n Succession, a hit show about a tragic billionaire family and their media empire, one scene pans across three screens full of Zoom faces. Greg, an awkward corporate underling, nervously reads: “If you are on this call, then [...] you are part of the unlucky group who are having their contract terminated with immediate effect” (“Tailgate Party”). His boss, Tom Wambsgans, unseen by the Zoom attendees, wiggles his fists near his cheeks, mimicking sobs. Greg leans forward towards the screen: “We are letting all of you go.” He raises his finger on the mousepad and hastily utters, “Goodbye,” disappearing the workers’ digital faces as quickly as their employment with Waystar Royco.
Severance represents a different kind of employee termination: severing the tie connecting work and home identity. “Inside” or “innie” employees have “severed” brains thanks to a device nestled in an employee’s brain. The “innies” are the workers, whose inside-office personas know only the work they do, cut off from their outside-work selves or “outie” worlds. Quitting or getting fired, naturally, become far more complex when both outie and innie have a say in the matter. When Helly asks Mark if she can quit, if she is “trapped here,” Mark responds: “Since this perceptual version of you only exists at Lumon, quitting would effectively end your life in so much as you’ve come to know it” (“Half Loop'' 14:20-15:02). Since Innie Helly is a location-based creation, designed to exist only on the “severed floor,” she needs Outie Helly’s consent to resign, and logically, both Hellys would need to be advised were Innie Helly fired.
Severance, of course, plays on the double meaning of the word severance as division or separation and as severance as employee compensation. Severance pay developed within an industrial economy in the 1940s as a form of temporary compensation package offered to workers in the event of a forced “separation” (Holzmann et al, 4). Severance packages may have originated as a strategy to retain French railroad workers who were often unpredictably terminated and would subsequently lose their earned pensions. Thus, severance agreements compensated for the loss of potential earnings and benefits (Holzmann et al, 5). Historically speaking, severance was not merely about making the loss of employment palatable, but also to motivate workers to enter an unpredictable workforce. Severance’s double meaning becomes my point of departure: How does splitting become a strategy to regulate workers and the labor market?
Determined to be released from work, Innie Helly threatens to cut off her fingers unless she can film a video pleading her case for Outie Helly. The next day, the managers play Innie Helly a videotaped response from her Outie. Like Greg across from the Zoom employees, we have an across-screen transaction: not the sleek flat screens from Succession but a 1980s rollaway TV stand showing Outie Helly’s videotaped message: “Helly, I watched your video asking that I resign. [...] I understand you’re unhappy with the life you’ve been given. But you know what? Eventually we all have to accept reality so here it is: I am a person. You are not. I make the decisions. You do not. And if you ever do anything to my fingers, know that I will keep you alive long enough to horribly regret that. Your resignation request is denied. Turn it off” (24:07). Outie Helly is like Succession’s Firing Greg: she makes the decisions, then vanishes from the screen. Innie Helly effectively becomes Outie Helly’s property.
What does it mean to force yourself to work? Italian labor theorist Christian Marazzi envisions neoliberal labor as the work of the soul: “The new machine that commands live labor and makes the worker produce [...] tends to be located within the worker herself, in her brain and in her soul” (Marazzi 2007: 29–30). Severance literalizes that “machine in her brain” as severed but twinned workers. The workers choose severance for a variety of reasons. Outie Helly, is actually the CEO’s daughter and promotes the family company, Lumon, by severing herself. Outie Mark opts in because grieving his wife was too painful. Perhaps the severance operation represents a form of resistance to the demands of labor or a career. The severed strategically compartmentalize one part of the self to the daily grind, while a different part can mourn or, as for Helly, grow investments.
Yet Severance implies that workers haven’t escaped alienation, just internalized it. In fragmenting themselves, workers commodify their own divisible parts. The manager’s oppression has been absorbed into the self-oppression of one’s own internalized other. On Succession, capital occupies slick conference rooms and labor gets Zoom squares. On Severance, capital and labor share a body.
With its first episode airing in February 2022, Severance was watched shortly after the 2020 pandemic lockdowns, when separation of work and private self suddenly became unimaginable for many of us. Our souls might have been alienated, but there was only one body.
Paul B. Preciado (2020) captures remote work, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, refashioned the laboring body:
The subjects of the neoliberal technical-patriarchal societies that Covid-19 is in the midst of creating do not have skin; they are untouchable. [...] They do not collectivize. They are radically un-dividual. [...] [T]heir organic bodies are hidden behind an indefinite series of semio-technical mediations, an array of cybernetic prostheses that work like digital masks: email addresses, Facebook, Instagram, Zoom, and Skype accounts.
