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).
Basically, according to the “Infamous Men” narrative (and this account parallels the one in “Truth and Juridical Forms”), two separate power structures emerged in the French Monarchy. One was the wheels of justice, and isn’t relevant here. The other came to replace the confession, which Foucault says “for hundreds of millions of men and over a period of centuries, evil had to be confessed in the first person, in an obligatory and ephemeral whisper” (166). But, he says, “from the end of the seventeenth century, this mechanism was encircled and outreached by another one whose operation was very different. An administrative and no longer a religious apparatus; a recording mechanism, instead of a pardoning mechanism” (166). This mechanism was the lettre de cachet, where ordinary people petitioned their grievances – usually with each other – directly to the king. The complained about infidelity, drunkenness, shirking of responsibilities, and a whole host of minor offenses. Outside of the formal judiciary, the king would appoint someone to administer these proceedings: relief was not immediately granted a petitioner; “an inquiry must precede it, for the purpose of substantiating the claims made in the petition” – a job for the “police” (167).
This was not justice, as Foucault bluntly emphasizes in STP: “Police is not justice” (STP 339), even if they might use similar mechanisms of power. In “Truth and Judicial Forms,” he notes that the penalties assigned on the basis of lettres de cachet weren’t those the judicial system established: “It’s interesting to note that imprisonment was not a legal sanction in the penal system of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The jurists were perfectly clear in that regard: they declared that when the law punished someone, the punishment would be death – burning at the stake, quartering, branding, banishment, or paying a fine. Imprisonment was not a penalty” (67). If you lost the argument in the lettre, you would be confined to prison.
Further, although it was nominally an exercise of sovereign power, the lettres de cachet also “did not bring about the uninvited intrusion of royal arbitrariness in the most everyday dimension of life. It ensured, rather, the distribution of that power through complex circuits and a whole interplay of petitions and responses” (167-8). As a result, “the commonplace ceased to belong to silence, to the passing rumor or the fleeting confession” (169). The lettres brought, in other words, the beginning of the vast recording apparatus that Foucault so heavily emphasizes in Discipline and Punish.
For a while, the lettres would exhibit the incongruous rhetoric of uneducated peasants who “are staking their whole life on the performance” in the letter (171). But:
“One day, all this incongruity would be swept away. Power exercised at the level of everyday life would no longer be that of a near and distant, omnipotent, and capricious monarch, the source of all justice and an object of every sort of enticement, both a political principle and a magical authority; it would be made up of a fine, differentiated, continuous network, in which the various institutions of the judiciary, the police, medicine, and psychiatry would operate hand in hand. And the discourse that would then take form would no longer have that old artificial and clumsy theatricality: it would develop in a language that would claim to be that of observation and neutrality. The commonplace would be analyzed through the efficient but colorless categories of administration, journalism, and science” (171-2).
So here we have two stories. According to one, pastoral power became biopower. According to the other, it was the replacement of pastoral power by sovereign power via the lettres of cachet that led to biopower in its distinct forms. Is it just me, or is there something fundamentally incompatible between these stories?