Exit and the Extensions of Man

Sarah Sharma's keynote on technologically aided escapism, entrapment, and the male fantasy of (s)exit

VR: the final frontier of male exit fantasies (Image: Shutterstock).

What does a real man do when things get tough at home? Runs out to buy cigarettes. Or so goes the male fantasy, as Sarah Sharma argued in her 2017 Marshall McLuhan Lecture, organized annually by transmediale and the Embassy of Canada in Berlin. The male fantasy of exit—the Sexit, as Sharma dubbed it—pervades the masculine cultural imaginary at every level of society, from domestic space to the political sphere. After Grexit and Brexit, it should be abundantly clear how “pulling out” is a deceptively simple solution to real-life entanglements, and how the very privilege to imagine doing so is fundamentally a male prerogative. From cleaning house to giving birth to leaving the job early, women are rarely afforded the luxury to split—and new media technologies supposedly made to liberate women have likely entrapped us further. Sharma, who was recently appointed Director of the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology at University of Toronto, presents the main points of her conceptually invaluable lecture here. Prove you’re a real man and commit to reading all the way to the end.

The pain of capitalism is easily evidenced in a cultural fantasy of exit. The desire for elsewhere is manifest in a picture postcard in a taxi driver’s visor, in a desktop screensaver of a beach or mountain vista. You can meditate at your desk. Or, maybe rather than travel through a mediascape, you might get drunk or high, longing for a sick day. Perhaps you purposefully take the bus so you have some extra time to daydream. All of these are sedentary exits—little lifestyle choices and changes that can provide pleasurable temporary escapes. But this amounts to a media culture of exit by remote control: you ghost a new lover, stare at your phone in the company of others, unload boring labors and tasks via a handy app, disconnect an employee rather than fire them face-to-face. Then, of course, there is contemporary robotics, where human capacities and power dynamics are excised and projected onto machines. 

Exit is also a political strategy on the left: from strikes to slow downs to theories of exodus within strands of autonomist Marxism. The wish to get out of this place is found in queer utopias and invitations to new forms of world-making. There are invitations to become become feral and wild—to join autonomist communes/collectives/farms and co-living love nests. All of these are laboratories for experimental, intimate living. What they will release into the social field remains open, multiple, and full of potential.

There’s nothing strange about dreaming of exit and its many forms: detach, unplug, escape, refrain, remove, withdraw, refuse, retreat, hide, leave, and flee. But ultimately, and here’s where the pain of capitalism truly sets in, the escapes are minimal and the routes unknown. If there are exits at all, they are few and far between, not least because exit is most often only a fantasy. But there is also another confounding dilemma, that of patriarchy. Exit, I argue, falls too heavily on gendered lines for it to be a feminist political strategy.

Exit is an exercise of patriarchal power, a privilege that occurs at the expense of cultivating and sustaining conditions of collective autonomy. It stands in direct contradistinction to care. Care is an opposing political force to exit. Care is that which responds to the uncompromisingly tethered nature of human dependency and the contingency of life, the mutual precariousness of the human condition. Women’s exit is hardly even on the table, given that women have historically been unable to choose when to leave or enter inequitable power relations, let alone enter and exit in a carefree manner. We are subject instead to forms of biopolitical management that do not allow for exit but rather a managed entrance into the sphere of the social, the public, the political, the institutional—the university, the corporation, the gym, the faculty club bar. Isn’t it half price for ladies at the nightclub on Thursdays?  

I want to trace this tendency of what I call the patriarchal penchant and inclination towards exit: what I playfully term “the sEXIT” insofar as it accounts for the gendered politics of exit. I use sex rather than gender to signal the dominance of naturalized notions of reproductive labor and the way in which exits are carried out along normalizing heterosexist gendered lines. Exit makes it more difficult to imagine a feminist, post-gender future that doesn’t rely upon naturalized notions of men and women. Furthermore, my turn to “the sExit” accounts for how exits from capital aren’t always exits from patriarchy and how exits from patriarchy aren’t always exits from capital.

