“Unknown, Unknown, Delaware, Unknown”: The Mind-Games of “Severance”

By Madeleine Collier

This article contains spoilers from the first season of Severance on Apple TV.

Introduction

Severance, the 2022 Apple TV series written by Dan Erickson and helmed by Ben Stiller, boasts one of the most subtly sophisticated science fiction premises in recent memory. In the corporate town of Kier, somewhere in middle America, workers at the shadowy biotech company Lumon Industries opt to undergo a procedure which spatiotemporally splits their minds between work and leisure. After the implantation of a cerebral microchip, these “severed” employees lose all ability to access memories across their “Innies” (newborn worker personas) and “Outies” (leisure personas). As a result, each “Innie” lives a perpetual sequence of 9-5 workdays, while their “Outie” is simultaneously shielded from the strain of professional labor and prevented from retaining any proprietary corporate information. Toiling away in a sealed, windowless open-plan office which combines design features from the 1950s to the present (mid-century Herman Miller chairs coexist with touch screen CRT monitors [Fig. 1]), severed employees Mark S. (Adam Scott), Helly R. (Britt Lower), Irving B. (John Turturro), and Dylan G. (Zach Cherry) uncover a chain of unsettling clues which undermine Lumon’s grandiose corporate mythology.  

Fig. 1: Promotional image, Severance (Apple TV)

This compelling scenario, which relies on viewers’ intrinsic understanding of the contours of cognitive labor and its affiliated modes of alienation, reminded me of the late Thomas Elsaesser’s work on the mind-game phenomenon. In 2009, Elsaesser documented the increasing global popularity of films with convoluted narratological structures, a marked emphasis on cognitive processes and pathology, and frequent invocations of conspiracy. In these films, he noted, “mind-games” take place at two levels: the diegetic level of plot, in which the protagonist is the target of someone else’s machinations, and the level of narrative construction, as information is withheld or ambiguously presented to the audience (14). In a forthcoming article in New Review of Film and Television Studies, I examine the mind-game phenomenon of the twenty-first century in relation to the hacker films of the 1990s (e.g., Hackers [Softley, 1995], Johnny Mnemonic [Longo, 1995], Sneakers [Robinson, 1992], The Net [Winkler, 1995]). In my analysis, the hacker films thematically reflect various historically-situated conditions of ontological indeterminacy (including financialization, late-capitalist abstraction, and simulation’s role in the security state) which would later become structurally embedded in the mind-game film.

I’m interested in using this space to situate Severance within a lineage of mind-game and proto-mind-game hacker films (including Johnny Mnemonic, Memento [Nolan, 2000], The Matrix [Wachowski and Wachowski, 2001], Paycheck [Woo, 2003] and Source Code [Jones, 2011]) occupied specifically with evolving narratives of cognitive and creative labor. Severance’s remarkable corporate spatial allegory–which projects the privatized and disjunctured mind of the neoliberal office worker onto Eero Saarinen facades and labyrinthine M.C. Escher halls–offers key insights into the cognitive mapping function (Jameson 1990) in the mind-game film, and in twenty-first century popular culture at large. Thinking with Severance, we gain a more nuanced understanding of how neoliberal managerial theory engages in a totalizing project of subjectivization, shaping the spatiotemporal dimensions of labor from within and without. 

Cognitive Mapping and the Commoditization of Interiority

Early in Severance’s first season, we learn that Lumon employees are forbidden from making and sharing maps of the sprawling corporate complex where they find themselves serving an interminable workday. Nonetheless, Mark soon discovers an office plan [Fig. 2] scribbled on an index card and left behind by his mysteriously disappeared coworker Petey (Yul Vasquez). The map depicts a tangle of labeled geometric passageways adorned with Basquiat-like figures, the phrase “We’re all here because we’re not all there,” and a vigorously circled coupling of the word “MIND” with a spidery black shape. As the season progresses and the employees become allied in their distrust of Lumon, they each dedicate themselves to continuing Petey’s mapping project; they simultaneously chart Lumon’s physical offices and attempt to outline the corridors between their own fragmented mental territories. While the map is shown on-screen only briefly in episode four, it quickly became the object of intense fan speculation on the Severance subreddit, where viewers hypothesized about its various cryptic symbols and designations. In a classic mind-game media convergence, the aim of deciphering the various contorted spatial frontiers of Lumon became the shared project of the show’s protagonists and invested audience alike.

