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Everything Everywhere All at Once

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There's a problem I've talked about before on this blog, of trying to review something really good and not knowing what to say about it beyond "it's really good, guys". When a work is bad, or even just flawed, you have an access point. When something works on all levels, though, it can be hard to tease out the threads that makes that success happen, to find the specific selling point that might
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25 days ago
A well stated review, and it doesn’t even get into how the Daniels managed to make one of the most emotional scenes in the movie using nothing but a lingering shot of motionless rocks. Rocks!
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Anti-fandom as identity

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This essay takes as its starting point the people on the Internet — there are apparently a huge number — who are currently obsessed with the idea that Amber Heard is a manipulative liar, who is making Johnny Depp look bad to the public, which is why he was “forced” to sue her for defamation after she published a WAPO op-ed back in 2018 about how her marriage to him had been abusive in various ways (the more general topic of the op-ed was #MeToo).

But that’s just the jumping off point for a discussion of what could be called anti-fandom:

Some of the most active commenters aren’t so much determined fans of Johnny Depp as anti-fans of Amber Heard.

Hilde Van den Bulck, a professor of communication at Drexel University, has studied the version of fandom that inverts its practices and creates a community of denigration. Where fandom tends to derive from a positive emotion (I love this actor; I love that character), anti-fandom draws from just the opposite, and nurtures negative feelings toward a famous person or character. Fans and anti-fans both express themselves through online sleuthing: They hang on the object of their fascination’s every word, and analyze every detail of that person’s wardrobe and hairstyling and self-presentation. “Anti-fans know as much about their object of anti-fandom as fans do about their object of fandom,” Van den Bulck said. Their relationship with the celebrity they despise is “often very deep, very emotional.”

Some anti-fans are disillusioned former fans (I used to love celebrity X, but now … ). Others’ hatred may be unprovoked (I just can’t stand celebrity X, and resent their place in public life). In many situations, as Van den Bulck explains it, anti-fans and fans are overlapping groups: The anti-fan of celebrity X hates celebrity X because celebrity X harmed celebrity Y, of whom the anti-fan is a fan.

I’ve come across this latter group before. In 2020, I reported on fandom communities that were fixated on theories that the male objects of their fandom were being manipulated and tortured by less-famous, female romantic partners. A faction of Benedict Cumberbatch fans believed that his wife, Sophie Hunter, was part of an international crime ring and had faked all of her pregnancies. (This is not true.) A faction of One Direction fans believed that the band member Louis Tomlinson was gay and forcibly closeted by the entertainment industry, and that his ex-girlfriend and the mother of his child, Briana Jungwirth, was central to the conspiracy. (This is not true.) The anti-fans I wrote about tried to prove their claims by examining hundreds of photographs and video clips—just as the Depp fans and Heard anti-fans are doing now. They also hunted for evidence that their beloved celebrities were winking at them, offering tiny, secret rewards for seeing the truth. One Direction fans claimed that Tomlinson was posting things on certain dates or at certain times so that the digits would make a coded message, just for them. Similarly, Depp fans look for signs that he is grateful for their support, and that he is trying to entertain them from inside the courtroom.

These fans, who are also anti-fans, subject the women they hate to body-shaming and wild criminal accusations, and skewer them using sexist tropes. The targets of their anti-fandom are manipulative and ambitious, as a rule, but also stupid. They are glamorous and seductive, but also secretly disgusting. When I interviewed a Cumberbatch fan who was a firm believer in the conspiracy theories about his wife, she identified herself as a feminist. It was Hunter, she said, who was “setting women’s rights back [and] making everybody look bad.” Many Depp supporters now make the same argument. They insist that they are not a reactionary movement trying to undo the work of the #MeToo movement, and that questioning Heard’s claims does not make them misogynistic. If anything, she is the one who is making a joke out of #MeToo, and making things harder for “real” victims of abuse. Lady Victoria Hervey, a small-time British model and socialite with some 300,000 Instagram followers [jfc], has written that Heard “sounds like she would be more at home in a psych ward,” and referred in a recent Instagram story to “girls like these that constantly make things up.” “So many are sick of these fake me too movement victims who are ruining it for real victims of domestic abuse,” she wrote to me in an email, declining to speak further. (Hervey has also espoused “New World Order” conspiracy theories and described the pandemic as a “eugenics program.”)

