Foucault in the Woodland, Part Three: Devouring Your Children
It was the Genevan journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan who wrote the famous phrase, “Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.” Writing in 1793, the year of King Louis XVI’s execution and the establishment of the First French Republic, du Pan was a proponent of the juste milieu, a “middle way” between autocratic and republican impulses. Considered both hopelessly naïve and tragically Cassandran, he died in exile in 1800, having watched his adoptive country pass through the Reign of Terror and into the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Over the past two installments, we’ve investigated how Cole Wehrle’s Root leverages the philosophies of Michel Foucault to tell a fable about power and control. Today, we’re putting those tools to use.
Industry and Opportunity: The Marquise de Cat
When Root opens, the Marquise de Cat is the closest thing the woodland has to a ruler. Unlike the spotty presence of the other factions, her cats are spread across nearly the entire map. Their outward appearance is sinister, with glowering eyes and knowing smirks. But appearances can be deceiving, and our first test is to avoid assuming that they’re the story’s villains.
Last time, I argued that the Marquise may represent a Napoleonic tyrant: self-interested and jealous of competition, but also obsessed with fulfilling the modernizing promise of the revolution that enabled her rise to power. Remember, each faction’s “values” are reflected by their approach to victory. In addition to the game’s shared methods (craftsmanship/commerce and the destruction of opposing tokens), the Marquise’s goals are industrial. Her long shadow is not only a sign of her oppressive tendencies, but also an economic necessity: she requires empty building sites and large supplies of timber to continue her expansion.
From a pastoral perspective, the Marquise’s sawmills, workshops, and recruiters are an encroachment. For a country with a developing middle class, they’re signs of economic stability. The first two structures aren’t inherently oppressive; they’re the prospect of “honest work” for the woodland’s populace, although given the early history of industrial development in Europe one shudders to consider the working hours and scant labor rights of the small folk ushered from their farms to the mills.
The interactions between the Marquise and her subjects are depicted, as we discussed in the first part, by how she deploys the cards that represent the small folk of the woodland. Historically, the appearance of a middle class is a double-edged sword, both offering economic opportunities and beginning to demand limits on the actions of its government. As any Marquise player can tell you, her principal limitation is that she can only take three actions per round. She increases these actions by playing bird cards, the game’s wild suit. This “middle class” extends what she can accomplish each turn, but it must be cultivated.
How does she cultivate a middle class? Through biopower! Like every other faction, the Marquise wants to draw as many cards as possible. In more thematic terms, she’s vying for the support of the woodland’s population. Without that support, she’ll crumble. Her army may be staffed by fellow cats, but they’re supported by the small folk in field hospitals, as guides for ambushes, sources of labor and extra actions, and for the many opportunities offered by each of the game’s cards.
Except this is where things get dark. To keep the cards coming in, the Marquise’s most reliable tool is recruiting stations. These aren’t directly violent; at no point is the Marquise required to actually recruit troops. Discursively, however, the threat of potential violence is enough to prompt some of the population to collaborate with her regime. For a lucky few, that will be as the middle class — those action-giving wild cards. Some will be used as auxiliaries or craftsmen. For many more, they’ll be churned through the Marquise’s sawmills via the overwork action, discarded, both in gameplay terms and as the organic components of the mills, to generate extra wood for construction.
I’ll spell it out. Through the Marquise, Wehrle has codified the rise of the capitalist bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie would prefer to believe they accomplished their bootstrapping on their own, but their economic desirability to the ruling regime led that regime to use incentives — in this case, the dual incentives of protection and reprisal — to encourage participation and to shut out the sources of labor who are doing the actual day-to-day work in the mills. From a distance, it’s a clean process. Opportunity! Mobility! Productivity! Only upon closer inspection do you notice the thousands of hands supporting the hundreds who moved up in the woodland.
What happens when enough people notice? Surely a whole bunch of good.
A Great Change: The Woodland Alliance
Hey, I guess we were right for once, because surely the Woodland Alliance is the good team. Just look at those adorable faces. Aww!
For much of its appearance, the Woodland Alliance exists to prove Foucault’s maxims about how power is everywhere and that it’s discursive rather than coercive. When the game begins, they aren’t even on the map. Not formally, anyway. On a certain level, perhaps they’re present through the icons that identify which breed of small folk inhabits any given clearing. Because the Woodland Alliance is of the people, by the people, for the people!
That’s what they’d like you to believe, anyway. One of the limitations of any fable is that in the real world the wolves in sheep’s clothing aren’t literal wolves stitched into woolen costumes. This makes it especially tempting to take the Woodland Alliance at face value. Every other faction is comprised of cats and moles and lizards. Only the Woodland Alliance is staffed by the same species that get pushed around by everyone else.
Unless we’re talking about the small folk working in the sawmills when they get burned to cinders by an Alliance revolt. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For now, let’s accept that the Woodland Alliance believes they’re “of the people,” but like every other faction warring over these clearings, the reality is significantly more complicated.
