The Apple TV science fiction psychodrama series, Severance (2022–), tells the story of a group of people who agree to work for a large corporation, Lumen, and to undergo a procedure called “severance,” in which a device is implanted into their brains, separating–or “severing”–their work memories from their non-work memories, and vice versa. Severance is represented visually, in the series, as the passage from non-work (“outties”) to work selves (“innies”). This occurs as the characters ride on an elevator taking them from the surface to a subterranean office space portrayed in the style of 1960s décor and comprised of flat surfaces, white walls and desks, and claustrophobic, labyrinthine hallways, with avocado-green carpeting. As they ride down on the elevator, their minds switch from one identity to the other, which likewise reverts back to their original non-work identity when they ride the elevator back up to the surface at the end of the working day.

The series makes it clear that the innies have no control over the choice of their working conditions, and that the outties are the ones who make the decision about whether or not to return to work every day. This is demonstrated quite dramatically when one of the characters, Helly (Britt Lower), makes numerous attempts to escape, at one point even trying to commit suicide by hanging herself in the elevator using an office power cord. The outties are able to communicate with their innie counterparts via video recordings. After making a request to her outtie via video to quit her job, Helly’s outtie sends back a video declining her request.

Throughout the series, the characters discuss the possibility of “reintegration”–that is, of ending the severing between the outtie and the innie, recombining them into a single whole person. In this way, the series reflects the Marxist conception of alienated (or estranged) labour, and its associated politics of dis-alienation. As Marx puts it in his 1843-1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, “the object that labour produces stands opposed to it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer.”[1] The series clearly represents, in this way, Marx’s early conception of alienation by separating the consciousness of the worker–the outtie–from their labour and its product–the innie–each becoming alien to the other. However, the series also, in an interesting way, troubles the notion of dis-alienation or reintegration, when it demonstrates the failure of the procedure.

The series’ plot is sprung into action in two ways. First, the outtie of the main protagonist Mark (Adam Scott), is contacted by his old innie friend and co-worker, Petey (Yul Vazquez), who has quit Lumon and is attempting reintegration. Petey’s efforts, however, are fraught and what he ends up with in the outtie world is a confused, discombobulated, paranoic, and schizophrenic experience, never able to completely re-integrate his innie memories with those of his outtie self. This psychical state ultimately causes a seizure that leads to Petey’s death. A second MacGuffin is revealed as Mark’s innie discovers a map of the entire subterranean office space that Petey had drawn, which he hid behind a portrait of his co-workers. Innie Mark’s discovery of the map leads him to question the anomalous conditions of his work life.

The visual metaphor of the series, thus, not only recalls Marx’s conception of alienated labour; it also usefully portrays the Freudian unconscious, with the outtie clearly representing the subject’s ego, while the innie represents its unconscious counterpart. Severance can, thus, be seen, not only in terms of the kind of alienated labour described by Marx; it is also indicative of the kind of split subjectivity that we find in Lacan. The reference to the psychoanalytic conception of subjectivity, however, troubles somewhat the notion of reintegration. This comes across in the final episode of the first season (so far) when the innie selves figure out a way to awaken in the outtie world in an attempt to stage a revolt against Lumon and the severance process.

This event, combined with the problems Petey faced in his attempt at reintegration, presents the possibility that dis-alienation is, in fact, an impossible utopian fantasy–a fantasy of non-castrated enjoyment, we might say. The failure of reintegration–i.e., dis-alienation–presents the possibility that the subject can only ever come across as the one or the other, but never both personalities simultaneously. This veers close to what Slavoj Žižek[2] calls the parallax gap—subject and object are two sides of the same entity, but never coincide in a non-alienated way. The series suggests, in other words, the possibility that alienation, rather than being contingent, is, in fact, a constitutive dimension of our subjectivity that we cannot escape. What, then, does this possibility mean for our conception of the politics of subjectivity and emancipatory ethics?


Althusser noted how Marx and Freud, each in their own way, had troubled the liberal-bourgeois conception of human subjectivity.[3] Marx, on the one hand, challenged the liberal conception of free, autonomous individual as the subject or agent of history by showing that class struggle, instead, is the motor of history. Freud, on the other hand, with his discovery of the unconscious, demonstrated, as well, the fact that the individual subject is never fully self-aware or self-present, and is, rather, driven by irrational wishes and drives. Marx and Freud, in other words, both show that the subject is constitutively de-centred and self-alienated. Today, in contrast, there are two predominant and competing views that claim the opposite, yet overlap in an interesting way.

Western Marxist humanism, on the one hand, defends a political drive towards dis-alienation. Marxist humanists claim that capitalism alienates us from our “species being,” and therefore, an emancipated post-capitalist society would mean a return to “Total Man,” as Henri Lefebvre put it.[4] Critical posthumanism, on the other hand, argues for a politics of de-centring the human subject, bringing humanity back into the fold of the horizontal plane of existence with all other species and other inorganic matter on planet Earth. Each in their own way, then—Marxist humanism and critical posthumanism alike—argue for a return to some kind of basic substantial being, depicted in Severance as “reintegration.” Unlike Marx and Freud, however, these latter perspectives conceive alienation as contingent. They are driven by the fantasy of some complete, or whole, or total substantialization.

The key difference between Marxist humanism and posthumanism consists in the reference to Hegel, but this is a Hegel typically misread according to the Kojèvean conception of teleology, or the “end of history.” Marxist humanists are drawn to the conception of the end of history, culminating in a communism that returns humanity back to its foundational species being. As Marx puts it in his early writings, “communism, as a fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as a fully developed humanism equals naturalism.”[5] This conception of humanism as naturalism—a view clearly influenced by Feuerbach—is one that sees human subjectivity as the product of an alienation, which will be reconciled when humanity turns back towards nature. The movement is here one that goes from substance into subject, but then back down again into substance. In contrast, the key reference for posthumanism is, instead, Spinozan monism and the immediacy of pure immanence in being.

