Movies and shows are released these days with such speed and ferocity that if you don’t get to watch them within a few months of their release, talking about them feels obsolete.
It’s been nearly two years since ‘Severance’ came out on Apple TV, but it’s been less than 48 hours since I started and binge-finished watching the 9 episodes of the first and only season so far.
I couldn’t stop wondering: how much ancient and modern philosophy did the writers absorb to come up with a story like that? The answer, of course, is little. My wonder was misframed. Instead, I should ask, how many Platonic, Neoplatonic, Gnostic and Cartesian undercurrents flow, unknowingly, in our culture?
Severance revolves around a mysterious company in a dystopian present that offers its employees a unique mindwipe procedure that separates their work and personal memories. This allows employees to fully commit to their jobs during office hours without any emotional baggage from their personal lives. While in the office, the ‘severed’ employees have no recollection of their lives outside working hours, and conversely, while away from work, they have no awareness of who they are, or what they do at work. The two selves are separated from each other, leading to each self’s understanding of itself as one of two entities. The two selves, though sharing the same body, cannot communicate with each other, except when the outside-of-work self, called an ‘outie’, chooses to record a video message to the one in the office, the ‘innie’, via corporate mediation. As much as an innie may wish to resign and return to the ‘outside’ world, the outie, as it turns out in the case of one employee, refuses to allow it.
The innies have no understanding of the work they do, only that they need to get it done, reach the quarterly quotas, and show unflinching allegiance to the company, which resembles, in almost everything, an Orwellian state, complete with a leader’s cult, newspeak, strict laws and regulations and precise structures of punishments and rewards.
It is an original sci-fi story of multiple yet disconnected identities, one that forces questions about the nature of the mind, the construction and workings of selfhood, and the ethical implications that arise from one self claiming control over another.
But most importantly, it’s one of the oldest stories in the Western handbook as well as one of the newest. At once Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the two-world mythology of Gnosticism and Descartes’s worst nightmare. First, Plato’s Cave.
The Myth of the Cave is one of the most powerful and well-known metaphors in Western philosophy. It depicts prisoners confined in a dark cave, fixated on the shadows cast on its wall, unable to perceive the true reality outside. When one prisoner escapes and witnesses the vivid world beyond, he returns to enlighten his peers. The upward journey from the cave to the sun symbolizes the transformative path from ignorance to enlightenment. As the freed prisoner ascends towards the outside world, he undergoes a profound transition, leaving behind the realm of mere appearances and shadows.
The innies work on the ‘severed floor’, an underground level, out of contact with the outside world and segregated into small ‘departments’ of under 10 people each. Every morning, the outies drive to work and step into the lift that takes them downstairs to the cave of their ignorance. They have no understanding of where they come from and what they are like on the outside, although they retain a fair amount of personality, intelligence and humanity, which makes them look and act like normal human beings.
Two disrupting events cause the employees to call into question the world they live in. One is when the innies’ accidentally gain access to a self-help book called ‘The You You are’ which is brought into the office by one of the ‘unsevered’ security staff. The other is when an innie discovers that the company has the ability to ‘awaken’ them even when the outies are in control of the body after hours. When he experiences the emergency procedure, the innie gets an inkling of his outie. In this case, awakening knowledge comes from within, from a transformative experience, a kind of anamnesis — Plato’s ‘doctrine of recollection’, which proposes that all learning is, in fact, recollection of knowledge that the soul possessed before it entered the physical world.
On the other hand, the self-help book represents outside knowledge offered to the trapped self. And this is where Gnosticism comes in.
Gnosticism is a diverse and complex set of religious and philosophical beliefs that emerged in the early centuries AD. It’s characterized by its emphasis on secret or hidden knowledge, gnosis, as the key to salvation in the context of a two-world mythology. Dualism is a fundamental aspect of Gnostic cosmology.
Gnostic mythologies understand reality as a dualistic and complex system, sharply divided between the spiritual and the material worlds. In this worldview, the spiritual realm is a place of pure divine knowledge, a realm of unchanging truth and light. On the other hand, the material world, often attributed to the imperfect craftsmanship of a lesser god or Demiurge, is viewed as a realm of ignorance, suffering, and imperfection.
Gnosticism posits that human souls have become ensnared in the material world, leading to a state of forgetfulness and alienation from their true divine nature. Salvation, according to Gnostic belief, is achieved through the acquisition of secret knowledge which allows individuals to transcend the constraints of the material world and return to their spiritual home.
The Gnostic echoes in Severance are too loud to be ignored. When an innie threatens to harm herself if the company doesn’t accept her resignation and frees her from her state, her outie refuses to end the contract and informs her, through a video message, that the innie is not a person, and that she, the outie, is in command. The state of the innies is not unlike those inhabiting the world of the Gnostic Demiurge who causes and sustains their enslavement and suffering.
The employees, once they become aware, through the knowledge afforded by the book or through experience, of their entrapment and the evil at the centre of their world, plan for their own liberation. Like the individuals empowered by gnosis in the Gnostic worldview, they reject the illusory world of the company in search of freedom and, as the show calls it, ‘integration’, the merging of the two selves into unified personhood, with her own sense of self, personal narrative and agency.
The philosophical project of dualistic integration begun by Plato, Gnosticism and the Neoplatonist ideas of late antiquity and the Middle Ages came to an end in the 17th century in the age of Cartesian dualism. According to Descartes, the human being is composed of two distinct and separate substances: the mind (or soul) and the body. Cartesian dualism asserts that these two substances exist independently, with their own unique attributes and characteristics. The first severance in the history of western thought was completed.
In one of his thought experiments, Descartes imagined the possibility that there could be an all-powerful and evil demon or deceiver whose sole purpose is to manipulate and deceive him. This evil demon could be systematically deceiving Descartes into believing things that are false and causing him to doubt everything he thinks he knows. This is the basis of things like the Matrix, the Truman Show or some influential people’s view today that the world might be just a simulation in which we play with the illusion of agency.
Descartes’s experimental nightmare is augmented by the proposal of Severance, where the mind is not just separated from the body in ways which precludes it from having any certainty in the existence of reality (whatever that means), but it is also separated from itself, turned against itself, disconnected from the reality of its own existence. The innies have no means of verifying the reality of the outies, and no control over their own lives. Conversely, the outies can be complacent about the reality of the innies as long as their outside, halved existence is left untroubled.
The link between Severance and the ancient wisdom traditions is unsevered, however little the writers of the series may have dabbled in Platonic, Gnostic or Cartesian writings. But as we know since the Matrix (think of Neo as the greatest pop-art wink to Neoplatonism), philosophy is far from dead, especially on the set.