The male fantasy of exit is linked to the rising structure of feeling that relates to male disposability. This is not a new condition, but automation, sex with robots, machines that care, and brown people everywhere are sure testing “his” patience. The white patriarchal penchant for exit rears its ugly head at any hint of having to live with one’s supremacy in question. For most populations on Earth, you might say that living in a world of human constraint and limited conditions is just part and parcel of living.

For the right, exit is found in the alt-right Sexodus movements to nationalist movements (Brexit) and Trump’s invoking of new borders and bans. Exit on the right is imagined as a mechanism of establishing sovereignty. Across the political spectrum of the left, from “nice” liberals to neoliberal popular feminists to strands of autonomist Marxists, there are variations on the theme of how exit and refusal is productive for the politics of maintaining autonomy. But both, as I will argue here, have a significant gender problem. Exit is ultimately an extension of man.

The above image of Donald Trump stalking behind Hillary Clinton allows us to visualize how impossible it is for women and other populations made vulnerable by capitalism and patriarchy to get away and exit. The material embodiment of this power is inescapable. The embodied social difference of living in and amongst structures that are designed to subordinate and exploit women are increasingly designed to be inhospitable to a growing number of people. The extensions of man will outlast any specific man or institution. It remains sediment seeped into the fabric of the physical places we inhabit.

By saying that exit is also the extension of man, I am offering a slightly different reading of Marshall McLuhan’s media theory to produce a feminist theory of technologies and extensions. My re-reading does not dispute McLuhan’s formative insights on the medium in Understanding Media but introduces an additional account of extension, and includes attention to how the reorganization of labor and vulnerability are part of the message of every medium.1 This is not only a theory about the extension of human bodily capacities into so-called innovations that re-order sensory apparatus and social life; it is also a media theory that recognizes and finally calls attention to the fact that one particular body has been extended. Moreover, it is a McLuhanesque theory of media that pays attention to the balance of care and exit and how these are intimately and completely intertwined in technological objects. Every new technology brings with it the question, and often the answer, of what or who this new technology will take care of.

All media are extensions of the body, but they also provide new thresholds for exits. Look at the world of doors (sliding, movement sensing, hard to open, automatic, locked, needing password entry). Interactive touch screens give us electronic pathways and tunnels—new ways to appear and disappear. When you swipe left, you don’t even have to look at the thing you’ve disregarded. What is cared about and what the new contours of care will be are evidenced and directed by the machines we build and devise. What does it mean to live in a culture that is continuously referred to as the final extension of man on the technological front, at the very same time same time when all potential exits operate as extensions of patriarchal power?

Marxist feminists, specifically the work of Kathi Weeks, Sylvia Federici, L. Fortunati, and Maria Dalla Costa reveal the impossibility of exit. Their formulations of refusals are oriented towards both capital and patriarchy. In fact, there is recognition of one’s indispensability as part of the process where one is devalued. There’s simply nowhere to go. Feminist refusal looks more like recognition of mutual dependency—recognition that there are things that cannot be refused, with attention to the forced dependencies that require loosening.

I work in an institution. I’m a professor at the University of Toronto and have just been appointed the Director of the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology. At the university, world-making is impeded by a very simplistic and dumb and violent normative gender binary—the same one we are now imposing on our machines. It is from this center on the margins of campus that McLuhan theorized and taught his thesis on the medium and the extensions of man. And it is also the place from which I want to extend his imaginative inquiry into some new-old terrain.

It is a common conceit that McLuhan’s metaphors break down at some point. A lot of energy goes into extending his concepts and questioning the exactness of his aphorisms in a digital age. I don’t think they have broken down in the least. Yet imposing his aphorisms without also critically thinking through the bodies, rhythms, and power dynamics tied up in our technologies will only relegate him to the tired domain of a great male legacy at the expense of moving forward with the critical project he inspires. McLuhan himself might not have had his eye on economics, politics, and bodies, but the message of the medium is also an invitation to consider social structures and power dynamics.

