Subverting the Epistemelogical Rape of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theory of Knowledge

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.


4 comments on “Subverting the Epistemelogical Rape of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theory of Knowledge

  1. Zac says:


    Thanks for this. I really appreciate your analysis here. Having just begun to read Balthasar last winter, I had not come across this passage. It is quite stunning (and by that I really mean disturbing) the parallel you draw and goes to show how, regardless of how much a particular theologian may disapprove of violence in one sense, the logic of their discourse could very well remain steeped in the same or other forms of violence. Indeed, even as I formulate what I am about to write, I feel a degree of trepidation, wondering to what extent my own language-form will repeat or avoid repeating violent logic.

    What I am particularly interested commenting on is the end of your post, where you bring in Kristeva and talk about the significance of khora as a pre-subjective/pre-linguistic space. Can you say more about the relationship between this space and the space of the subject? You spoke of interruption, which I get and think is helpful, but it leaves some questions for me. Is the space of the subject which khora interrupts violent and male as such (inasmuch as the feminine khora is “pre-subjective”) or is there a way, regardless of the categories of “femininity” or “masculinity,” of being a subject without needing an object to dominate or perhaps even need an object at all–object here being the passive space that requires a subject to actualize it? Is there a way that the interruption of khora, rather than being pure interruption, can “free” subjects to a form of subjectivity that is not limited to a violent form of the subject-object dualism but rather opened up to a different form of that dualism (based on the fact that the subject is ‘born’ from this khora to begin with?)? I’m just testing some ideas here…so, what if we acknowledged an altered form of subject-object distinction that Balthasar employs, but radicalized it such that the mode of interaction between subject and object existed not in a unidirectional way as Balthasar seems to indicate, but reciprocally all the way down. In this case, no “male” can be subject without simultaneously also being object (a subject-object) and no “female” can be object without simultaneously being subject (an object-subject). Perhaps its the dualism itself that needs to go, but I’m not totally convinced yet about that.

    What I’m really grasping at here is for an understanding of the function of the ‘object’ (and I suppose by virtue of that, the ‘subject’ as well). Why, for Balthasar and for anyone else, does the discourse of epistemology feel the need for an ‘object’ at all for thought? Could we not simply think of knowledge as a form of the relation between a subject and subject? Conversely, regardless of our “masculinity” or “femininity,” if we do decide to employ a subject-object dualism, can we do so in a way that invites the kind of constant interruption and evolution of said relation that khora seems to ‘grow’? My hunch is that we can, and I think that we can precisely by way of a discourse in which khora is assumed to be a force that is ‘at play’ in the process of dialogue.

    Part of my thinking here is animated by some research I am doing right now on Peter Ochs. I am engaging Ochs to further research in how Christian theology is being transformed ‘after supersessionism.’ In Ochs’ book “Another Reformation: Postliberalism and the Jews” he points to ways in which he sees Postliberal Christians (in their better moments) advocating a kind of discursive approach to theology that moves beyond, I think, the kind of subject-object dualism that we are speaking of here. In fact, it strikes me, in light of this discussion and in light of J. Cameron Carter’s “Race,” that it is precisely the logic of subject-object that operates in supersessionism. In supersessionism, the Jews are object and Christianity is subject. What is needed in Judaism is the actualization and realization that can only come from the Christian subject drawing out its true “meaning” and form in the Church. Ochs uses his previous engagement with Charle Pierce’s logical and semiotic studies where he refers to “monadic” signs, “dyadic” signs, and “tryadic” signs and their differences, to claim that what Christian theology needs to attend to is a mode of discourse that is more “tryadic” in character, allowing for “repair” in discourse and human relation. Ochs notes: “Repair refers, metaphysically, to activities that reintegrate the sufferer and a given order of creation [orders which Ochs notes, with reference to the Rabbis, are “renewed daily”]…Epistemologically, repair is recognized only “from the inside,” as an activity that engages the knower in the relational work of transforming conditions of suffering into conditions, again, of unselfconscious living within some order of creation. Logically, the activity of repair cannot be identified by any discrete series of propositions formed by dyadic logics. It can be diagrammed only through narratives that imitate the activity, thereby providing both illustration and instruction in the practice of repair.” (Another Reformation, 14-15)

    I guess what I’m wondering is, is there a parallel here between what Ochs speaks of as “repair” and khora? Could Khora be conceived as a kind of reparative activity that cannot be identified through ‘dyadic logics’ but only identified by narratives of interruption? In the case of khora, though, does interruption help reintegrate the sufferer as well or does it simply interrupt? It would seem that, as you indicate, subjects are ‘birthed’ form khora, so then it does perform a re-integrative activity, yes?

