The myth of a perfect work-life balance has been around for a long time. Seen from the perspective of a millennial (e.g., myself), it is perhaps as primordial as the condition of late capitalism itself. Central to this myth is the archetype of the Worker: someone alienated from all their prior social-historical relations yet possessing the right skillset required by their job role to carry out any task that the company assigns to them efficiently, effectively, and impersonally. Central to the myth is also the tale about the perfect after-work hours: after a long day of work, the Worker immediately forgets about everything that is work-related the moment they step out of the workplace: their work, their boss, and their colleagues. They reconnect with their loved ones. They do whatever they would like in these sixteen hours of their off-work life – "relax and recharge," as they say – until the next workday.
Like many myths, the story of a perfect work-life balance can be told in many genres. In Severance, a 2022 sci-fi thriller, we see a dystopian envisioning of this myth where a prescriptive work-life balance is medically brought into existence through the eponymous surgery. By inserting a chip into the brain that separates one's work memory from the rest, the severance procedureÆ subsequently creates two selves in one individual: the innie (the "work self," henceforth person2) and the outie (the "non-work self," henceforth person1). Just as Helly R., one of the severed employees, has consented to before her surgery, her access to their memory becomes spatial-temporally dictated: Helly no longer retains her work memory the moment she ascends to the ground floor at Lumon, the corporation she works for. Notably, the two selves are not equal: as we learn in later episodes, Helly2 is created from the decision of Helly1, who, being Helena Eagan, the daughter of the current Lumon CEO, wishes to use the procedure as an image boost for the family business. Helly2, despite her aggressive and suicidal attempts to quit the job, was robbed of her personhood by Helena/Helly1: "I am a person, you are not. I make the decisions, you do not." (EP4). The same hierarchy between the two selves applies to the protagonist, Mark Scout, who chooses to be severed to cope with the grief from his wife's death, openly ridicules the anti-severance activists in town, and says that the procedure has "helped him" (EP3).
All the severed employees undergo the procedure voluntarily. However, when access to one's memory – an essential part of human cognition and knowledge production – becomes spatial-temporally dictated by a for-profit organization, it leads to dire implications for the employees' sense of self and free will. Mikhail Bakhtin, in his discussion of spatial-temporal relations in novels, introduces the notion of chronotope to describe the inseparability of spatial and temporal indicators in the creation of characters in novelistic narratives (Bakhtin 1981, 85). Since "the image of man is intrinsically chronotopic," the chronotopic split between the severed employees at Lumon, such as Mark1 and Mark2, effectively tears the same man into two biographical images, both of which are tightly managed, surveilled, and censored by Lumon. Significant labor and infrastructure are required to ensure that the chronotopic split between the two selves remains clean: the outie is not supposed to know what their innie is up to, and the innie should never attempt to smuggle a message to the outie. Only specific forms of communication are permitted between the two selves, and they must always be voiced through a Lumon representative. As conflicts over control of the chronotopic split become the central dramatic tension in later parts of Season 1, the depiction of various surveillance and censorship techniques in the series also offers a critique of the widespread workplace surveillance in late capitalist workspaces.
The code detector is one of the many pieces of technology used to surveil the workers on the severed floor at Lumon. Through Helly's multiple failed attempts to send a message to her outie, we learn that the code detector can detect any form of written symbols, whether they are written on post-it notes, on the skin, or even concealed inside the body (such as by swallowing the written note). The code detector is installed in the elevator, which is the only means of exiting the severed floor, and the company reserves the right to intercept any messages attempted by the innie for the outie. The only type of authorized message that can be conveyed between the two selves are those created and voiced through Lumon, using read-only media formats like film photography and videos stored on CD-ROMs. These media formats further restrict the innies’ ability to generate and modify messages. Additionally, the company's use of these read-only media formats contribute to an unsettlingly retro and monotonous sci-fi aesthetic that sets the innies’ world apart from that of their outies’, who still have access to smartphones and OLED 4K televisions.