There’s a lot going on here.

*The idea of inverted fandom seems to have a lot of saliency to contemporary politics. Many people have noted that the current version of the Republican party seems to have practically no positive ideological identity at all: it doesn’t stand for anything so much as it stands for being against whatever liberals/progressives/the “woke” etc. are for.

*Part of Donald Trump’s peculiar hold over American politics is, I think, a product of his ability to generate not only fanatical support but also fanatical hatred — well-deserved in his case. Nobody is neutral or indifferent about Trump, except people who are completely disconnected from politics altogether.

*There’s a kind of leftist or pseudo-leftist who isn’t a fan of any particular country or social system, or at least not of any that actually exist, but rather organizes his (this is almost always a man interestingly) identity around hating everything about the current social order. A lot of Bernie Bros were obviously anti-fans in this sense. Glenn Greenwald — who of course has never been a leftist but still sort of plays one on TV — is a classic version of this sort of anti-fan. The entire dirtbag left, see for example Chapo Traphouse, consists of overgrown boy-men with major Mommy issues who just want to bitch about how everything sucks.

*And then there’s the whole celebrity obsession/cyber conspiracy side of this issue, which is also intimately connected to larger political goings-on. (The people who scour the Internet for conclusive evidence that Amber Heard ingested a “bump” of cocaine on the witness stand are clearly the same kind of people who end up believing in QAnon, The Big Lie, and so forth).

*Then there’s the misogyny running through all this, as so many of the stories of anti-fans, at least in the celebrity cyberworld, seem to be about the obsessive hatred of women connected in some way to famous men.

As I said, there’s a lot to think about here, so I hope you do it for me.

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39 days ago
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PyCon US 2022 Recordings Update

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We understand that the PyCon US recordings are an incredibly important resource to the community. We were looking forward to providing the PyCon US 2022 recordings very soon after the event – especially since we know many of you weren’t able to attend this year’s conference in person. Regrettably, we have encountered some technical obstacles this year. We are working with our AV partners at the venue to resolve things as soon as possible.

Because of the ongoing pandemic, we were unable to work with our usual vendor for PyCon US conferences. They are based in Canada and understandably didn’t want to commit to travel to the US this year. This resulted in PyCon US contracting with a new AV vendor for the first time in many years. We were very thorough in providing details, but ultimately this was a new team doing work to new specifications.

The onsite AV team has provided an update on the technical issues as follows: “Some of the sessions are missing audio or graphics and are being worked through. There is a backup drive of all the content that has been mailed to the editing team to hopefully resolve those that are missing graphics and/or audio.” We remain hopeful that everyone’s sessions will eventually be posted with all audio and graphics intact, but it is going to take more time than we would like.

We hope the community understands the challenges in planning this year’s event and we greatly appreciate your support and patience as we work through this issue. Planning a safe, comfortable in-person event after two years of virtual added many additional pieces that took the PSF’s small staff time and effort to implement. We will continue to provide updates on the status of the recordings and will release an announcement once they are uploaded to the PyCon US YouTube Channel and available for viewing.
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42 days ago
I was wondering about this. Going to hold tight a bit longer it seems.
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The impotence of the long-distance trillionaire

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(In other news, I finally send off the novel manuscript I've been working on for the past 18 months. Taking a couple of days off before getting back to work on a novella I started in 2014 ...)

(Disclaimer: money is a proxy for control or power. I'm focussing on money rather than political leverage only because it's quantifiable.)

