness” station that also makes us ill, that isolates us from our social selves? Imagine the radical project of community theater replacing such a series.

By describing, interpreting, and deciphering such shaky and ultimately shadowy infrastructures—including those of office work, corporations, and Apple, Inc.—we can begin to observe how corporations themselves deploy hopes and promises, material rewards and mythical irrationalities, to keep their workers (and Apple TV+ subscribers) happy and engaged, their shareholders and board members well catered-to, and their connections with various publics fluid enough to make everyone contented and mesmerized. Such analysis may also enable us to imagine potential new sites for critical inquiry of, and severance from, corporate technologies, including the producer of the show


I bought an Apple TV+ subscription to write this essay. I have cancelled it.

Works cited

Baudrillard, Jean. 2001 (1988). Simulacra and Simulations. In Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings: Second Edition, ed. By Mark Poster. Stanford University Press.

Benson, Peter, and Stuart Kirsch. 2023. Capitalist Corporation, the. In The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology, H. Callan (Ed.).

Benson, Peter, and Stuart Kirsch. 2010. “Corporate Oxymorons.” Dialectical Anthropology 34 (1): 45– 48. doi:10.2307/29790911.

Gershon, Ilana. 2014. “Selling Your Self in the United States.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 37 (2): 281– 95. doi:10.1111/plar.12075.

Ho, Karen. 2009. Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Hebdige, Dick. 1988. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Routledge.
Jegathesan, Mythri, Tarini Bedi, and Aaron C. Delgaty. 2022. Notes from the Editorial Collective. Anthropology of Work Review, 43: 3-4.

Kirsch, Stuart. 2014. “Imagining Corporate Personhood.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 37 (2): 207– 17. doi:10.1111/plar.12070.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1970. The German Ideology. International Publishers.

Jegathesan, Mythri, Tarini Bedi, and Aaron C. Delgaty. 2022. Notes from the Editorial Collective. Anthropology of Work Review, 43: 3-4.

Rajak, Dinah. 2011. “Theatres of Virtue: Collaboration, Consensus, and the Social Life of Corporate Social Responsibility.” Focaal: Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 60: 9– 20.

Shever, E. 2023. Transnational and Multinational Corporations. In The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology, H. Callan (Ed.).

Willis, Paul. 2017 (1977). Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. Routledge.

Mario Whitfield:

Mark's efforts to maintain harmony cause Helly to withdraw her support and infuriate Seth. The already intolerable chaos at work is exacerbated by their emotions. cluster rush

Christo will:

"Your reflections beautifully highlight the untold narratives and invaluable insights from diverse life experiences that enrich anthropology beyond traditional fieldwork. Your journey underscores the profound influence of your working-class background on shaping your anthropological perspective."

Christo will:

"Your reflections beautifully highlight the untold narratives and invaluable insights from diverse life experiences that enrich anthropology beyond traditional fieldwork. Your journey underscores the profound influence of your working-class background on shaping your anthropological perspective."

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