When Severance aired, it joined a handful of novels and television shows (China Mieville’s The City and The City or HBO’s Beforeigners spring to mind) whose premises explore how social orders can be intertwined. Severance explores the consequences of a technology that radically separates work selves and personal selves, rendering explicit how much workplaces can function as a separate social order from family life. The City and The City examines how people can live in one space, but in two separate cities where dwellers of one city are not allowed to acknowledge those from the other city. And in Beforeigners, people from different time periods all live together in Oslo, Vikings creating their own temporally appropriate ways to socialize while 19th century Norwegians do the same – the show depicts a city riven by temporal difference as cultural difference. All these shows share an uncanny resemblance with an increasingly widespread theoretical movement in anthropology. This movement presumes anthropologists’ fieldwork interlocutors travel between differently structured social orders regularly in their daily lives (Gershon 2019). Crossing these different social orders presents challenges for people on the ground. Fieldwork interlocutors can spend a considerable amount of energy maintaining the boundaries between these social orders, as well as ensuring that these boundaries are porous and that people, ideas, resources, and forms travel appropriately across these boundaries, and not inappropriately. All these fictional texts, and especially Severance, explore practical consequences when this aspect of daily life is made part of everyone’s explicit awareness.
The writers of Severance, intriguingly, turn the boundary between work and private life into an actual boundary, not a metaphorical one, through a mystified technological process that removes someone’s memories as they enter their workplace. Thus when some employees of Lumon Industries enter a windowless office building, they lose the memories of who they used to be outside of work, creating what the show terms ‘innies’ (with no memories of their previous life) and ‘outies’ (with no memories of what they do at work). They are severed. This is a division between selves and practices that many but not all of the characters in this show experience when they enter the depths of the Lumon building. Thus characters regularly move between work and private life with different implications for those who are severed and those who are not. Some of these implications raise questions about what contributions employments contracts, in particular, make to people’s calculations as they choose whether to acquiesce or not to particular working conditions; or what stays stable as selves transform, but not entirely, when they move across social orders. This exaggerated fictional reflection on how we all live in multiple and porous social orders offers scholars insights into how a theoretical set of assumptions might be adopted and transformed in fiction, revealing insights through exaggeration that scholars participating in this theoretical movement might wish to attend to.
When one uses a porous social orders len while watching Severance, one of the first aspects one might notice is how much labor goes into ensuring that these two walks of life are kept very separate. New job roles spring up to surveil and control the “innies” – those who have had their memories erased upon entering the workplace. In the first season, it isn’t clear how many people working to maintain order in the Lumon workplace are severed as well. There seems to be a handful of people coordinating with each other and drifting in and out of work spaces with rewards and punishments. There are strong hints in the first season that many of those who monitor and function as controlling oversight are not severed, that to maintain the absolute divide between innies and outies, the company requires a set of managers who, like many in the United States, deal with a more familiar struggle to balance work and personal obligations in daily life. Among those providing oversight, there is a character who takes a radically different stance than anyone else in the show to this divide, devoting both her professional and personal life to the Lumon Corporation. Viewers see Patricia Arquette playing Harmony Cobel, who also pretends to be Mrs. Selvig, the main protagonist’s neighbor, when not at work. At first, viewers wonder if she too is severed. But there are tells – she signals that she knows more than Mrs. Selvig would know, there are many small gestures revealing that she is a knowing performer inhabiting two roles instead of two disparate personalities. Thus she is the only character who is never off the clock so to speak, even in her putative private life. Yet while she is performing tasks for the sake of Lumon Corporation, monitoring employees’ practices outside of work, it is not clear that her faceless overlords are aware of this. In her excessive zeal for her job, she may be going rogue in this way – only the second season will reveal. While Patricia Arquette’s character is an extreme version, there is all this visible effort to manage how severed people interact in the office space, which reveals how much labor it takes to maintain the boundaries between these two social orders, requiring multiple layers of surveillance and control.
Why all this effort around control? Some of the answer to this question may come later, in subsequent seasons as what precisely the Lumon corporation is doing is gradually revealed. Yet with Hallie, the obstinate innie who refuses to agree to be an eagerly disciplined worker, viewers are shown the fractures in the very logic that is supposed to keep many US American workers willing to acquiesce to unwelcome working conditions -- willing because they have agreed in advance to do so by agreeing to an employment contract. That is, the show, through its very premise of separating people so radically into private selves and work selves, creates a logical problem that undermines the contractual sociality that keeps so many American workers quiescent – innies don’t sign contracts. In the United States, agreeing to a work contract often leads to rationalizations that allow people to tolerate conditions they otherwise might not, as I discovered during my fieldwork on working in person during the pandemic. The very idea of having agreed to a contract functions to discipline people.