To you and me, a billion dollars sounds like a lot of money. It's on the order of what I (at peak earning capacity) would earn in 10,000 years. Give me just $10M and I could comfortably retire and live off interest and some judicious siphoning of capital for the rest of my life.

So are there any valid reasons to put up with billionaires?

There's a very fertile field of what I can only describe as capitalist apologetics, wherein economists and others try to justify the existence of billionaires in terms of social utility. Crude arguments that "greed is good" are all very well, but it begs the question of what positive good billionaires contribute to the commonweal—beyond a certain point the diminishing marginal utility of money means that every extra million or billion dollars changes nothing significant in the recipient's life.

For example, Steve Jobs had pancreatic cancer, as a result of which his liver was failing (after he underwent a pancreaticoduodenectomy ). As a very rich man, he could afford the best healthcare. As a billionaire, he could do more than that: he reputedly kept a business jet on 24x7 standby to whisk him to any hospital in the United States where a histocompatible liver for transplant surgery became available. (Livers are notoriously short-lived outside the donor body. Most liver transplant recipients are only able to register in one state within the USA; Jobs was registered in two or three.) But at that point, it did not matter how many billions he had: once you've got the jet and are registered with every major transplant centre within flight range, no extra amount of money is going to improve your chances of survival. In other words, in personal terms the marginal utility of money diminishes all the way to zero.

So, personal wealth has an upper bound beyond which the numbers are meaningless. Which leads to the second common argument for tolerating billionaires: that they have the resources to undertake tasks that governments decline to address. For example, there's the Gates Foundation's much-touted goal of eliminating childhood diseases of poverty in South-East Asia (which I haven't heard much about since COVID19 hit—or, for that matter, since the allegations of a Gates-Epstein surfaced in the press). Or Elon Musk's avowed goal of colonizing Mars.

Contra which, I would argue that in planetary terms a billion dollars is peanuts.

Gross planetary GDP (GWP—gross world product) is on the order of $85Tn— that is, $100,000 billion—a year. It's hard to pin it down because it's distributed among multiple currencies with varying PPP, so it could be anywhere from $70Tn to $100Tn.

Anyway. Those insanely rich guys, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos? Each of them is worth less than the growth of GWP during 2019. The richest billionaires are barely visible when you look at wealth on the scale of GWP. Collectively, along with Gates, the Waltons, Putin, et al, they represent only about 1% of GWP.

They can fund lobbying groups and politicians, rant about colonizing Mars, and buy midlife crisis toys like Twitter or weekend getaways on a space station, but their scope for effecting real change is actually tiny on a global scale. Even Putin and Xi, who are at the state-level actor end of the scale (individually they're multi-billionaires: but they also control nuclear weapons, armies, and populations in 8-9 digits) have little global leverage. Putin's catastrophic adventure in Ukraine has revealed how threadbare the emperor's suit is: all the current gassing in the Russian media about using nuclear weapons if he doesn't get his way actually does is to demonstrate the uselessness of those nuclear weapons for achieving political/diplomatic objectives.

So I conclude that they probably feel about as helpless in the face of revolutions, climate change, and economic upheaval as you and I.

Which in turn suggests something about the psychopathology of billionaires. They're accustomed to having their every whim granted, merely for the asking, as long as it exists within the enormous buffet of necessities and luxuries that are available in our global economic sphere. But they're all going to grow old and die. They can't really avoid the threat of creeping disablement within their own body, although they can buy the most careful attendants and luxurious bedpans and wheelchairs. They can't insulate themselves from objective reality, although they can pretend it doesn't exist and buy their very own luxury apocalypse bunker in New Zealand.

So they're likely to succumb to brutal cognitive dissonance at some point.

Elon Musk turns 50 this year. He's probably finally realized that he is not going to have a luxurious retirement on Mars. If the Mars colony isn't established within 20 years, he'll probably be too old to make the trip there (and I'm betting 20 years isn't long enough for what he'd want).

