Foucault in the Woodland, Part Four: DTR or DTF?
May I never repeat the awkwardness of my first DTR.
DTR. “Define the Relationship.” My friends, most of whom were older and more experienced, spoke the acronym in ominous tones. It was an essential step of middle school dating, as serious as your first hand-holding or first footsies or first furtive kiss. To a ninth-grader, it was the equivalent of proposing marriage without knowing the answer beforehand. We’d gone on a few dates. School dances. Group hikes. Now we crouched together in a treehouse (oh no), as good a time as any to pop the question: “Are you my girlfriend?”
Over the past three parts of this series, we’ve examined how Root reflects a Foucauldian understanding of power and politics. Today, we’re looking at how that extends into the realm of sex and relationships — and how governments transform sexuality into an extended DTR that will not end no matter how vigorously we try to flee the treehouse.
The History of Sexuality
We sure talk a lot about how we can’t talk about sex.
That’s the TL;DR version of Michel Foucault’s 1976 first volume on The History of Sexuality. It opens with a story you’ve probably heard before. As the telling goes, between the 17th and early 20th centuries, European culture, most notably English culture as embodied by the Victorians and carried across the world by imperialism, went a little Puritan on us. The marital dance, the fruit of the Fall, that thing we undertake only reluctantly and within the privacy of our bedchambers… Sex! There’s the word. Where sex had once been open and carefree, the Victorians buttoned up the world’s corsets and overcoats to the chin. Ever since, our true natures have been repressed. If only we could break free of this inherited sin, we might return to a state of joyful innocence.
Except none of it ever happened.
The History of Sexuality begins with a dissection of this story we tell about ourselves. Foucault identified this “repressive hypothesis” as a utopian fantasy not all that different from some of our more famous fantasies: there’s the descent from a paradisaical origin (good sex) to a fallen state (bad sex), a villain who leads us gently into the night with honeyed lies (those prudish Victorians), and a possible future state when all shall be made better (more uninhibited sex, presumably). The problem with this narrative, Foucault argued, is that the Victorians were “filth-digging horndogs” — my words, not his. They absolutely loved talking about sex. They consumed pornography, engaged in a truly shocking amount of prostitution, read lurid exposés, and dragged the onetime province of priests — the confessional — into the public square. Where sex had once been one domain among many, now there were sexual experts and sexual pundits and sexual managers and sexual conversants. Sex became a field of scientific study and discourse and, by extension, something that needed governing.
For a government, the discourse around sexuality couldn’t be ignored. Bossing around subjects is one thing; administering a “population,” a dynamic, diverse, and self-replicating organism with competing interests and goals, is an entirely different ballgame. We’ve already discussed biopower, and how it relies on “additive” rather than merely “deductive” forms of control. Many of these controls are rooted in sexuality under the guise of “public hygiene.” Now that everybody was thinking about sexuality in new terms, the government got into the business of regulation. Birth and death rates. Marriage licenses. Reproductive incentives. Programs for contraception, fertility, and healthcare. And — here’s the real zinger — who these programs benefited and who they discouraged.
Because these programs didn’t benefit everyone equally. Nor were they intended to. Where some sections of the population found the road to marriage, reproduction, and prosperity paved and signposted, others were bureaucratically locked out of the running. Or worse, offered contrasting incentives (such as contraception or abortion) or specific laws to make reproduction more difficult (such as increased rates of incarceration). There’s an obvious racial element at play, but the second element is subtler. Previously, a man who had sex with other men was still a man, just a man who happened to engage in sodomy. Now this man became a new species entirely: the homosexual. Duly labeled as “perverts” and “deviants,” these people could also be subjected to similar controls that encouraged the prosperity of some races over others. The discourse over sexuality had both permitted new modes of expression and new ways to control them.
In other words, sexuality had been transformed into an unending DTR.
The Eyre Dynasties Talk about the People and the Bees
More than any other faction, the Eyrie Dynasties are all about population control. One wonders if they always ruled this way, as a direct illustration of Foucault’s double-edged definition of power. More likely, perhaps they carried on in the manner of our own old aristocracies, lording their titles over medieval fiefs. In such a reading, the reason biopower is written so directly into their behavior is because as the woodland’s oldest regime they’re also its newest to the game of parlaying power with the small folk. Where the Marquise de Cat has learned to leverage industry and the threat of force and the Woodland Alliance responds to the small folks’ outrages with revolution, the Eyrie must negotiate with its people. Of course, they couch these negotiations beneath a cushion of terminology. But as steadfastly as the flighty folk call it a “Decree,” nobody but the most gullible think it carries such unyielding authority.
