This feeling would come over me, imperceptible at first. It is hard to describe because it is close to nothing. Gradually, the din of other people’s conversations or Todd’s heavy footsteps, his ugly, flat gait on the floorboards would fall away. I would forget where I was or why I was there. I would get lost in the taking of inventory, with the categorizing and gathering, the packing of everything into space-efficient arrangements in the same boxes…It was a trance. It was like burrowing underground, and the deeper I burrowed the warmer it became, and the more the nothing feeling subsumed me, snuffing out any worries and anxieties. It is the feeling I like best about working. (Severance, Ling Ma)
Severance is an apocalyptic novel centered on a rootless 20-something, Candace Chen, who resides in Brooklyn and works for a book publisher in Manhattan. The apocalypse in the book is brought on by “Shen Fever”, a disease that originates in Shenzhen, China and spreads rapidly in the U.S., gradually bringing life across the country, and in New York in particular, to a halt. Despite the calamity around her, Candace pursues her work with an almost irrational diligence. Even as the company furloughs some of its employees, many others succumb to the fever, and its suppliers shutter, Candace arrives to her office at 9 in the morning (and, eventually, as transportation between Brooklyn and Manhattan becomes more unreliable, she takes up residence there, a prospect that seems more appealing to me the longer I spend in my tiny New York bedroom).
Given that the novel was published in 2018, its parallels to our current situation are eerily prescient. I’m not sure if Severance is a great piece of literature (it has an airy, diaphanous quality, and I breezed through it in an afternoon), and I found the post-apocalyptic, Walking Dead-inspired aspects of the book to be its least compelling. But what I find interesting is that the author, Ling Ma, means for Severance to be primarily a meditation on work.
Severance began in 2012 as an apocalyptic short story. I worked on it at my desk in the last months of my office job. The company was downsizing, and many employees were getting laid off. As the story progressed, its moods were both joyful and angry. I began to understand that the anger was rooted in issues of work and that in effect, I was unwittingly writing an apocalyptic office novel. I finished the first draft in 2016…The question I kept trying to figure out was, Why does Candace Chen keep working at her job?
Most people work to earn a paycheck. But many of those same people, particularly those in white-collar fields, might describe their attitude towards work as Candace did in the excerpt at the top of this essay. Work provides structure and focus. It allows us to “burrow underground”, to set aside the vagaries of relationships and the distractions of family in order to devote oneself to a narrow task that one is (presumably) good at. If I cannot get a girl to respond to my texts, or my roommate to take out the trash, then at least I can spend eight hours moving cards into the “completed” Kanban swimlane (sad as it may sound).
Many companies, particularly in technology, profit handsomely by exploiting this compartmentalization. Work can be a welcome bubble from the rest of one’s own life. As the demands of the latter subside, the former has room to expand. Companies provide free food, so that we don’t have to cook for ourselves; laundry, so that we don’t have to clean for ourselves; and nap pods and coffee, so that we don’t have to recharge ourselves. (Undoubtedly they’d provide other services, too, if they were legally allowed to do so.) In exchange, they tacitly expect that we stay longer at the office and produce more than we would have otherwise.
The current crisis has, therefore, made work seem even more pointless than it already was. We no longer have sharp boundaries between work and life. The bubble has been popped. I cannot imagine falling into a “trance”, as Candace did, and I cannot forget where I am — which is exactly where I’ve been for the last two months. The title “Severance” refers, in part, to the rupture between our previous conception of work — the attainment of flow and the feeling of accomplishment —, and our current reality, where work and life take place within the confines of a cramped apartment. I am feeling quite severed these days.
I can’t shake the feeling that my existence (our existence?) is fundamentally absurd. There was a recent company-wide meeting where one of my coworkers gave a presentation on semantic versioning (very exciting stuff, I know). Halfway through, we hear screams through our headphones, muffled at first, but then more distinct. It turns out that his young kid was less than interested in the distinction between minor and patch numbers, and decided to make a ruckus. My coworker became a bit flustered, tried to turn off his microphone to bark at his kid, proceeded to get roasted in the Zoom chat (“that’s why he usually keeps him down in the basement”), and hastily finished his presentation. It was an amusing episode, and welcome comic relief, but in some sense it was also deeply sad.
I also can’t shake the feeling that we are being taken advantage of. We are participating in a great shift of responsibilities and costs, from corporate America onto us. Not merely the perks, like free laundry and nap pods. And not merely the stuff that is quantifiable in monetary terms, the wireless internet and higher electricity bills for us, and the reduced rent and other office costs for them. It is also something more fundamental: space, devoted space. Virginia Woolf famously wrote that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” My simple, yet radical, proposition is that the same should be true for us. Why are we expected to produce at the same levels of productivity when the conditions are radically different, when a severance has occurred?
My roommate was laid off last week. Her employer, a media company that was acquired a few years ago by a large Japanese conglomerate, waited a long time to announce layoffs. They had initially suggested that they might avoid, or at least mitigate, layoffs by shutting down the office and allowing everyone to work from home indefinitely. In the end, though, they did both: they laid off more than half their staff (over a hundred employees), and they terminated the lease with the landlord, saving both on payroll and rents. What was initially pitched as a humanitarian gesture turned out, unsurprisingly, to be a purely capitalist one. I saw a recent story where Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was going to be “the most forward-leaning company on remote work at our scale”. That is certainly a good thing: no company should force its employees to return to the office if they feel unsafe doing so. But he also announced that if those same employees left the Bay Area, their salary would be decreased accordingly (and that “there’ll be severe ramifications for people who are not honest about this”). Every crisis is an opportunity, as the trite saying goes, and, for Facebook as well as many other large corporations, Covid-19 provides the tantalizing opportunity to shift, perhaps permanently, the balance between capital and labor.
I get the sense that many people in my position are simply grateful to have a job. We have seen our close friends and former coworkers get laid off; we understand the dire situation that our country and our economy is in. Should we really be complaining about the lack of free lunches and quiet space, given the alternative? But pay close attention to what the other side is doing. Tech companies should be grateful that their work is (largely) unaffected by a pandemic. Large corporations should be grateful to still be in business, and to have received billions in taxpayer funds, either directly or indirectly, to avoid bankruptcy. And this is how they express their gratitude: by threatening to cut our salaries, by excising rents and utilities and pocketing the savings, by slashing benefits and pleading poverty, and by decimating our workforces and closing our workplaces and expecting work to continue as normal. Thousands of words have been spilled in recent weeks about how we might re-envision society in the aftermath of this crisis: how we might reconsider mass incarceration, or reform the pharmaceutical industry; how dating might change, or healthcare, or patent law, or rents, or ridesharing, or the gig economy at large. All of these proposals have merit, but I would suggest starting with something that everyone is familiar with, and touched by: work. Work is changing rapidly in front of our eyes, and the benefits from those changes are being hoarded by the already wealthy. It should not take a literal apocalypse for us to question, like Candace Chen, why we go to work, and what changes have to be made for us to continue doing so.