Vladimir Putin turns 70 this year. He's been treated for thyroid cancer, and may well be quite ill. Only one former Russian or Soviet leader lived past 80 in the past 400 years, and that's Mikhail Gorbachev (who was out of office, and insulated from its premature ageing effects, after only 5 or 6 years). My read on the situation is that Putin hadn't been impacted by external reality for decades before his Ukraine "peacekeeping operation"; his 70th birthday present to himself, intended to secure his legacy by re-establishing the Russian empire, has turned into a nightmare.

Jeff Bezos is 58; keep an eye on him in January 2024, that's when he's due to turn 60. (He seems to be saner than Musk and Putin, but his classic midlife crisis year falls around the start of a presidential election campaign in the US and he might succumb to the impulse to make a grand gesture, like Mike Bloomberg's abortive run on the presidence.)

More to the point?

Granting individuals enormous leverage can sometimes be socially useful. But before you point at Musk and Tesla or SpaceX, I need to remind you that he didn't found Tesla, he merely bought into it then took over: SpaceX's focus on reusability is good, but we had reusable space launchers before—the only really new angle is that it's a cost-reduction measure. Starlink isn't an original, it's merely a modern, bigger, faster version of 1990's Teledesic (which fell victim to over-ambitious technology goals and the dot-com bust). Meanwhile, billionaires can do immense damage: the Koch network has largely bankrolled climate change denial, Musk's Mars colony plan is fatally flawed, and so on. We inevitably run into the question of accountability. And when one person holds the purse-strings, we lose that.

I can't see any good reason to let any individual claim ownership over more than a billion dollars of assets—even $100M is pushing it.

Can you?

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44 days ago
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50 days ago
"I can't see any good reason to let any individual claim ownership over more than a billion dollars of assets—even $100M is pushing it.”

Yes: Number goes up!

That really seems to be a main driver for a lot of people, even below the $100 Million mark.
iPhone: 49.287476,-123.142136

Announcement: I’m Going to Miss You, But I Am Taking a Sabbatical

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Hello, everyone. I’m going to be taking an extended break from kottke.org, starting today. I’ve been writing here for more than 24 years, nearly half my life — I need a breather. This is something I have been thinking about and planning for years1 and I’d like to share why I’m doing it, how it’s going to work, what I hope to accomplish, and how you can help.

This is a long post and was a hard one to write — I hope you’ll give it your thoughtful attention. But first, let me introduce you to my plant.

(This is going somewhere. Trust me.)

Eight years ago when I still lived in NYC, I bought a fiddle leaf fig tree from a store in the Flower District. Here it is a couple of years ago, thriving next to my desk here in Vermont:

overhead view of my home office with a fiddle leaf fig tree

I’d recently moved into my own apartment after separating from my wife and figured a large plant in my new place would add some liveliness to a new beginning that was feeling overwhelming, lonely, and sad. For the first couple of months, I didn’t know if my tree and I were going to make it. I’d never really had a plant before and struggled getting a handle on the watering schedule and other plant care routines. It started losing leaves. Like, an alarming number of leaves.

I’d brought this glorious living thing into my house only to kill it! Not cool. With the stress of the separation, my new living situation, and not seeing my kids every day, I felt a little like I was dying too.

One day, I decided I was not going to let my fiddle leaf fig tree die…and if I could do that, I wasn’t going to fall apart either. It’s a little corny, but my mantra became “if my tree is ok, I am ok”. I learned how to water & feed it and figured out the best place to put it for the right amount of light. It stopped shedding leaves.

The fig tree was a happy plant for several years after that. And I was ok because my plant was ok — I found new routines and rhythms in my altered life, made new traditions with my kids, got divorced, met new people, moved to a new state (w/ my family and tree), rediscovered who I was as a person, and, wonderfully and unexpectedly, forged a supportive and rewarding parenting partnership and friendship with my ex. We made it through that tough time together, that plant and me.