Fig. 2: Still, Severance S1 E4 “The You You Are”

Thomas Elsaesser (2017) connects the alternately sprawling and recursive narratives of the mind-game film to Fredric Jameson’s concept of cognitive mapping. According to Jameson, cognitive mapping describes the process by which subjects attempt to locate themselves within the “impossible totality of the contemporary world system” (1990, p. 54). Jameson’s work on cognitive mapping assesses the activity of plotting informatic junctions across material terrain; Jamesonian cognitive mapping responds specifically to the bewildering networks of distributed agency under globalization (Elsaesser 2017). However, a cognition-oriented strand of hacker and mind-game films–including and perhaps best epitomized by Severance– models a peculiarly recursive intensification of this operation. The protagonists of these narratives find themselves unable to access portions of their own consciousnesses and must engage in remedial mapping, not only of their socio-spatial milieux, but of their own minds. In Johnny Mnemonic, the eponymous protagonist (Keanu Reeves) opts to wipe his childhood memories to make room for commercial memory storage; he must later “hack” his own brain to extract sensitive information. In Paycheck1, reverse engineer Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) signs a contract with technology company Allcom, agreeing to clear his memory after two years of working on a top-secret project. When Jennings “wakes up” from his memory wipe, he must dodge the FBI agents on his trail while figuring out why his prior self opted to forgo his sizable paycheck. Similarly, in Severance, the alienation enacted by the eponymous procedure leaves Innies and Outies alike struggling to connect information between their personas. These stories seemingly gesture towards changing paradigms of cognitive labor, evincing a pervasive anxiety surrounding the neoliberal incorporation of the “self-work ethos,” the rhetorical evolution from “work-life balance” to “work-life integration,” and the enclosure of various creative commons into corporate strongholds of intellectual property. 

***

Beginning in the 1970s, offices–and managerial theory as a whole–underwent a significant revision. As literary historian Sara Brouillette recounts, the particular creative economy which matured in the late twentieth-century was oriented around flexibilization, self-management, and the valorization of the interiority of the creative individual. Elaborating on how the “whole worker” paradigm fostered the fetish of authenticity and the pernicious ensnarling of self-betterment and entrepreneurship, Brouillette writes, 

At its most extreme, the merging of work and life in the ‘self-work ethos’ finds people contradictorily enjoined to ‘look within’ to discover their true selves–who they are irrespective of markets and society–but precisely as a way to develop their human capital, as part of their enterprising self-appreciation. Recurring institutional investment in the idea that we should all be engaged in self-referencing introspection has led to despair, depression, mental collapse, reliance on therapists, and medication dependency (2014, 45)

This fixation on interiority and introspection, which Brouillette links to social scientific study of writers’ working lives (5), requires that contemporary cognitive and creative workers offer up their most essential mental and emotional capacities for optimization and extraction. As Severance’s heroes attempt to override the partitioning of their minds and salvage the possibility of creative thinking outside the bounds of Lumon’s dictates (in part inspired by a maudlin self-help book titled The You You Are), the mapping function they perform is simultaneously extrospective and introspective. The covert corporate terrains which they attempt to trace exist both outside their minds, in Lumon’s sterile, fluorescent-lit hallways, and inside them, protected behind the blockade of a proprietary chip emblazoned with the slogan, “Don’t live to work. Work to live.” In Severance, as in films like Paycheck and Johnny Mnemonic, the traditional cognitive mapping function, defined by the “coordination of existential data (the empirical position of the subject) with unlived, abstract conceptions of the geographic totality” (Jameson 1990, 90), necessarily dovetails with a parallel operation charting the mind’s spatialized interior.

