If you could take work-life balance to its most literal extreme, what would it look like? That’s the central theme of Severance, the sci-fi series that has just finished airing on Apple TV.
Employees working for the fictional corporation Lumon are able to undergo a procedure where their consciousness and memories are divided between work and home. Employees who have been “severed” do not remember anything about their life at work when they clock out, or anything about their home life during working hours.
Severance quickly becomes unsettling when it is implied that in isolating the memories of someone’s work life, a new person is created – a slave who lives only to work. These “new” employees (people’s work-selves) are told they can leave the office whenever they like, but inevitably find themselves sent back to work by their home life counterparts who don’t want to lose their jobs and do not have to endure the horror of living only in the office.
It’s safe to say most of us wouldn’t undergo such a procedure – after all, work is also a place where we make friends who can even help us in our home lives. But the concept presented in Severance raises deep philosophical questions about the relationship between our memories and ourselves.
The show trades on the idea that personhood can be reduced to one’s conscious experiences. The idea being that “I” am the sum total of my remembered experiences, thoughts, desires and emotions, and that my life is the narrative these memories come together to form. As one Lumon employee puts it, “History makes us someone”. There is a rich tradition of philosophical thinking about memory that shares this way of understanding personal identity, most often associated with the 17th-century thinker John Locke.
Questions about personhood – what makes you you and not somebody else – were very important at Locke’s time of writing. For many 17th-century thinkers (for whom Christianity was part of the fabric of society, and atheism was virtually inconceivable), it was a given that after our mortal lives, we would go on to live some kind of afterlife. But who exactly will live that life?
Locke’s answer is that for everyone, “consciousness always accompanies thinking, and ‘tis that, that makes every one to be, what he calls self”. In other words, I am what I am conscious of. He adds that “as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person”.
Locke teaches us that whatever I remember doing –- and only what I remember doing – was done by me. Thus, so long as I continue to have conscious experiences in the afterlife (and remember my past ones), I continue to exist.
The case of literal work-life severance is interesting precisely because the process creates a new person – one who comes into existence (starts being conscious) only when the severing procedure is over. Since that new person only remembers being conscious at work, that person only exists at work. This also seems to be how people within Severance are thinking about things. By cutting myself from my work life, I can avoid having the stresses of work “leak” into the rest of my life, and be a different person when I clock out.