Perhaps Severance’s Innies best represent these “un-dividuals,” as Preciado puts it, bodies “hidden behind an indefinite series of semio-technical mediations.” Innie Helly knows her “untouchability” could only be challenged by threatening her physical hands, the same hands of her Outie. Severance might have helped us process the lockdown cyborg moment by watching Innie-Outies as a proxy for “cybernetic prosthesis.” Lumon’s innies-outies are like remote labor markets, spatially split the body into two: the digital “untouchable” persona and the couch-bound laborer. But what Preciado misses is how strange watching one’s own mirrored visage all day would be, not to mention all your colleagues’ filtered Zoom selves. Yet we now know that Zoom has greatly intensified body dysmorphia (even dubbed Zoom dysmorphia), and created a sense of “Déjà Zoom,” where you experience an uncanny gap between the Zoom person you thought you knew and the one you meet in person (Ome 2021). Innie Helly’s understood the “split’s” fragility because the chip lives inside a single body shared with her Outie, and the wounds on her neck after her suicide attempt were a visible reminder of it. So, too have we found that remote work depends on a similarly tenuous split where our bodies may be “hidden” (Preciado 2020) or “uncanny” (Ome 2021) but remote work could virtually not exist without bodies. No body, no Zoom.
Franco Berardi (2009) reminds us that the industrial worker’s bodily alienation was “visible, conscious, and governable” while post-industrial alienation was less visible and internalized (199). Unlike the industrial era where we once could see the endless loop of the factory belt, touch the swollen and bruised body, it’s harder to see the remote worker’s distress or the psychological strain of the algorithm-optimized social media entrepreneur. Like the forms of alienation resulting from digital and remote labor, the psychological turmoil and distress of Lumon’s severed employees is interiorized.
Feel a certain way
In the MacroData Refinery (MDR) Department, the “refinery” labor performed is absurdly abstract and becomes yet another site where division, here between work and the worker, is staged. In one scene, MDR’s manager, Mark S., trains newly hired Helly. He turns on the “console,” a boxy 1980s-esque desktop, its green-hued screen full of numbers with five numbered buckets lining the bottom row.
Mark: This is the Siena file, now all the data you see falls into one of four essential categories. We group each line of code and sort it evenly into five digital buckets. Poke around at first.
Helly: Should this mean something to me?
Mark: No, all the data comes from upstairs fully encoded.
Helly: Then how do I categorize it?
Mark: Each category of numbers presents in such an order as to elicit an emotional response in the refiner. So Cat 1 numbers, for example, feel a certain way on sight. They’ll be sort of disconcerting, scary.
Mark.: I know.
Helly: My job is to scroll through this spreadsheet and look for numbers that are scary? [...]
Mark: It doesn’t make sense ‘til you see it and it takes a while to see (“Half Loop” 11:29 - 14:20)
When, later on, Helly learns to “bin” numbers she calls to her teammates to observe her slowly drag the selected numbers across the screen. Unnerved, she says breathily: “They were scary. The numbers were scary” (“Half Loop” 50:00-51:36). Innie Helly’s labor relies on a sense of mystical investment and ephemeral hunches, yet offers no sense of meaning. There is no tangible product, no process, no secure meaning of what or why, just an unpredictable, shifting feeling. Helly’s work is pure intangibility, aptly capturing our world of “unremitting info-stimulation” (Berardi 2007, 209). Helly’s colleagues speculate that the work might actually be clearing ocean floors for future habitation or as inconsequential as removing profane words from television shows. How different is their work from data scrubbing, Google optimization or algorithmic trading? Lumon’s data refinement, or really, hovering numbers, serves as a brilliant symbol of post-industrial labor, in ways widgets or tables were for the industrial era. Indeed this also represents another kind of splitting we find in our current labor markets, where there is a stark separation between the workers’ education, preparation, and talents and the resulting product or service. On Severance, labor is even further abstracted from capital: labor knows not the what, how, or why. Labor may be meaningless or wicked. Only capital knows.