The Knowledge Worker and the Corporate Black Box

The cinematic treatment of cognitive processes in Severance and its mind-game predecessors draws on the rationale of cybernetic systems analysis and behavioral psychology, treating segments of the mind as ‘black boxes’ inaccessible to consciousness. First described in a cybernetic context by Norbert Wiener (1948), the term ‘black box’ describes any complex system in which the inputs and outputs are known but the operational function is shielded from view. Where the black box metaphor is applied in behavioral psychology, it supports a framework of cognitive study premised on stimulus and response. While the behaviorists of the late-twentieth century recognized cognition as a fundamentally blackboxed process, the mind-game and mind-game adjacent narratives I am considering here layer neuropsychological complexity with the opacity of copyright barriers. In many of these stories, memories are not blackboxed/repressed (solely) because of trauma or other psychological causes, but instead are sequestered by corporate contract.

Johnny Mnemonic, Paycheck, and Severance present strikingly similar treatments of the “Knowledge Worker” (in Peter Drucker’s 1959 formulation) who voluntarily opts to sequester and privatize a portion of their cognitive faculties. Knowledge Workers necessarily provide labor that is affective as well as intellectual; in one succinct example from Severance, the four employees of Lumon’s Macrodata Refinement department spend their days identifying and sequestering numbers which make them ‘feel afraid.’ These narratives literalize the autonomist framework presented by McKenzie Wark in her 2004 Hacker Manifesto, in which the creative “hacker class” (defined not specifically as computer hackers but more broadly as the producers of new information) is continually dispossessed by the dominant “vectoral class,” who usurp the property rights of the hacker’s abstracted labor. When the Knowledge Worker supplies information under contract to their corporate bosses, this cognitive, creative, or affective production–which is never fully divorced from the worker’s everyday subjectivity–is coopted and secured behind the screens of copyright. As such, these narratives explore the contemporary anxieties and fantasies of office workers and other cognitive laborers through the lodestone of the black box metaphor, a fitting representation of the alienation of the worker whose mode of production is never fully exteriorized. 

In Severance, the black box metaphor operates not only on the cognitive level but also on the level of the body: due to the diegetic “timeshare” configuration of bodies in space, both “Innies” and “Outies” periodically find their bodies altered by unknown events. The traces of physical and emotional imprints on the body (Petey tells Mark’s “Outie,” “At work, you’d come in sometimes with red eyes. We’d joke that you had an elevator allergy”) are the only evidence each protagonist has of the hours their counterpart spent inside or outside of the office. The body-mind parcel in Severance is rendered a black box in the truest sense: each employee is aware of how they left the body and were returned to it (the “input” and “output” data of their on- or off-hours), but are left to speculate about anything which may have occurred in the interim. While autonomist “immaterial” labor theory is sometimes accused of invisibilizing the vast quantities of labor (manual, reproductive, or other) which exceed the postwar creative economy narrative, this aspect of Severance’s allegory captures a more broadly experienced state of alienation and extraction under capitalism. Departing from Johnny Mnemonic and Paycheck’s narrow focus on cognitive labor, Severance supplies a compelling fantasy of regaining control of the mind and body at work via unionization and revolt.

Schizochronotopia and Spatial Allegory

Severance relies heavily on production design–particularly office layout and furniture–to tell a story about how late-twentieth century labor discourse was enacted at both inter- and intra-subjective levels. The Lumon office exists, in one sense, outside of history; production designer Jeremy Hindle deliberately created a set which integrated aesthetic and technological cues from various eras between 1960 and the early twenty-first century (McHenry 2022) [Figs. 3 & 4]. During this crucial time frame, American labor discourse drifted from its prior focus on repetitive, manual Fordist factory labor to an investment in the paradigm of the self-directed Knowledge Worker. The Lumon office, an uncanny synthesis of various historically-anchored spaces, presents a cumulative amalgamation of the values and design features of the postwar, postindustrial economy.2 As conceptions of the model worker began to shift, offices across the US and Western Europe were concurrently transformed by the imperative of Bürolandschaft. This open-plan office ideal, devised by the German Schnelle brothers in the late 1950s, supposedly fostered individuality, democratic participation, and social circulation. As design historian Jennifer Kaufmann-Buhler recounts, many architects and designers during this period regarded open-plan offices as spatial manifestations of liberatory, society-wide transformations. Kaufmann-Buhler comments, 