Yet the innies never signed a work contract, only their outies did. And this produces a logical conundrum that differently porous social orders would not, in fact do not, pose to a set of conditions so strongly defined by contractual sociality. The only reason they are in this particular workplace is because of a decision that, from their perspective, an entirely different person made for them. Thus the controls that a contract normally implies falls apart, as one can see with Hallie’s attempts at resistance – the newest member in the office tries to get out any way that she can, even while recognizing that if she succeeds, she will no longer exist. Here, while the problem may at first glance be that Hallie’s outie won’t heed her requests, this particular dilemma around whether a person (even one sharing your body) has the right to make decisions on your behalf, would not be conceivable without the ways in which contractual sociality presupposes basic guardrails for how hierarchical relationships, and control in general, is meant to unfold. Nor would this particular dilemma hold if the boundary between social orders was porous in a different way, allowing certain memories to be retained perhaps.
There are signs that all the labor that goes into creating these separate orders moves beyond the singular location of the Lumon building to recruit assistance from supply chains, creating ripple effects in the markets surrounding this town that all serve to support maintaining the extreme boundary between work and private lives. When outies prepare to descend, they exchange one watch for another, switching from a watch face with numbers on it to a watch face without. The elevators, after all, attempt to catch any texts the employee might be wearing, and the numbers on clock faces would trigger an alarm. As the camera pans across the town the employees live in, one sees signs in the shop windows for commodities that are innie appropriate. Supply chains and commerce has sprung up to help employees navigate this divide, creating infrastructural support that extends beyond the actual buildings and Lumon employees. Maintaining a porous boundary in one location, in short, relies on complex larger networks that extend to recruit actants in other locations.
Up until now, I have been exploring what Severance’s premises reveal about maintaining boundaries to a social analyst interested in porous social orders. I want to turn now to the inverse – what does the show suggest about what stays stable across boundaries? Here I think the show reveals some significant insights into what US Americans tend to believe is the core of the self. The process of severance is supposed to disrupt memories – no one can remember who they are on the outside, if they have children, or a lover, or what sounds they enjoy. Yet there is so much that manages to remain – everyone knows how to speak English, to operate a computer, to manage the niceties of small talk. All that one needs to be a competent cultural being remains in place, including the skills necessary to introduce newcomers into complex communities of practice, or to be a newcomer, and especially to understand fairly complex nuances of following regulations at work. In short, there is a sharp distinction in this show between what one needs to know to be a fully historically situated person and what one needs to know to be a cultural being, with ambiguities around what this distinction means in practice becoming a plot revelation. The mysteries that the script reveals for viewers is that sexual preference is stable despite memories, as is a class-specific refusal to be subservient to systems, if innie Hallie’s persistent refusal to acquiesce and her outie’s status as an elite are to be understood as linked. In short, how people want to perform relations stays stable across the boundary, but not what the relations are.
Severance is a fable that encourages viewers to pay attention to what anthropologists are increasingly calling attention to in their own work – both the tremendous effort that goes into maintaining appropriately porous boundaries between the social orders we all traverse on a regular basis and the open questions of what is able to stay stable across these boundaries. By shifting so dramatically how the divide between work and private life might be experienced, the show calls attention to the kinds of agreements we all make to participate in the social orders that are structured a particular way. Perhaps the most subversive element in the show revolves around the challenge it makes to contractual sociality. What is acquiescence to a work contract under these circumstances? What does it means to acquiesce when the person working receives none of the putative benefits of the contract – the innies’ work supposedly translates into financial rewards only for the outies. All that outies are giving up are hours of their lives, but not hours that they are conscious (and thus wrestling with the soul-crushing aspects of an apparently bullshit job). Why continue working under these circumstances – for the waffle parties? The show, in short, is, among many other things, an exploration of the traps the logic of contracts ask workers to accept, made visible by exaggeratedly shifting how boundaries between social orders are established and maintained.
My great thanks to Lisa Messeri for her thoughtful editing suggestions, and to Caitrin Lynch and Noelle Liston Molé, my co-organizers of the 2023 AES/APLA/CAE fiction salon in which such an energizing discussion about Severance took place that we simply had transport the conversation to Exertions.
Gershon, Ilana. 2019. “Porous Social Orders.” American Ethnologist 46(4): 404-416.