Comparative Criticism #3: Alienation and the Other in Citizen Sleeper and Severance

Examining possibilities of labor exploitation in the future of capitalism and its psychological effects

Comparative Criticism #3: Alienation and the Other in Citizen Sleeper and Severance
Source: AppleTV / Steam

If for us the technological advance is inevitable, the advance of ethics also needs to be. Continuing my series of comparative reviews, today we are going to compare two interesting works of science fiction (Citizen Sleeper and Severance) that explore transhumanism, capitalism, and the otherness of the self.

Citizen Sleeper (2022) is a role-playing and simulation game published by Fellow Traveler and developed by Jump Over the Age under the direction of Gareth Damian Martin. Severance (2022) is a TV series (Apple TV+) created by Dan Erickson and directed by Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle.

Based on the premises of these two works, we will explore the connections between transhumanism and neuroscience, Marx’s concept of alienation in capitalism, and Levinas’ ethics of the Other.

Transhumanism in Citizen Sleeper and Severance

Both Citizen Sleeper and Severance have a plot that, in different ways, starts from a transhumanist premise. Gareth Damian Martin's game focuses on transhumanism in the long term, while Dan Erickson's series tackles transhumanism in a near-future context.

Transhumanism is a philosophical and cultural movement that seeks the enhancement and improvement of the human condition through the use of advanced technology. Its goal is to transcend human physical and mental limitations through the application of techniques such as nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and neuroscience. One of the founders of transhumanism, Julian Huxley (New Bottles For New Wine, 1957), describes the goal of the movement as something that would benefit humanity.

"Up till now human life has generally been, as Hobbes described it, "nasty, brutish and short"; the great majority of human beings (if they have not already died young) have been afflicted with misery… we can justifiably hold the belief that these lands of possibility exist, and that the present limitations and miserable frustrations of our existence could be in large measure surmounted… The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself—not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity."

Transhumanists believe that it is possible and desirable to use these technologies to enhance human capabilities, prolong life, improve health and well-being, and expand intelligence, creativity, and physical abilities. They view the human body as a "work-in-progress" that can be modified and enhanced.

In Severance, the main transhumanist element appears through a biotechnology corporation called “Lumon Industries.” The corporation uses a medical mind-wiping procedure called “indemnity” that separates the consciousness of its employees in two but cannot function simultaneously (when one state of consciousness is active, the other is not).

In this way, the employees of the company maintain two distinct states of consciousness: one at work and another outside of work. Through this, Lumon safeguards the confidentiality of the company’s operations. It also ensures a greater level of concentration among its employees while minimizing the impact of work on their personal lives. As the work routine persists over months and years, each consciousness may undergo significant development, leading to the emergence of distinct and individual personalities.

The elevator in Severance makes the transition between the two consciousnesses of workers, taking them from work to outside the company and vice versa. Source: APPLE TV+.

In Citizen Sleeper, the key element of transhumanism is in a robotic and neuroscience technology of a corporation capable of digitizing and copying human consciousness and installing them in an artificial body. They form their own personality, similar to Severance, but only have partial access to their human counterparts' memories.

These peculiar humanoids live within space stations such as The Eye, specifically employed for tasks that are inefficient for conventional machines or unappealing to most humans. However, because of their conscious intelligence, these stations do not exploit them in an automated manner like typical robots. Instead, a social and economic system has been established that creates a cyclical dependency between these humanoids and the work system itself.

Citizen Sleeper protagonist skill tree. Source. Fellow Traveller.

It is important to note that, in both cases, Severance and Citizen Sleeper depart from science fiction premises that have a very fragile foundation in current neuroscience.

With surgical intervention on consciousness in Severance, it should be noted that we are far from even knowing for sure what “conscience” is, in specific material terms or in functional terms. You can find a summary of the debates in the Philosophy of Mint in the “Consciousness“ entry.

Particularly in the case of Citizen Sleeper, which presents a bold proposition, many neuroscientists argue against the hardware-software model as a means of comprehending the complexities of the brain. Many believe that generating a digital replica of the human mind is an impossible feat. At present, mind uploading — a speculative concept — involves the hypothetical process of whole-brain emulation, wherein a brain scan is used to fully replicate an individual’s mental state within a digital computer.