  2. Lexi says:

    Dear Zac,

    Thank you very much for this response. Your thoughts have helped me to think through some things a bit more. I pointed to Kristeva’s khora as one possible device to hopefully help to mitigate some of the violence in Balthasar without completely rejecting him, because, as you point out I think there are some good things about him. Indeed, I too am not really ready to give up the idea of duality (even subject-object duality) altogether, especially since it seems to me that often attempts at wholism end up in other sorts of violence and often perpetuate certain kinds of harmful dualism out of sight. In any case, what I am offering here are really only tentative suggestions and possible avenues of exploration.

    One of the difficulties of applying the khora to Balthasar is that the concept does not clearly or explicitly map onto either the subject or the object. Kristeva uses it more in the realm of language, as some pre-linguistic space – perhaps a space that is even prior to the subject/object divide. I think I’m trying to use the khora here in the way that Agamben might, that is to say, one division (subject-object) is not overcome but is interrupted by a second division (language-prelanguage) that leaves the system in place while also disrupting its power-dynamics. So, suddenly we no longer have a simple wholism or a simple opposition, but it includes additional movements that are disrupting the dialectic. Now, the reason that I opt for this rather than simply the replacing of Balthasar’s subject-object relation with a better (subject-subject) relation is I think because I want to be suspicious of any system that claims to capture or exhaust relations. These sorts of reified systems always seem to become violent, no matter how good they at first appear. So, maintaining the movement of interruption that the khora represents is a way of simultaneously trying to articulate better systems, while also being open to their disruption.

    So, I guess what I’m saying is that I agree with you – I hope there can be a better relation, but I think whatever better relation we envision cannot be total. We will always need the khora as well (this side of the eschaton). Repair and disruption. So, I really like your idea of the khora as a force at play in a dialogue. I don’t think it is itself a re-integrative activity, it is that which distrupts premature integrations, but in doing so I think it does make new re-integrations possible. So khora is not itself a new system or a new total movement that will somehow fix everything. It is itself only one side in an oscillating movement between disruption and repair, but it is nevertheless necessary because all such repairs are only ever partial.

    I suppose the thing that is interesting about Balthasar’s otherwise really disturbing account above is that it’s the opposite of the problem that Peter Ochs identifies. In most cases, I think that Ochs is right to identify that the subject is usually the one with the power in the relationship and imposes itself on the object. In Balthasar, this is reversed, and it is we who are always being interrupted by the object/the world/another subject. I think this inclination is good, and I want to maintain this interruption to ourselves. I think the reason it becomes violent is because it is athing that is imposing itself on us, while if it is a pure interruption, a space (of nurturing relationship), then it is an interruption that does not violate, but simply suspends, inviting a new response.

  3. Zac says:

    Hi Lexi,

    You said:

    “I think I’m trying to use the khora here in the way that Agamben might, that is to say, one division (subject-object) is not overcome but is interrupted by a second division (language-prelanguage) that leaves the system in place while also disrupting its power-dynamics. So, suddenly we no longer have a simple wholism or a simple opposition, but it includes additional movements that are disrupting the dialectic.”

    This is very helpful. I am with you 100% on not wanting to ‘overcome’ a dualism with a “simple wholism” and I think khora is a helpful interpretive framework for thinking of a way to have the system be challenged, interrupted, even transformed (not by the interruption per se), without resorting to another “system” that purports to effect that transformation once and for all.

    I am intrigued by your last comment regarding Ochs and I’ll have to think about that more. I haven’t read Ochs too much and if you have read him quite a bit I will defer to your expertise, but the sense that I get is that he too would allow for a similar operation that you rightfully indicate Balthasar purports, namely, that it is we being interrupted by the object/the world/another subject. Based on my reading, in some ways it seems that for Ochs this type of interruption is what makes for the possibility of reparative discourse in the first place as it is only in the space of objects/world/subjects that we encounter not only dyads interrupting each other but also a third interruptive ‘agent’ (my wording) and that third agent is the transcendent Word or the infinite activity of the God of Israel at work moving creation towards its eschatological end. That being said, Ochs and Balthasar are obviously set apart by a whole host of linguistic nuances and methodological differences that could be spelled out with further engagement.

    On a different note and out of curiosity, do you have a favorite work of Balthasar’s? I’m always curious to know what draws people to his work.

    Thanks again for this discussion.

  4. Lexi says:

    Thanks, Zac.

    No, I’m afraid I haven’t read Ochs at all actually, although I once had a conversation with him. Here I was only responding to your description of him. I would not at all be surprised if the third agent is both interruptive and reparative in his thought.

    With respect to Balthasar, I still feel like I am quite new to his work, but I like Mysterium Paschale, mostly because there the interruptive term takes on historical and christological significance in that he identifies the interruption with Holy Saturday. Christ becomes sort of like a suture: both a tear in time such that it can no longer hold together in itself, but also that which is the site of a new (the only) unity.

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