What links all these things is the way they pass the responsibility for upholding norms — for creating “school” — onto individual children and families. They exist to help you adapt, but also to normalize strangeness and chaos, now that it’s clear how little has been done to make normal school possible. Instead of solutions — for containing the virus, making schools safe, designing effective remote-learning programs — we get helpful online tutorials, aimed at gently training small children in the art of bringing the school not only into the home but straight into their souls. They gently shame you into compliance by insisting the strangeness, the chaos, is you.
Which is, of course, where Foucault comes in. He theorized that, as societies modernized, they moved away from the “theater of punishment” — in which the punishment “matches” the crime and is performed publicly to deter others — and toward hidden systems of discipline like prisons, in which control and surveillance and discipline are gradually internalized. He saw these systems afoot in institutions like the military, factories and schools, all of which produced “docile bodies” that fit neatly into capitalist economies. Somehow, the scenarios in Manic Turtle’s video smack of that. Each posits a way of being at home that must be modified for the new environment — a home onto which an institution (in this case, school) has suddenly been imposed. Private, unregulated space has now been breached and is in the process of being transformed into a space of surveillance and control — a kind of digital panopticon. (Don’t Zoom from the toilet! Remember, we can see you!)
Schools, public schools in particular, have always served a dual function: to educate your children and to mold them into compliant citizens. They don’t always succeed at either, but so long as students report each day to a building the school controls, that failure doesn’t threaten their institutional authority. What happens, though, when the schools are vacant? Some schools’ answer is apparently to maintain their authority by freely extending it into people’s homes, often in bizarre ways. One district insisted that its in-building dress code, which prohibited things like wearing slippers, still applied to distance learning. That strange mandate pales in comparison to the story of a Black middle-schooler in Colorado Springs who, according to reports, was playing with a toy Nerf gun during an online class; his school had the police sent to his house and accused him of “bringing a facsimile of a weapon to class.” But of course what happened was the exact opposite: The class barged into the place where his toy was, and then insisted that its rules applied there too.
This arrangement certainly fits the current political moment, in which rules are enforced arbitrarily and authority is imposed where it doesn’t belong. We have a government that struggles to maintain basic functions and institutions that have eroded to the point of helplessness — and yet their disciplinary mechanisms are increasingly encroaching into private space, a last-resort show of strength for authorities that can’t quite seem to earn our cooperation by functioning well. The video of that little girl is adorable — if you find the sight of a child internalizing the will of the monitor in her own home adorable, and if we’re willing to accept a version of a free society in which the camera is always on.