Recently however, my fiddle leaf fig has been struggling again. It’s been losing leaves and has become lopsided — some branches are going gangbusters while others are almost bare and the plant is listing so badly to one side that the whole thing tips over without the weight of water in the pot. This is what it’s looking like these days:

a majestic fiddle leaf fig tree leans precariously to one side in a bedroom

My plant is not ok. And neither am I — I feel as off-balance as my tree looks. I’m burrrrned out. I have been for a few years now. I’ve been trying to power through it, but if you’ve read anything about burnout, you know that approach doesn’t work.

I appreciate so much what I’ve built here at kottke.org — I get to read and learn about all sorts of new things every day, create new ideas and connections for people, and think in public — and I feel incredibly lucky to be able to set my own schedule, be my own boss, and provide for my family. But if you were to go back into the archive for the past several months and read the site closely, you’d see that I’ve been struggling.

Does what I do here make a difference in other people’s lives? In my life? Is this still scratching the creative itch that it used to? And if not, what needs to change? Where does kottke.org end and Jason begin? Who am I without my work? Is the validation I get from the site healthy? Is having to be active on social media healthy? Is having to read the horrible news every day healthy? What else could I be doing here? What could I be doing somewhere else? What good is a blog without a thriving community of other blogs? I’ve tried thinking about these and many other questions while continuing my work here, but I haven’t made much progress; I need time away to gain perspective.

· · ·

So. The plan, as it currently stands, is to take 5-6 months away from the site. I will not be posting anything new here. I won’t be publishing the newsletter. There won’t be a guest editor either — if someone else was publishing here, it would still be on my mind and I’m looking for total awayness here. I’m planning on setting up a system to republish some timeless posts from the archive while I’m away, but that’s not fully in place yet. If you send me email (please do!), it might take me awhile to read it and even longer to reply — I plan to ignore my inbox as much as I can get away with. I probably won’t be on Twitter but will be more active on Instagram if you want to follow me there.

The goal of my time away from the site is resting, resetting, recharging, and figuring out what to do going forward. In this NY Times feature, Alexandra Bell said this about how art is made: “I need some space to think and live and have generative conversations and do things, and then I’ll make something, but I can’t tell you what it is just yet.” That’s the sort of energy I need to tap into for a few months.

Here’s the way I’ve been thinking about it: there’s a passenger ferry that goes from Cape Cod to Nantucket and there’s a stretch of time in the middle of the journey where you can’t see the mainland behind you and can’t yet see the island ahead — you’re just out in the open water. That’s what I need, to be in that middle part — to forget about what I’ve been doing here for so many years without having to think about where I’m going in the future. I need open water and 5-6 months feels like the right amount of time to find it.

· · ·

This is probably a good time to admit that I’m a little terrified about taking this time off. There’s no real roadmap for this, no blueprint for independent creators taking sabbaticals to recharge. The US doesn’t have the social safety net necessary to enable extended breaks from work (or much of anything else, including health care) for people with Weird Internet Careers. I support a lot of individual writers, artists, YouTubers, and bloggers through Substack, Patreon, and other channels, and over the years I’ve seen some of them produce content at a furious pace to keep up their momentum, only to burn out and quit doing the projects that I, and loads of other people, loved. With so many more people pursuing independent work funded directly by readers & viewers these days, this is something all of us, creators and supporters alike, are going to have to think about.

I’ve said this many times over the past 5 years: kottke.org would not be possible today without the incredible membership support I have gotten from the people who read this site. Members have enabled this site to be free for everyone to read, enriching the open web and bucking the trend towards paywalling information online. I hope you will continue to support me in taking this necessary time off.

If, for whatever reason, you would like to pause/suspend your membership until I return, email me and I would be happy to do that for you. You’re also free of course to raise or lower your membership support here if you’d like. Regardless of what you choose to do, I hope I will see you back here in the fall.