In this emerging culture of work, workers would supposedly have greater autonomy and independence in their working process, and as a result, top-down management structures, organizational hierarchy, and corporate bureaucracies would disappear and organizations would become flatter, more dynamic, and more dependent on worker interaction and communication. (2014, 7)

Severance leans into the hypocrisy of the postindustrial work mythology, deploying and resignifying vaunted aesthetic hallmarks of corporate culture (Lumon exterior shots, for example, feature Eero Saarinen’s Bell Works lab) to highlight the superficiality of these nominally transformative corporate pledges.

Figs. 3 and 4: 1968 Action Office Design by Herman Muller; still from the opening of Severance

Communications scholar Ian Roderick uses Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotopic imaginary to contextualize office design’s transformation over the last half century. For Roderick, the flexible and multi-venued contemporary office space, composed of grouped desks and semi-private spaces, structures the twenty-first century workspace “not as a singular space of individuated productive activity but rather as a network of highly adaptive places and spaces, each with their own tempo of activity and interaction” (Roderick 2016, 285). Severance displays aspects of this framework (in the form of desks with removable partitions, the incorporation of wellness and museum spaces within the office, as well as the transformation of the workfloor by periodic inane office parties), but Lumon’s worker experience is perhaps better described as a schizochronotopia (HadžiMuhamedović, 2018) knit of two disjoint spatiotemporal frameworks. Severance challenges the supposed binary between rigid and flexible management theories (and the implied superiority of the latter method), indicating that both “life-work balance” and “life-work integration” are attached to ideologies which share the goal of maximal value extraction. Late in the series, we learn about “Overtime Contingency,” a Lumon proviso allowing managers to temporarily bring Innie consciousness to the surface during off-work hours. The sanctity of the work-life balance espoused by Lumon executives is, in fact, only respected where and when it serves the aim of protecting corporate privacy. The dramatic schism of Severance’s schizochronotopia highlights what is in reality a spatiotemporal continuity of experience and information targeted by corporate extraction.

Conclusion

In the Severance universe, Lumon employees typically opt to undergo the severance procedure to avoid some form of personal trauma (Mark flees his wife’s death) or to sequester the unpleasantness of various experiences (Gabby [Nora Dale] acquires an Innie to deliver her baby). Lumon sells the operation as a twofold optimization mechanism: they espouse the view that employees should be able to reinvest fully in both the work and home lives, without the interruptions of the other context. The severance procedure then serves as a key example of an Elsaesserian “productive pathology” (2009), or advantageous cognitive mutation which allows mind-game protagonists to thrive in the network society of late capitalism. In mind-game narratives, productive pathologies are usually elements of protagonist subjectivity which, though viewed as aberrant or disruptive in normative social contexts, are programmable by the agents of sovereign power or neoliberal capitalism (the army in Source Code, multinational pharmaceutical companies in Johnny Mnemonic, a shadowy technological engineering firm in Paycheck). Underlying Elsaesser’s deployment of the “productive pathology” is a tension between divergence and its reintegration into the normative. He writes, “By recalibrating the mind-body relations and acknowledging crises of agency, productive pathologies would be in the vanguard… as harbingers of the new normal. The world they find themselves in is also ours: making demands on the body, the mind, the senses that humans are not (yet) equipped for” (2017, 14). The cautionary tale of Severance underscores paradigms of subjectivity which, despite their apparent extremity, have been under cultivation for decades in the neoliberal economy.