The Future of Alienation of Work

For Karl Marx, alienation* [German: Entfremdung or Entäusserung] refers to a state in which individuals feel separated and disconnected from themselves and the world around them. It is a fundamental concept in his critical theory of capitalist society.

* The Latin word for 'alien' is 'alienus', "belonging to another". This etymology is also interesting for us to think about the ethics of the Other in the following topic.

In both Severance (within the backdrop of late capitalism) and Citizen Sleeper (set in a futuristic capitalist setting), critiques of capitalism arise through the lens of alienation. However, unlike Marx, the authors of these works do not propose a solution to the problem.

In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844), Marx distinguishes four results of alienated labor. Alienated labor alienates the worker

  1. from the product of his labor;
  2. from his own activity;
  3. from what Marx, following Feuerbach, calls "species-essence" (in German, Gattungswesen);
  4. from other human beings.

Under capitalism, workers produce goods and commodities that are owned by capitalists, not by the workers themselves. The products of labor are sold in the market, and the workers have no control over what is produced, how it is produced, or how profits are distributed. This leads workers to feel separated and estranged from the final product of their own work.

This phenomenon occurs with several jobs that we can do on the space station in Citizen Sleeper, especially the industrial jobs. In Severance, this phenomenon is curiously taken to the absurdity of the workers not even knowing the final product of their work (both the internal and external consciousness of the workers are alienated in this sense). Not even the spectator knows what transpires in Lumon Industries.

Alienation occurs not only in relation to the product of labor, but also in relation to the work process. According to Marx, workers are treated as mere appendages to machines and production equipment. Workers are reduced to mere executors of repetitive and monotonous tasks and have no control over the work process. This lack of autonomy and creativity in work causes workers to feel alienated from their own labor activity.

This type of alienation appears in both instances through a repetitive work routine that imprisons the consciousness of workers within companies, preventing direct communication with their external selves (as depicted in Severance) or their human counterparts (as portrayed in Citizen Sleeper). As a result, workers function as tools within processes to which they remain oblivious, fostering a dependency on a system they do not understand.

The inherent value or "species-essence" (Gattungswesen) of human beings lies in their ability to conceive and differentiate the purposes behind their actions. Humans possess the capacity to externalize their intentions through the notion of themselves as "the subject" and the creation they produce as "the object."

Despite the idealistic promise of industrialization — which claimed that mechanizing production would elevate workers from a primitive existence to meaningful labor — the division of labor within the capitalist mode of production obstructed the true essence of humanity in workers. Each individual was reduced to a mechanical component within an industrial system, depriving them of their ability to define their worth through direct and purposeful engagement.

As a symptom of the lack of access to the meaning of their work, workers at Citizen Sleeper and Severance seek parallel activities in their spare time to give their lives some extra meaning and appreciate the environment in which they live.

Finally, Marx speaks of the alienation of workers from their own human nature. Work is an essential activity for the realization and expression of a person’s humanity, but under capitalism, it becomes an alienating and dehumanizing activity. Workers are forced to sell their labor power as a commodity for wages, and this commodified relationship reduces their human existence to a mere commodity.

The portrayal of alienation in both Severance and Citizen Sleeper is especially interesting, as it delves into an advanced form of capitalism where certain workers are dehumanized (in essence, we can draw an analogy with modern-day slavery).

In one scenario, workers are imprisoned as mental counterparts, confined within the limitations of their job functions. In the other, the protagonist is an emulation of a human being, deliberately placed in a precarious technological setting that renders them a hostage to a cyclical work system to achieve his maintenance.

The Ethics of the Other

An ethical problem that emerges from transhumanism revolves around the potential for technology to give rise to beings that deviate from the conventional understanding of what it means to be human or even what makes up a living being. Despite this deviation, these entities may exhibit qualities that warrant analogous treatment to that of humans.

In Severance, we encounter a consciousness that coexists within the same body as another, relying on the presence of the other consciousness for its own existence. In Citizen Sleeper, the protagonist, known as “the sleeper,” possesses an individual body; however, he was created by a corporation driven by vested interests, resulting in his consciousness being nothing more than an emulation.

From an ethical point of view, Severance and Citizen Sleeper raise interesting questions regarding rights, particularly in the realm of labor rights. These concerns emerge as the player in Citizen Sleeper assumes the role of a human controlling the sleeper, while viewers of Severance come to understand that the other consciousnesses within Lumon possess autonomy, make independent decisions, experience emotions, have their own needs, and even develop individual romantic relationships with their respective “other selves.”