The Decree is the lifeblood of the Eyrie. Each Birdsong, they tuck one or two cards into its record. These determine the actions the Eyrie must take during their turn. Unlike most factions, for whom actions are optional, the Eyrie’s directives are taken as scripture. The more cards — and therefore, the more small folk — they devote to tasks of recruitment, movement, battle, and construction, the more they can accomplish in a day. Early on, the Eyrie seems sluggish. Given a few turns they can muster an army out of thin air, march it across the map, burn multiple rival holdings, and hammer new roosts over the top of what was salted. A fully mobilized Eyrie is a terrible sight.
Internally, though, not all is well within the Eyrie, and it has everything to do with the Decree. I call it “scripture” because its commands are invested with the weight of divine right. What the Eyrie promises, they must carry out, and failure to do so can prove catastrophic. If there are no spare warriors when the Decree states that the Eyrie must muster more troops, or if they need to march from a particular clearing that they don’t hold, or if they need to wage war in a spot they haven’t reached, everything falls apart and the Eyrie endures a period of turmoil. This doesn’t depose them as one of the woodland’s aspirants, but it may crush their chances of success. The Decree is swept clean. All the old promises are tossed out. The current leader is deposed in favor of another, someone who surely believes they’ll be able to walk the tightrope of population control without toppling. You may recall that the deck’s bird suit represents the developing middle classes of the woodland. These skilled workers are an especial boon to the Eyrie, representing wild actions that aren’t tied to rabbit, fox, or mouse clearings. But sharing power has its downsides, illustrated painfully when turmoil forces the Eyrie to subtract points for every bird in the Decree.
This reflects a Foucauldian understanding of power in a couple of ways. First, power is multivalent; it strikes out in every direction. The Eyrie would undoubtedly prefer to structure power vertically, with the Dynasties on top and the small folk below. But while the Dynasties lead the Eyrie, power isn’t entirely structured in their favor. Their only way of getting anything done is by appealing to the labor of the small folk in a patron-client arrangement. Such an arrangement is promissory, guaranteeing a place within the Decree in exchange for the same labor that enables the Decree to function. When those promises fall through, the façade is broken. As the small folk abandon the cause, the Eyrie’s fall is sudden and sharp, forcing them to rebuild their authority from scratch.
The consequence of this repeated structuring and restructuring is that it puts the player in the headspace of a biopolitical state without requiring them to understand that they’re enacting biopower. When playing as the Eyrie, players are encouraged to consider an exchange of obligations between governors and governed. Any card placed in the Decree enables new actions, but will also become a strain on your ability to stave off collapse. Some cards are “safe” — say, recruitment in a well-defended clearing far beyond the enemy’s reach. Others are more risky, but due to exigent circumstances or simple temptation they may be worth some danger down the line. Shrewd players will soon discover ways to offset collapse: fighting losing battles to free up warrior pawns for recruiting, marching troops back and forth between secure clearings, and bargaining with another player to invade and destroy an errant roost. Even, in some cases, shrewdly managing the proper time for turmoil. These are all considerations of biopower, letting the Eyrie placate their population for the sake of stability.
There’s something suitably tidy about having players carry out these expressly biopolitical acts without quite understanding why. As Foucault points out in his 1975 book Discipline and Punish, there are a number of parallels between prisons and other modern institutions such as schools: loud bells and buzzers, the proper spacing and lining-up of bodies, strict attendance, exacting bureaucratic forms, designated recreation periods, permission slips, mandatory activities, constant surveillance, and an expectation of compliance. Both were designed to create “docile bodies” ready to participate in modern economies, industries, and militaries. But nobody walked into a classroom and said, “How can we make this more like a prison?” Rather, the same ideas that shaped modern prisons also worked to shape modern schools, churches, hospitals, and other facets of our lives, often as a result of prodding via biopower. In much the same way, Wehrle encodes the Eyrie to achieve a particular mindset: that of a transactional power broker always working both with and against their population.