· · ·

If you’re curious about what’s on my agenda for the next few months, so am I! I’m leaving on a long-planned family trip soon, but other than that, I do not have any set plans. Suggestions and advice are welcome! I’d like to spend some unrushed time with my kids, who too often see me when I’m stressed out about work. I want to read more books. Watch more good movies. Take more photos. Go on pointless adventures. I want to exercise a little more regularly and figure out how to eat a bit better. Maybe travel some, visit friends or the ocean or both. Bike more. Stare at the walls. I hope to get a little bored. I need to tend to my fiddle leaf fig tree — if my tree is ok, I will be too.

I’m going to miss this — and all of you — more than I probably realize right now, but I’m ready for a break. I’ll see you in a few months.

*deep breath*

Here I go!


· · ·

P.S. The best way to keep tabs on when the site starts up again is to subscribe to the newsletter. You can also follow @kottke on Twitter, subscribe to the RSS feed, or follow me on Instagram so you don’t miss anything.

P.P.S. Big big thanks to the many people I’ve talked to about this over the past few months and years, especially Anil, Alaina, David, Adriana, Tim, Caroline, Matt, Joanna, Meg, Aaron, Edith, Kara, Megan, Anna, Jackson, and Michelle. (Forgive me if I’ve forgotten anyone.) I value your wise counsel and your pointing me, hopefully, in the right direction.

P.P.P.S. A quick blogroll if you’re looking for sites and newsletters to keep you busy while I’m gone. In no particular order, a non-exhaustive list: The Kid Should See This, The Morning News, Waxy, Colossal, Curious About Everything, Open Culture, Drawing Links, Clive Thompson @ Medium, Cup of Jo, swissmiss, Storythings, things magazine, Present & Correct, Spoon & Tamago, Dense Discovery, Austin Kleon, NextDraft, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Poetry Is Not a Luxury, A Thing or Two, The Honest Broker, Interconnected, The Whippet, Craig Mod, Why is this interesting?, Sidebar, The Prepared, Life Is So Beautiful, Fave 5, Sentiers, The Fox Is Black, and Scrapbook Chronicles. Happy hunting!

  1. The original plan was to do this in late spring 2020 but….you know.

Tags: Jason Kottke   kottke.org   working
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50 days ago
Jason will be missed but it's always good to refocus, because if he comes back, he'll have a more lasting motivation.
Cambridge, Massachusetts
50 days ago
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45 days ago
I'll miss Jason's perspective and writing, and mostly just want him to live a good life. He's done his part to make my world better, and he owes me nothing. I'll be thrilled if he comes back, and I'll be watching for that day.
Portland, Oregon, USA, Earth
50 days ago
Why did I get weepy reading this? Is it that I want it for myself, or is it that I'll miss someone who enriches the internet so much and has for as long as I've really been on the internet? I put Kottke in Google Reader the first day I used it, and it has never left.
Louisville, Kentucky
50 days ago
Another refugee from GR here too - and hanging on to kottke just about as long. I too will feel the loss...

Parts of People.

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“My life has been 107 hours long,” says Ms. Casey, Wellness Counselor at Lumon Industries, moments after learning she won’t be making it to 108. “Of all that time, my favorite was the eight hours I spent in Macrodata Refinement. You could say those were my Good Old Days.”

Of course, Ms. Casey—or whatever her real name is—occupies an adult body, far older than the 107 hours she remembers. That’s because she’s been “severed”: implanted with a chip that partitions her episodic memories between work hours and other. When she’s outside the Severed Floor at Lumon, she contains a lifetime’s accumulated experience; she remembers anything any normal human could, except for whatever it is she does at work. When at work, she remembers nothing but her time on the floor. Her memories, her consciousness itself, have been—partitioned. Ex uno, duo.

The show, of course, is “Severance”—and if you haven’t seen it yet, holy shit are you in for a ride.