But why does maintaining the Innie-Outie split workers take so much work? Lumon has erected a costly and elaborate system to keep Innies reporting to work in order to “feel a certain way.” Data refinery workers receive prizes, ranging from glass-etched self-portraits and Chinese finger traps to melon and dance parties. The company runs on a massive techno-human infrastructure: the neural device operation, the creation of a labyrinthine “severed floor,” surveillance systems, dedicated managers, a “break room” to punish disobedient workers, and the constant management of Innie-Outie communication. On top of all that, workers are forced to study the mystic teachings of Lumon founders, who are honored on site with religious-like shrines. Innies are specially rewarded with facts about their Outies. One employee, Irv, is told: “Your outie is generous, your outie is fond of music [...] your outie is a friend to children and to the elderly. [...] Your outie attends many dances and is popular among the other attendees. Your outie likes films and owns a machine that can play them. Your outie is splendid, and can swim gracefully (“Half Loop” 48:02). Given this elaborate cultural-medical institutionalization of separation, why then are Lumon workers incentivized with the promise of wholeness?
In our world, the filter-pretty online persona is separated from the derided flesh-and-blood body on the couch. Our IRL selves become alienated from the curated digital identity that we have actually labored to fashion. The digital persona is then commodified, whether to attract likes and views, or just algorithmically encoded to sell us Amazon ads. Digital selves are objectified and fashioned according to market demands or others’ interests or to appease stakeholders. Jeremy Weissman theorizes this split: “Our digital self becomes separated from our concrete body–a media creation, projected onto a screen, that we actively craft–a digital body. [...] It is as if we have a split self, real and virtual” (33).
So, the split-selved consumers watch Severance, a story about the labor of split-apart workers, where maintaining the split system quadruples the labor for all involved. Just like with Helly, one half of the split self holds far more knowledge and control than the other, so our digital half’s political preferences, cleaning habits, and socio-economic class, even secret sexual fantasies, are known deeply, if unconsciously and by others. The algorithmic hivemind may even know about a pregnancy or DSM diagnosis before the individual does. Plus, folks design cosmetic surgeries to look like their filtered selfies, refine emails with ChatGPT, and rewrite their resumes to feed automated searches. 3D selves are constantly chasing after their many 2D counterparts. There remains a kind of allure fantasy that some digital personas are genuine and authentic, closely tethered to the actual 3D body. In this sense, hearing Outie Irv is a graceful swimmer mimics the satisfaction of #nofilter.
Severance pay was a way to mediate between labor and capital: coaxing workers to enter the workforce, regulating their exit, bolstering the market’s overall productivity. In Severance, the severance procedure achieves the same goals but perversely so: first enticing workers to join Lumon with the promise of frictionless work-life balance, then banning Innie workers’ exit, and finally upping the output of both Innies and Outies. In our world, severing gets it all done. Digitally severed people animate multi-billion dollar industries and remote work, and even gig work relies on subdividing one’s own home, car, or skill to be commodified in part or part time.
The camera shot allows the viewer to see both Hellys when Outie Helly tells her Innie: “I am a person. You are not.” The image of these duplicate Hellys feels disturbing because they look the same but are not. Like us, they dwell in a labor system that makes you question the very nature of your reality, making one person split into multiple personalities. It’s an endless cycle of you producing not-you yous. New digital-algorithmic work demands you face the uncanny valley of yourself as an interchangeable cog one day, and your own boss the next. Severance shows us dissociative-identity-disorder capitalism, where capital and labor appear as twins. You can’t tell which one is the oppressor, and which one is the oppressed. And sometimes they might both be you.
Berardi, Franco. 2009. The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).
“Half Loop.” 2022. Severance, season 1, episode 2. Apple+ TV, February 18.
Holzmann, Robert, Yann Pouget, Milan Vodopivec and Michael Weber. 2011. Severance Pay Programs around the WorldHistory, Rationale, Status, and Reforms. World Bank: Social Protection and Pay. https://doi.org/10.1596/27339.
Marazzi, Christian. 2007. “Rules for the Incommensurable.” SubStance 36(1): 11–36.
Ome, Morgan. 2021. “The Rise of Déjà Zoom.” The Atlantic, December 2.
Preciado, Paul B. 2020. “Learning from the Virus.” ArtForum, May/June 2020.
“Tailgate Party.” 2023. Succession, season 4, episode 7. HBO Max, May 7.
I’m grateful for the smart minds of Lisa Messeri, Livia Garofalo, El Glasberg, and Tanya Goldsmith, and Ilana Gershon and Caitrin Lynch for organizing our panel.