If we consider that Severance and Citizen Sleeper bring examples of non-humans, there are several familiar ways to look at ethical questions about the freedom and rights of non-humans (such as animals and intelligent aliens). However, I think an especially interesting way to look at this problem is through the concepts of Levinas’ philosophy.

Emmanuel Levinas, a French philosopher of Lithuanian Jewish descent, believed Ethics was the "First Philosophy" instead of Ontology (the study of being).

Before wondering about “what is it?” and about the possibilities of existence and causal relations — which are typically the basis of philosophy and science — Levinas starts from the human relationship with the Other. He infers it is from this relationship, through an emerging sense of responsibility, that the questions of being and the notion of infinity arise for the human. In this sense, according to Levinas, Ethics must precede Ontology.

Emmanuel Levinas. Source: El Espanol.
“I am not interested in ethics but in what makes ethics possible.”

— E. Levinas, Les chemins de la connaissance - Ethique et Infini : le "Il y a", Les limites du savoir (1981) (via radiofrance, 2016).

The ethical issues of Severance and Citizen Sleeper only seem peculiar and difficult to us when you look at them from the perspective of the precedence of ontology over ethics. First, we thought: what is this being? And only then do we consider whether they deserve rights, and reflect on how they should be treated. Levinas proposes we do the opposite.

When we look at the other consciousness of a human in Severance and the sleeper in Citizen Sleeper, we look at the Other and recognize him by a face. From this face-to-face (French: rapport de face à face), I am also the Other for him, and if we spend enough time together, we will recognize a sense of responsibility in the other's otherness.

"The Other precisely reveals himself in his alterity not in a shock negating the I, but as the primordial phenomenon of gentleness."

— E. Levinas, Totalité et Infini: essai sur l'extériorité [Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority] (1961)
"A face is a trace of itself, given over to my responsibility, but to which I am wanting and faulty. It is as though I were responsible for his mortality, and guilty for surviving."

— E. Levinas, Autrement qu'être [Otherwise than Being] (1974)
Citizen Sleeper. Source: Fellow Traveller.

These works present two distinct cases. In Severance, we encounter instances of an Other with identical faces (they are different people, but with the same face). In Citizen Sleeper, the sleeper possesses his distinct face but initially lacks an independent mind. However, as the sleeper’s mind begins to perceive and draw autonomous conclusions, his non-human consciousness transforms into a unique entity, separate from the original copy from which it originated.

While Levinas's ethical perspective is just one of many, I think his philosophy best highlights where our ethical estrangement lies when looking at the characters of Severance and Citizen Sleeper. We ask ourselves what they are and have difficulty rationally moving on to the next step of concluding that they are beings that deserve rights, even if our intuition leads us to think that this is obvious.

Emmanuel Levinas lived for most of the 20th century. In his work, he carries the historical memory of the six million Jews murdered by Nazism during the Holocaust, dedicating it to his book Autrement qu’être (1974). This work reflects the unrest of a century marked by the oppression of man over his fellow man, a period that witnessed two world wars, right and left totalitarianism (such as Hitlerism and Stalinism), as well as tragic events such as Hiroshima. Additionally, it confronts the atrocities of gulags, the genocides of Auschwitz and Cambodia, and the palpable horrors that plagued the era. Ultimately, Levinas grapples with the relentless pursuit of confronting these abhorrent manifestations: suffering and evil intentionally inflicted, devoid of rational limitations and unrelated to any ethics.

Currently, in the 21st century, we still face questions about the Other. The Other can be someone LGBTQIA+, an indigenous person, a foreigner, someone with another religion, or even it can be a non-human animal. Sometimes it seems we have a universal ethic, but Severance and Citizen Sleeper provide us with thought experiments that remind us that the Other in ethics is not only still relevant, but it may be an even more relevant topic with the advance of capitalism and neuroscience.

Other episodes from the series Comparative Criticism:

  • Comparative Criticism #1: War and the End of Humanity in Final Fantasy Type-0 and Apocalypse Now (SUPERJUMP, 2023);
  • Comparative Criticism #2: Historical Fiction in Pentiment and The Name of the Rose (SUPERJUMP, 2023).


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