It is difficult to know how to describe this animal. It evokes Brazil and The Prisoner and The Office and Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, channels Kubrick and Lynch and Kafka and even the weird-ass technological anachronism of “Archer”. It taps into all those feeds, mixes them together and transmogrifies them into a curiously low-key, utterly compelling remix that is somehow uniquely its own thing. It’s a very human tragedy about loss. It’s a brilliant satire on corporate bureaucracy. It’s a neurophilosophical rumination on the nature of identity. If I had to describe the show in terms of my own gut reaction, I’d have to say it’s simply awe-inspiring.


Put yourself in this head:

You wake up on a table in a conference room, with no recollection of who you are or how you got there. Your procedural memories are intact: you can speak, tell jokes, you know what cars and movies are even though you can’t remember ever seeing one. Your job is to sit at a desk and sort numbers on a strangely anachronistic computer terminal; you don’t even know what the numbers mean, except that certain combinations evoke an emotional response you don’t quite understand. (One of your office-mates believes that the numbers represent killer eels, that you’re programming robot submarines to get rid of nasty predators and make the deep sea safe for human habitation; another thinks you’re editing swear words out of movie soundtracks.)

Around five o’clock you leave for the day—but the moment the elevator doors close on you they open again and you’re back at work. You have no idea what happened in the interim; you might feel sick or hung-over, full of energy, in physical pain. You never know why. Your entire life is spent on this floor, crunching numbers, chatting with fellow “innies” at the coffee maker, winning tawdry little prizes (finger traps, caricature portraits) if you perform well. Maybe you have a family; you’ll never know. Maybe you meet someone here at Lumon and fall in love; outside, you won’t even recognize each other on the street. You’re allowed to quit, but you aren’t. That decision is left to your “outie”—the baseline version of you with the real-world life, the person who applied for this job and agreed to the implant and authorized your very fucking existence in this interminable purgatory. The “you” in charge. They get to quit, if they want, but there’s no way for you to communicate directly with that ranking entity. As veteran innie Mark S. tells newcomer Helly R.: “Every time you find yourself here, it’s because you chose to come back.”

It’s the perfect work/life balance. How many times have we heard people complain about having to take their work home with them? That’s not an issue when you don’t even know what your work is the moment you’ve left the office. And after all, why would your innie complain? You made this decision, and they are you, albeit with a massive case of amnesia.

That doesn’t make you a different person though, does it? Is it really any different than that experience we’ve all had, of driving to some destination only to realize that we’ve no memory of the turns and lane-changes and traffic-signals we navigated in getting there? That simple lack of memory isn’t enough to turn one person into another, a saint into a monster, is it? Is it?

In the recorded words of one outie, played to her “innie” after the latter threatens to cut off her own fingers if she’s not allowed to quit: “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.”

The same brain on both sides of that conversation. The same personality, talking to itself. The only difference is the size of the filing cabinet.

When you think about it, though—no matter how miserable you are down here, are you really unhappy enough to quit when quitting equals suicide? Your entire life has been spent in this maze of hallways, in this vast empty office space with a few workstations clustered in the center like some Euclidian island on a green carpet sea. You were born here; you don’t know anything else. If you quit, your body never returns to this place. If you quit, you die.


I don’t know if I can fully describe my delight upon discovering this series.

It’s hardly the first show to wrestle with issues of consciousness and identity, to poke and tug at the question What makes a person? I raved about the first season of Westworld, only to come back and take a dump on its disappointing third. I offhandedly praised “Devs” during its run (I liked it more than a lot of you did, apparently), but never got around to writing up an actual review. “Upload” is a great little show, a sunny dissection of consciousness and capitalism whose bright affect and rom-com one-liners serve mainly to sugarcoat some bitter and brilliant social commentary—but after two delightful seasons it still hasn’t inspired me to get off my ass and tell you all about it. Down at the bottom of the barrel, “Raised by Wolves” and “Humans” struggle with their own inanity as much as the Weighty Issues they so desperately want to be taken seriously for. Not to mention the venerable old Blade Runner franchise.