And what happens to those individuals who refuse to go along? Speak of the devil…
The Real Reason Nobody Likes the Vagabond
The real reason nobody likes the Vagabond has nothing to do with their tendency to win. It’s because the Vagabond is a nonconformist. Worse, the Vagabond is a sexual deviant, at least if we go by the definition offered by French poet, novelist, and critic Rémy de Gourmont, who noted that “Chastity is the most unnatural of sexual perversions.” Where every single other faction in Root is preoccupied with issues of reproduction — how to paint the map with their stuff instead of the other guy’s stuff — the Vagabond will never generate a second Vagabond pawn. The Vagabond is unfettered by the expectations that have been drilled into the rest of us. They seize no territory, leave as freely as they arrive, and walk into the deepest forests where nobody else may tread. And what’s the most pressing expectation of them all? Parenthood.
Okay, maybe it’s really because the Vagabond always wins. But if Vagabond-as-sexual-avatar seems like a stretch, let me offer a few points that may help clarify the connection.
We’ve already looked at the way Root gauges the values of its various factions, and perhaps even tips its own hand. To recap, the way a faction earns victory points puts its personal values on display. There are two methods that all factions share, craftsmanship and destruction of rival property, but otherwise they depart from one another. The Marquise de Cat earns points by building lots of structures, so she’s an industrialist. The Woodland Alliance earns points by violently overthrowing occupied clearings and establishing bases of power, so it’s the revolutionary faction. The Eyrie Dynasties generate a steady trickle of points from their roosts, much the way feudal and aristocratic landowners collected rents and prestige from big estates.
The Vagabond makes friends.
No, really. Even though they can adopt many identities, itself potential code-speak for the flexible identity of the Vagabond, they’re always interested in doing good deeds. This is so true that they can even bypass other factions and interface with the small folk directly via a deck of quest cards. By arriving at the proper destination and using some items, the Vagabond can run an errand, conduct fundraising, help with logistics, repair a shed, beat up some bandits, or give a speech. These are small acts, presumably minor enough to fall beneath the notice of the greater polities warring over the woodland. However, the outcome of these quests is notable. Either the Vagabond draws more cards from the deck of small folk — social connections begetting additional social connections — or they earn increasing amounts of victory points.
What is power? To most of Root’s factions, power is defined by making or unmaking. The same is true of the Vagabond, but in a more metaphysical sense. The Vagabond is concerned with forging relationships.
This extends to their interactions with the other factions. Everybody wants a lot of cards, which in game terms translates to seeking inroads with the small folk. The Vagabond tends to hold plenty of these thanks to their questing, but often requires additional items in order to move, explore, and generally conduct vagabondage. A natural goodwill soon develops. Factions already want to craft items for points. Now they can trade those items away in exchange for the Vagabond’s familiarity with the small folk. The measure of the Vagabond’s relationship with each faction is carefully measured. What begins as indifference blossoms into an alliance, at which point the Vagabond can move and battle with allied warriors and earn additional points for further donations. Sour those good feelings, and the Vagabond becomes hostile, instead making up those extra points by wiping out warriors that might have otherwise been friends.
There are a few intriguing details to note about how these relationships function on the table. To play the Vagabond is to engage in an extended DTR. You’re always navigating alliances and hostilities, a process only marginally less fraught than climbing into a treehouse on a summer’s day to ask your crush what she thinks about you as a potential romantic partner. Further, since the Vagabond doesn’t award victory points when attacked, there’s no reason to pick a fight with them — apart, of course, to prevent them from winning.
This last detail carves out a unique niche for the Vagabond. By operating outside the usual constraints and obligations of the other factions, the Vagabond becomes a suspicious character. One might even call them a deviant character. They play by their own rules, foster easy friendships, and, thanks to the way their point yields increase over time, can win rather suddenly. The Vagabond therefore becomes a study in how biopolitical entities treat outliers. Even when there’s nothing to be gained from oppression, biopower tends to legislate in favor of “ordinary” citizens and against outliers. Why? Because the very existence of an outlier calls into question the modes of control that have been fashioned to govern a population. This makes the Vagabond a stand-in for any number of outliers: a non-dominant race, sexual orientation, or religion, the unhoused, the subaltern, the mentally divergent. In the best of cases, it’s possible for these outliers to eventually leverage their own power to force acceptance within the offending society. More often, they’re discarded.
What happens to those who find themselves discarded? That’s the topic of our next installment.
Part Five is available for the supporters of my Patreon right now! If you’re interested, you can read it over here.