By Gordon Hull
Foucault made a big deal in the lectures contained in Security, Territory, Population of the linkage between medieval pastoral power and modern governmentality. Although there have been skeptics – most notably Mika Ojakangas, who thinks Foucualt reads the ancient sources nearly backwards: it was the Greeks and Romans who practiced eugenics, and Jewish and Christian authors who opposed them – it’s certainly a narrative that has the feel of doxa.
What is pastoral power? According to Foucault, during the Middle Ages, Christianity “is a religion that … lays claim to the daily government of men in their real life on the grounds of their salvation and on the scale of humanity, and we have no other example of this in the history of societies” (STP 148). Through an elaborate apparatus of confession, submission, and obedience, a “subtle economy of merit and fault” (STP 173), Christianity established a series of equivalences between the salvation of the pastor and that of his flock according to which the salvation of one was a function of the salvation of the other (STP 169-72). Although these techniques of power were historically specific, Foucault argues that analysis of pastoral power shows it to be the “embryonic point” of modern governmentality (STP 165). In sum:
"We can say that the idea of pastoral power is the idea of a power exercised on a multiplicity rather than on a territory. It is a power that guides towards an end and functions on an intermediary towards this send. It is therefore a power with a purpose for those on whom it is exercised, and not a purpose for some kind of superior unit like the city, territory, state or sovereign …. Finally, it is a power directed at all and each in their paradoxical equivalence, and not at the higher unity formed by the whole" (STP 129).
That’s the story.
The problem is that there is another Foucauldian narrative about governmentality. You see it in his Rio lectures of 1973 (“Truth and Juridical Forms,” in the Power anthology). But it’s even more evident in his “Lives of Infamous Men” (also in Power, the pagination to which I will refer) (these texts are both slightly before STP).