Even the best of these shows left me with something to criticize, some niggling cop-out or inconsistency, some fridge-logic plot hole. After a single episode of “Severance”, though, I wanted to shout from the mountaintops: here it is: the genre done right. I resisted. I waited it out through all nine episodes, waiting for something to come off the rails.

The person to trust least in this picture is the real one.

It never happened. Oh, it may yet: unanswered questions remain at the end of the first season, any one of which—ineptly resolved, or just ignored a la “Lost”—might compromise the experience in hindsight. What data are they processing on those clunky CRTs? What is Kier’s Grand Design, what is Lumon Industries actually for? What’s up with those goats? Still, the questions that have been answered so far give me hope: this isn’t “The X-Files”, throwing random crap at the wall and hoping to fit it all together further down the road. This is craftsmanship. There is care in this narrative. They know where they’re going.

“Severance” is the best examination of neurological identity I have ever seen on mass media. It’s not just the neurophilosophical issues. It’s the set design; it’s the cinematography, and that haunting soundtrack. (There’s a scene set in a funeral home that combines a corpse, a power drill, and an amateur cover of “Enter Sandman” that I will never forget.) It’s the way you come to know and care about these parts-of-people, both inside and outside the office, as they struggle to come to terms with who and what they are. It’s oh my god those amazing opening credits.

It’s the almost-unprecedented[1] way that existential horror blends together with almost Pythonesque absurdity, the eye-popping inanity of office perks handed out for Jobs Well Done. Melon parties (fifteen minutes out of your workday, free to eat little cubes of cantaloupe and honeydew impaled on toothpicks). The Music Dance Experience, in which innies get to choose from a variety of generic genres (“buoyant reggae”, “defiant jazz”) to accompany their allotted five minutes’ dance time on the company clock. It’s the way that newly-promoted managers are informed that “A handshake is available upon request”.

It’s the Waffle Party.

Believe me when I say: whatever goes through your mind when you read the words “waffle party”, it’s not that. Without giving too much away (it is, after all, the lynchpin of a major plot development), let me just say that if Stanley Kubrick wasn’t long dead, I’d have strongly suspected that he’d co-directed the Waffle Party scene with David Lynch.

(Absurdity is by no mean limited to the halls of Lumon, by the way. In the very first episode, Mark’s outer self attends a “dinner party” where no food is served, where people sit around a table festooned with empty place settings and remark upon how people alive during World War One referred to it as “The Great War”, because by the standards of the times, calling it World War One would have been “a major faux pas”.)

The entire show provokes a chronic sense of dissociation in the viewer. It makes you shudder and giggle at the same time, it makes you shuggle.

It also makes you think.

Perhaps that’s what I find so refreshing about this series. So many shows cut from this thematic cloth pretend to interrogate but really only preach (*cough*Humans*cough*). “Severance” doesn’t stoop to that. Oh, it takes a side, certainly. Mark S., appalled at the news that Ms. Casey has been fired, says “We’re people, not—parts of people”—and you’re right there with him. But these are gut feelings, and the show itself raises enough questions and contradictions to make us wonder why, exactly, these aren’t just “parts of people”. This show makes you rethink what “people” even are.

A few years back I was interviewed by Lightspeed as a sidebar to a story of mine they were reprinting[2]; one of their questions was how I would define “successful narrative conflict”. I suggested that successful narrative conflict makes you squirm at a dissonant bottom line you can’t disprove, even though you desperately want to. Something that forces you to question your own dearly held preconceptions.

Of all the shows I’ve seen, “Severance” comes closest to embodying that concept. I thank all the rudimentarily-conscious panpsychic particles in the universe that it has been renewed for a second season.

  • 1 Terry Gilliam’s Brazil comes close, but is way more over-the-top.

  • 2 Apropos of nothing, they’ll be printing a couple of entirely new stories by me in the coming months. Stay tuned.

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