True to the dystopian theme of the series, Lumon maintains the chronotopic split of its severed workers by constructing a monoglossic narrative about its existence and daily operations. This narrative contrasts with the relatively diverse non-work-related experience in Kier, PE., the town where Lumon Industries is located. Reminiscent of Bakhtin's juxtaposition of the novel and the epic as contrasting literary genres (Bakhtin 1981, 8), the severed workers at Lumon traverse between the realms of the monoglossic epic, guided by the philosophy of Kier, and the heteroglossic novel, shaped by individual beliefs. Contrary to Mark and Helly's initial belief that their1 choice to be severed was entirely voluntary and advantageous to their1 own well-being, both their innies and outies are subjected to Lumon's profit-seeking logic, where their experiences and emotions are exploited for the corporation's productivity. This capitalization of emotional labor becomes evident in various instances throughout the show: (1) macrodata refinement work solely relies on emotional labor; (2) aspects of the outie's life are shared with the innie during "wellness sessions" to enhance the innie's work performance, while the outie remains uninformed about the innie's experiences on the severed floor. Additionally, some employees like Mark Scout are subjected to neighborhood surveillance by unsevered managers such as Harmony Cobel.
Assigning unsevered employees as managers for the severed floor further reinforces the inequality between those who surveil and those who are surveilled. Harmony Corbel, Mark's next-door neighbor, leads a dual life as a ruthless mid-level manager at Lumon during the day and a maternal widow named Mrs. Selvig at night. She checks Mark's mail and confiscates any suspicious items, holds the key to his apartment, and even infiltrates his extended family by working as a part-time lactation consultant for Devon, Mark's sister. As an unsevered individual, Corbel possesses and retains more information about Mark Scout's life than Mark1 himself, granting her greater control over him than he previously realized. Similarly, Milchick, the unsevered employee liaison, has the authority to utilize the overtime contingency—a remotely controlled function that allows the manager to "awaken" the innie after work—in the case of Dylan, who stole a self-defense card from Optics and Design (OD), another department at Lumon. By controlling the timing, location, and manner of the transition between work-mode and life-mode, Lumon's technologies for upholding and enforcing the chronotopic split demonstrate that the myth of achieving work-life balance prescriptively through the severance procedure is nothing more than an empty promise with questionable intentions behind it.
Since the work-life balance on Lumon's severed floor relies on the chronotopic split between selves achieved through the severance procedure, as well as various forms of surveillance and censorship, MDR's resistance to Lumon by utilizing overtime contingency on themselves can be viewed as disrupting this balance by closing the chronotopic split. Although the actual act of rebellion occurs in the final episode, we can already catch a glimpse of what unfolds after the characters finally learn about their outies' lives and identities. Through Ricken's book and their own experiences, the workers become more reflective about the nature of their work and start questioning why Lumon isolates and keeps them ignorant. They begin to value and prioritize the interpersonal relationships established at work over the work itself. By redirecting their emotional energy from their tasks to their relationships, the severed workers become less perfect as employees but more human. We also witness the formation of solidarity among the innies, and more importantly, between the two selves, particularly through Mark1's pursuit of uncovering Petey's death and Mark2's endeavors to unite his colleagues against the company.
Watching from an anthropological perspective, Severance provides a poignant critique of the constructed-ness of ideas such as work-life balance in late capitalism, which rests on the assumption that life only happens outside of work, which does not count as a part of life. Through its own dystopian style of storytelling, Severance also creates a world where large corporations like Lumon Industries could capitalize on ideas like work-life balance and demand total control on the definition and content of such ideas. Here, Harmony Cobel’s comment about her mother being an atheist should not be regarded as her going on a power trip in the show, but also a warning to the unhindered development of hostile and isolating workplaces in our era:
You know, my mother was an atheist. She used to say that there was good news and bad news about hell. The good news is, hell is just the product of a morbid human imagination. The bad news is, whatever humans can imagine, they can usually create.
Bakhtin, M. M., Michael Holquist, and M. M Bakhtin. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988.