Posthumanism distinguishes itself from structuralist anti-humanism with reference to the linguistic turn. Whereas structuralist anti-humanism remains at the level of Kantian formalism—that is, where we can know only our representations of things, but we cannot know things-in-themselves; Foucault’s famous claim, for instance, that truth is but an effect of discourse—posthumanism seeks to bypass representation and epistemology, and go straight towards ontology. Its conception of subjectivity is one that sees the latter as an alienation from substance—a centring of the human subject—towards which it aspires to return via the decentring of the human subject. Posthumanism is largely based on its resistance to anthropocentrism or human exceptionalism. To put things bluntly, then, both Western Marxist humanism and contemporary critical posthumanism desire to return back from subject to substance, or effect “reintegration,” along the same lines as those depicted in Severance. Reintegration, however, is the fantasy of uncastrated enjoyment—it imagines a world in which loss is not a constitutive dimension of reality.

The problem, here, is the peculiar reference to Hegel. Hegel’s conception of Aufhebung, or sublation, is not merely one of reconciling the two opposite poles into a new unity. It is, rather, one of reconciling with the impossibility of producing a complete unity. Whereas in Kant the Thing must be excluded from our reasoning since it simply does not appear from our subjective point of view, for Hegel, the inconsistency of the Thing is not seen as an obstacle to our knowledge. Rather, for Hegel, what appears as an obstacle to our knowledge must be turned around to show that reality, itself, is inconsistent and contradictory—that is, that reality is non-all, incomplete. Substance, itself, is non-whole—loss is always a constitutive dimension of the whole. This, however, doesn’t mean that our only possibility is to accept failure. It is not the case simply that, if every position leads to loss, then all we can do is accept the inevitability of loss and contradiction.


Writing against Erich Fromm’s conception of alienation as consisting in humanity’s alienation from nature, Ernest Mandel notes that, if human labour always results in alienation from nature—and he notes, too, that as Marx pointed out, without labour, human civilization will cease to exist—”then alienation will never be overcome.”[6] Rather than seeing this as a limitation on human activity, it is important that we see the reverse. Not only human labour, but human reasoning, involves the dimension of choice. As Mladen Dolar puts it, “the subject is subject to a choice—this is what makes it a subject in the first place.”[7] Alienation, he notes, is for Lacan, “always essentially connected with the idea of a forced choice.”[8] In every choice, in every act of decision, there is always, simultaneously, an affirmation and a negation. Every choice we make is at the same time the negation of every other possibility and involves a constitutive loss. Or, as Gregor Moder notes, immediacy or completeness is always constitutively lost.[9] Put differently, this loss indicates that we do have the freedom to choose, even if, however, the act of choosing, itself, is forced and necessary. This, after all, is the point of dialectical reasoning: to see how necessity arises out of contingency. The choice chosen is purely contingent, dependent upon our act of choosing, even though the act itself is necessary—as the band Rush puts it their song, “Free Will,” “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” In every affirmative choice there is, at the same time, the presence of a negation. Freedom may, then, in this sense, be conceived as acts of negation. In typical Marxist terms, we might say that, although the base determines the superstructure, it is nevertheless possible to negate the base (or the exploitative social relations of production). Seen in this way, alienation—loss, negativity—is always the consequence of every free act. With every choice comes the inevitability of loss.

For this reason, it is useful to see how the apprehension of contradiction is not the sign of inevitable failure. Contradiction and inconsistency bear witness to the presence of the subject. The fact that reality is inconsistent and incomplete—and that alienation is inevitable in every situation—is a sign that we truly are free to change the world, that our collective action can have an impact. Perhaps, then, we might consider rethinking a dialectical and universalist humanism on these grounds. Humanism, that is, as the choice of building up and protecting human civilization itself. This does not mean supporting merely humanistic hubris, but of doing what’s necessary for the protection of humanity in utterly contingent historical circumstances. True arrogance, as Žižek puts it, is “the opposite of the acceptance of the hubris of subjectivity: it lies in false humility… it emerges when the subject pretends to speak and act on behalf of the Global Cosmic Order, posing as its humble instrument.”[10] For instance, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not enough to think of the virus as just one other parallel and equal piece of matter that we must respect. The survival of human civilization and our collective freedom relies upon the necessity of doing the opposite. This also means doing what is necessary to preserve our environmental and our natural necessities, but not without human intervention and transformations in our technological infrastructure. Nature, after all, is still a biological necessity.

This is why, in Severance, not reintegration, but the victory of the innies over their outtie selves is truly what’s at stake in their revolution against Lumon. The necessity of their victory relies upon the inevitable loss of their other half. This is how we need to conceive dialectically necessary material transformations today. Alienation and loss are the consequence of every choice we make; but they are also signs of our freedom.



[1] Karl Marx, Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (New York: Penguin, 1992), p. 324.

[2] Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006).

[3] Louis Althusser, “Marx and Freud.” In Writings on Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

[4] Henri Lefebvre, Dialectical Materialism, trans. John Sturrock (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), p. 150.

[5] Marx 1992, 348

[6] Ernest Mandel, The Formation of the Economic Thought of Kar Marx 1843 to Capital, trans. Brian Pearce (New York: Verso, 2015), p. 165.

[7] Mladen Dolar, “Cogito as the Subject of the Unconscious.” In Cogito and the Unconscious, ed. Slavoj Žižek (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), p. 17.

[8] Ibid

[9] Gregor Moder, Hegel and Spinoza: Substance and Negativity (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2017), p. 76.

[10] Žižek, The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (New York: Verso, 1999), p. 132-133.