For better or worse, I don’t often read theological texts through the lens of gender, but Hans Urs von Balthasar handed me his epistemology on a gendered platter, and the result is rather disturbing. His book Theo-Logic begins by describing the nature of knowledge as the relationship between subject and object. In this context he states that the inquiry into the nature of subject and object independently
…resembles an investigation of the masculine and feminine that attends mainly to the functions and inclinations that predispose them for their union. The union itself is a new, third thing in which the purpose of these inclinations is truly unveiled for the first time. The subject is ready to receive the object in itself, but what will issue from this reception cannot be calculated in advance. In the same way, the object is ready to reveal itself in the space that the subject has placed at its disposal, but it is impossible to guess or gauge from the object alone how it will unfold in this space (61).
Balthasar continues to refer to subject and object in this way throughout the section. The relationship between subject and object is such that “objects of this world need the subject’s space in order to be themselves” (63). Nevertheless, the ontological truth of the object is complete in itself. The object needs the subject only so that it can fully manifest and reveal itself (65). In contrast, the subject is an indeterminate space, without content, or character, or identity. The subject is dependent on the object for knowledge, and the truth of knowledge consists in the subject’s conforming itself to the ontological truth of the object. Balthasar describes the subject as Sleeping Beauty, which only awakens from its slumber once the other enters its space. The subject is structured such that its role “consists most properly in making itself available, in an attitude of service, for the completion of the object” (67).
Balthasar describes this relationship as a union or consummation. If we interpret this description according to Balthasar’s own explicit comparison above, then the inclinations of each side of this union are analogous to patriarchal masculine and feminine sexual roles in that the nature of the union is based on the qualities of object as active, determined, and self-possessing, and subject as dependent, servile, passive, space. Unsurprisingly, this leads to an element of violence in Balthasar’s epistemology:
“…things enter the subject’s space without prior invitation. …Its doors have always already been beaten down, and and it itself has always already been dragged out into the work of giving form to the world. Without having been notified or asked, it was thrown into the enterprise of knowledge. It has always already been commandeered for the formation of the world, and its apparatus is already at work before it becomes aware of its operation. Things, then, have always already decided the subject’s fate. …Knowledge is, in the very act of its origination, service, because it begins when the subject, without being consulted, is conscripted into the world’s labor force and attains judgment only at the end” (68).
Balthasar admits this violent nature when he says that “The world’s initial onrush can appear almost as brutal as a violation” (71). He goes on to say that the reward for the subject is “rich beyond the subject’s wildest hopes” (69) and that “it awakens in the knower a yearning for more” (40, italics original). The violation is therefore justified on two fronts, both of them similar to the justifications used in cases of rape. First, this violation is necessary for the subject, who, even though it does not know that this is what’s good for it, is in fact helped by the violation, or is even brought pleasure through it – a common ingredient in rape fantasies. Second, it is also justified on the basis of the fact that it is necessary for the object in validating itself. Balthasar says that “insofar as knowledge is obectification, it is an acknowledgment and certification, a ratification and an unappealable declaration, that the object actually exists. If the object were ever tempted to doubt that it is a real entity having existence and meaning, it need only look to the subject’s act of affirmation in order to win back its confidence” (77). Balthasar therefore here engages in the same excuses in legitimating the object’s rape of the subject that men give to legitimate their rape of women, namely that their worth and confidence as men is dependent upon the availability of a woman to them, and the man/object is therefore entitled to the space of the woman.subject.
There are certain things about Balthasar’s theology that I rather like – his use of polarity and duality, and even kenosis, for example. So, the question then becomes how such concepts can be preserved from the kind of violent, gendered system in which Balthasar employs them. One device that comes to mind is Julia Kristeva’s khora. This concept is so interesting precisely because it is similar to Balthasar’s subjective space, but in her hands, it subverts the system that he has set up. The khora of course refers to the third element in creation in Plato’s Timaeus – a primordial, indeterminate space-matter in which objects take on their character, and out of which they are birthed. As such, Kristeva associates it with the feminine, the womb. It is a pre-linguistic space of nurturing love and relationship (in distinction to Derrida’s khora, which is more like a desert). Thus, it seems that Kristeva is quite happy to associate this indeterminate space with the feminine. The difference, however, is in its relationship to the linguistic masculine. While it is a space, it is not a space that is available for the purposes of the linguistic. It cannot be captured and cannot be taken advantage of. While the linguistic, to which the khora gave birth, overshadows the khora, the khora is constantly interrupting and frustrating the linguistic (see Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language).
Thus, in Balthasar’s system, the feminine is interrupted by the male-object, while for Kristeva it is the feminine space that interrupts the masculine world of objects and their signification. Is this simply an inversion of Balthasar’s violence? I’m inclined to think not. The difference here is that the system is interrupted by a nothing. There is no new object, order, system, or goal that is forced upon the other. This is a pure interruption, a caesura which arrests the madness for a moment. It applies a break to the violence of a system otherwise racing out of control (see for example Walter Benjamin’s essay on violence and his theories on history and the messianic). This is not to say that I would want to draw a strict correlation between the khora and the subject (the point is that the khora is pre-subjective), but this draws attention to the fact that knowledge is more complex than simply the imposition of an object upon a passive subject because there are always pre-subjective forces at work in the subject and in knowledge that disrupt our attempts to neatly delineate subject from object, even as they do not replace this tension with another totalizing (masculine) system.