I don’t have space here to explore further details of Severance’s narrative and production design. I restrain myself from exploring the eerie “wall of smiles” housed in the campus’s Perpetuity Wing or the black goo which, echoing Marxian Gallerte, liquidizes the office in Irving’s surreal daydreams. However, I hope that my brief argument has opened up the discussion of Severance as a mind-game text. Attending to both the psychological and architectural landscapes which stage contemporary cognitive labor, the first season of Severance offers a nightmarish vision of unchecked corporate power–and underscores the complexity of cognitive mapping projects undertaken within the intensely introspective and recursive framework of contemporary creative labor. With Severance, the mind-game phenomenon finds a subject appropriate to its formal complexity: the orienting and disorienting power of contemporary labor narratives.

Footnotes

1 It is worth noting that both Johnny Mnemonic and Paycheck are based on earlier cyberpunk literature; Paycheck is adapted from Philip K. Dick’s 1953 short story of the same name, and “Johnny Mnemonic” was originally a 1981 short story by William Gibson. This extended timeline, which spans several decades, indicates that cognitive labor and corporate privacy have been consistently situated at the crossroads of labor and subjectivity discourse since the formation of the post-war economy.

2  Severance is not the first science fiction narrative to center a sinister, historically-generic office space. Neal Stepherson’s popular 1992 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash contains the following description of the Fed’s headquarters: “No point in describing the office. No point in even allowing the office to even register on her eyeballs and take up valuable memory space in her brain. Fluorescent lights and partitions with carpet glued to them. I prefer my carpet on the floor, thank you. A color scheme. Ergonomic shit. Chicks with lipstick. Xerox smell. Everything’s pretty new, she figures” (353).

Acknowledgements:
I would like to thank Annabel Wharton for her thoughtful suggestions and Seung-hoon Jeong for his continued support and enthusiasm for all things mind-game.

Works Cited

Brouillette, Sarah, 2014. Literature and the Creative Economy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Dick, Philip K., 1953. “Paycheck,” Imagination: Stories of Science and Fantasy 4(5).

Drucker, Peter, 1959. The Landmarks of Tomorrow. London, UK: Routledge.

Elsaesser, Thomas, 2009. “The Mind-Game Film.” In Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema, edited by Warren Buckland, 13-41. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Elsaesser, Thomas, 2017. “Contingency, Causality, Complexity: Distributed Agency in the Mind-Game Film.” New Review of Film and Television Studies 16 (1): 1-39.

Gibson, William, 1981. “Johnny Mnemonic,” Omni 3(8).

HadžiMuhamedović, Safet, 2018. Waiting for Elijah: Time and Encounter in a Bosnian Landscape. New York, NY: Bergham Books. 

Jameson, Fredric, 2005. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Kaufmann-Buhler, Jennifer. 2020. Open Plan: A Design History of the American Office. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

McHenry, Jackson. 2022. “The Stories Behind Severance’s Eerie Office Design,” Vulture.com. https://www.vulture.com/article/severance-office-design-explained.html. Accessed April 23, 2020.

Roderick, Ian, 2016. “The Politics of Office Design: Translating Neoliberalism Into Furnishing” in Multimodality, Politics, and Ideology 15 (3): 274-287. 

Stepherson, Neal, 1992. Snow Crash. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Wark, McKenzie, 2004. A Hacker Manifesto. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wiener, Norbert, 1948. Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Related reads:

Thomas Elsaesser’s article “Contingency, causality, complexity: distributed agency in the mind-game film

Marisa C de Baca’s review of The mind-game film: distributed agency, time travel, and productive pathology by Thomas Elsaesser

Madeleine Collier
Madeleine Collier

Madeleine Collier is a writer, translator, and film critic currently pursuing a PhD in Literature from Duke University. Her work has appeared in publications including Film Comment, Senses of Cinema, and Afterimage; she is also a member of the editorial collective at Barricade: A Journal of Translation and Antifascism.