Okay, discursive power. As I wrote earlier, the Woodland Alliance doesn’t even begin on the map, and it’ll be a while before they appear in force at all. They aren’t exactly punching their oppressors in the snouts. In their earliest incarnation, they’re limited to sympathy tokens. These are broad representations: laborers muttering grievances, cheap leaflets fluttering through a clearing, political cartoons of the Marquise picking her teeth with a mouse’s femur, women gossiping about not having enough bread to feed their children. They might seem like a small thing, but these tokens are pesky. Whenever another faction marches into a sympathetic clearing, it only seems to confirm what everybody is muttering about, regardless of whether the troops are here to suppress dissent or passing through on their way to somewhere else. This forces a card from the marching player’s hand into the Alliance’s pool of supporters. Like forbidding assembly or trashing an independent press, attacking a sympathy token is possible, but in the moment before it’s squelched it also steals a card. That’s the thing about Foucauldian notions of power: it’s slippery stuff, and you’re liable to lose it whenever you tighten your grasp.
Of course, this is limiting of the Woodland Alliance as well. It wants supporters, so it thrives on intrusion and abuse, but the cards in its supporter pool can’t be used for their usual bonuses or crafting. There’s a gulf between sharing a grievance with the population and holding actual political sway over them. Even trickier, the Alliance’s supporter pool is severely limited unless it has a base on the map.
In theory it’s possible for the Alliance to go on like this indefinitely, living on outrage and pamphleteering. But if its oppressors have any wits about them, they’ll be proactive enough about removing sympathy that the Alliance won’t be able to place the tokens that earn the big points; it will forever remain one more student revolutionary cell that never makes the leap from the dormitory to the public square. That’s where revolt comes in. If the Alliance has a sympathy token in a clearing and enough matching supporters, it can unleash a great change. All its enemies are removed in a single stroke. The Alliance sets up a base of operations and equips troops for battle — and to export the revolution. This latter option transforms the Woodland Alliance from a theoretical threat to a clear and present danger to its neighbors. In clearings where sympathy has struggled to take root, the Alliance can now march a warrior into enemy territory and organize a sympathy token outright.
That’s the faction’s prescribed arc, an extended illustration of how discursive power becomes tangible. The Woodland Alliance is about controlling a conversation until its words become a fist. Without someone to stitch the disparate threads together, that’s all they would stay — threads. Some bellyaching. Sore tummies. Halfhearted talk about how things should be better. If the Marquise has her way, she might even persuade one group that they’re better than the others. All the better for letting them forget that they both labor under the same taskmaster. Narrating a shared cause is the first work of the revolutionary.
Oppressor and Oppressed
Today’s study has been limited to these two factions because they’re Root’s most archetypal. The Marquise de Cat plays the role of oppressor, the Woodland Alliance the organized oppressed. Their interplay illustrates a Foucauldian understanding of power. Rather than functioning as two equivalent factions trading geography, à la Risk and its many descendants, their approach to power is depicted as a conversation held across two different languages. The Marquise’s language is class division, the threat of violence, and eventually real violence. The Woodland Alliance’s language is class unification, curated outrage, and eventually an unstoppable uprising.
Every so often I’ll meet somebody who can’t or won’t overlook the ugliness that takes place beneath a wargame’s resolution; say, the atrocities that appear on every single card in Twilight Struggle or one of the volumes of the COIN Series. By rewriting these atrocities in the language and imagery of fable, Wehrle degausses that resolution even further. One can make-believe that the inhabitants of the Marquise’s sawmills and workshops aren’t staffed with children, or that they’re safely evacuated before the Woodland Alliance puts them to the torch. That despite the blood frenzy of the moment, the line between forced laborer, reluctant collaborator, and enthusiastic participant is clearly drawn.
Root doesn’t insist on a confrontation with reality. That’s one of its strengths. But we should note Wehrle’s ludic commentary on the factions at hand. For all her abuses, the Marquise is concerned with expansion, construction, and even, to some degree, prosperity. Her actions are focused on making. By contrast, the ideal outcome of the Woodland Alliance’s actions is unmaking.
This competition between making and unmaking forces shouldn’t be mistaken for “good” versus “bad.” Recall our discussion of biopower, and how it uses “additive” rather than “deductive” control. The Woodland Alliance likely isn’t as pure as it would like us to think, and periodically produces its own Reigns of Terror. But its destructive tendencies are also characterized as destructive of injustice and inequality. While the Marquise is busy creating new industries and opportunities, her use of biopower illustrates the wariness Foucault felt toward government incentives and oversight. Her efforts are as persuasive in nature as the Alliance’s. But they rely on persuading one class that they deserve to benefit at the expense of all others — and keeping her claws visibly sharpened if they don’t go along.
In other words, the political situation in Root isn’t as simple as “Marquise bad, Alliance good,” but neither is it as solipsistic as “everyone is as bad as everyone else.” Rather, Wehrle presents a textured portrayal, one where oppressive regimes may produce good outcomes for a portion of their citizenry and violent uprisings run the risk of devouring their children in the pursuit of liberty. In both cases, by looking at how the game’s factions interact with the broader population, we see how Wehrle’s understanding of power is Foucauldian in nature: it’s volatile, discursive, and defies simple characterization.
Thank goodness, then, that next time we’ll be tackling a much more straightforward topic: sex.
Part Four will be releasing on Patreon soon. In the meantime, supporters can read about what Unfathomable, Battlestar Galactica, and Homeland tell us about the War on Terror over here.