It isn’t something that McLuhan said or that he didn’t say that calls up this constant need to question if his work is applicable or not. The debate that circulates around his legacy is usually an exclusionary debate that bypasses the work being done by women and postcolonial theorists in the field of media theory. Thus, I think something else is breaking down: the attachments to the figure and the desire to extend him can no longer ignore the feminist media theorists who have been doing the critical work all along.  If “man” has reached his final phase in the technologies of automation and robotics, resulting in the violence of the disposable male, there is an opening for a feminist project—one of extension, not of exit.

I invoke this sentiment so that we can account for the dynamics within techno-culture where feminist scholars have had their eyes on all along. Feminist scholars like Leslie Shade (2007), Ruth Schwartz Cowan (1983), and Judy Wajcman (2014) have shown us how the bottle, the breast-bump, the dishwasher, and the cell phone are all technologies akin to something like cordless umbilical cords extending women while disciplining and controlling their movements.2 None of these are liberating technologies unless the structure of gender power changes.

It is this very same structure of power that gives way to the fact that so many of our technological devices today seem to be doing the work of an overbearing and meddling mother. If we think about the devices we hold closest to our bodies, they do the work of sustenance and care: monitoring, anticipating needs, provoking sharing, sending reminders, giving directions, warning, warming, comforting, cleaning, sorting, and keeping secrets. Can we imagine technologies beyond the binary?

It would seem that Mommy has been technologically extended in a very particular way as part of male exit and the extension of man. If “we shape our tools and our tools shape us”, a common one-liner often attributed to McLuhan’s thinking, perhaps it is no wonder there is such a warped notion of the politics of social reproduction. She becomes the content secondary to the form.3 Wasn’t there something more exciting to develop than the extension of the patriarch’s mom?

I’m left with a bad case of exit envy. I often crave the drama of exit in the institutional settings I inhabit. I want to be able to say screw this and for the statement to be politically transformative on its own. But the truth is, exit isn’t in my future. In order to deal with double burden of having to deal with capitalism/patriarchy, it often feels like there are only two solutions. I could go make a kale smoothie, go to therapy and go to yoga—not necessarily in that order—and call it a day.

Adrienne Rich once wrote: “The institution of motherhood must be destroyed […] To destroy the institution is not to abolish it but make it mandatory to release the creation and sustenance of life into the same realm of decision, struggle, surprise, imagination and conscious intelligence, as any other difficult, but freely chosen work.”4Rather than a resignation letter, I keep this quote close by. It is a conception of motherhood denaturalized within a post-gender politics—a conception of living with constraints without being disposable.

Exit doesn’t fall on essentialist gendered lines. It falls on misogynistic and patriarchal lines. Everyone sometimes craves an exit. It would be nicer not to long for one, but when most people are used to a world of constraints—being indispensable and devalued at the same time—how are we to deal with what is on the rise: male disposability, and now white male disposability, as a chronic condition?  

What would it be like to live in a world where everyone dwelled in the essence of finitude and limited constraint rather than holding on to fantasies of exit? The most politically depressing forms of care that circulate are ones that make it seem as if all we are doing is passing time with one another. Finding ways of managing our degrading and non-necessary gender binary is one of these useless pastimes.  Culturally there is fear of intimacy with robots but the gendered and machinic forms of intimacy are rarely questioned. The inability to exit the gendered divide demands enclosed regimes of self-care rather than collective communal care. So long as the fantasy of exit prevails, care is in crisis.

1 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (McGraw: 1964).

2 See Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (New York: Basic Books, 1983); Leslie Regan Shade, “Feminizing the Mobile: Gender Scripting of Mobiles in North America,” Continuum, 21:2, 179-189; Judy Wajcman. Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism (Chicago, UP: 2014).

3 See Janine Marchessault, “Mechanical Brides and Mama’s Boys: Gender and Technology in Early McLuhan” in Gary Genosko (ed.), Marshall McLuhan: Critical Evaluations in Cultural Theory, Vol. 2. (New York and London: Routledge, 2005), 161-180.

4 Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born (Norton: 1976).