Cultural leftists, especially those with a postmodern bent (which is nearly all of them nowadays) assume that individualists necessarily have a naive, simplistic model of the self, an "atomistic self" based on a pre-modern-physics model of the atom: a hard, chunky, rigidly-bounded Newtonian billiard ball. To this is contrasted the postmodern notion of self: fluid, decentered, unbounded, fractal. The drawbacks of the former model and the superiority and greater sophistication of the latter one are pointed out. But is the individualist self-concept really so naive?
I could point to famous individualists of the past, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson with his "transparent eyeball" and Oversoul. But, since I've been reading Nathaniel Branden, I will present some quotes from him instead.
Right at the beginning of Honoring the Self: Personal Integrity and the Heroic Potentials of Human Nature, in the second paragraph of the introduction, Branden writes: "We stand in the midst of an almost infinite network of relationships: to other people, to things, to the universe." (p. 1) Clearly, the notion of the relational self is not foreign to him; it is at the very starting-point of his thought. But the fact of relationality, both objectively known and subjectively felt, does not eclipse individualism. He goes on to say: "And yet, at three o-clock in the morning, when we are alone with ourselves, we are aware that the most intimate and powerful of all relationships and the one that we can never escape is the relationship to ourselves."
Here, I think, Nathaniel Branden is a bit presumptive in his use of the pronoun 'we'; not everyone would necessarily agree with this statement. However, his placing of this idea immediately after his mention of the "infinite network of relationships" shows that he does not regard relationality and individuality as contradictory, but as compatible and complementary. Indeed, he presents them as nested together, in terms of a "relationship to ourselves". The relational nature of human existence, its networked complexity, extends into the inner, private realm of the soul, the existential place where we are alone at three AM.
Here, the self is presented as a multiplicity of many "aspects", diverse, distinct, and yet interrelated. Plus, the self is also described as a multilevel feedback system capable of "self-evaluation", of reflecting back upon itself. Such self-reflection is not passive, but has the capacity to affect and alter the other elements. The inherent ambiguity of human nature is also acknowledged: it is both a "glory" and a "burden".
This was written back in 1983, when the great locomotive of postmodernism was just beginning to pick up steam on the tracks of academia. Later in the book, he continues his analysis of human selfhood:
"I do not wish to imply that we first acquire an independent sense of identity and then seek visibility though interaction with others. Obviously, our relationships and the responses and feedback we receive contribute to the sense of self we acquire. All of us, to a profoundly important extent, experience who we are in the context of our relationships. When we encounter a new human being, our personality contains, among other things, the consequences of many past encounters, many experiences, the internalization of many responses and instances of feedback from others. And we keep growing through our encounters." (p. 40)
Here self is a process, something that is not merely given but "acquired", and not in a vacuum, but in the context of relationships and interactions, a nonlinear mesh of interconnected variables. Feedback, again, is stressed as a significant factor. Branden then makes a particularly suggestive observation:
"We normally have, of course, a sense of our own identity, but it is experienced more as a diffuse feeling than an isolated thought. Our self-concept is not a single concept but a cluster of images and abstract perspectives on on our various (real or imagined) traits and characteristics." (ibid.)
The experience of the self as a "diffuse feeling" and "cluster of images" is a common trope in postmodern writings. Indeed, I was struck by the resemblance between this paragraph and the idea of polyfaceted, sprawling, "indeterminate" female subjectivity in the French feminist poststructuralists, such as Helene Cixous, Julia Kristeva, and Luce Irigaray. While their language is rather more florid and poetic than Branden's, his usage of similar concepts suggests that the "diffuse" and "clustered" nature of human identity applies no less to the much-maligned "autonomous male ego" than to the rapturously polymorphous French Poststructuralist feminist persona.
In short, Nathaniel Branden's egoistic model of the self is neither naive nor atomistic, but relational, contextual, fluid, multifaceted -- in other words, postmodern. And his individualism is based not on a simplistic concept of autonomy as isolation, but on the possibility of agency within a feedback-laden network of relationships. While life may indeed be (at least in some respects) a giant pinball game with multiple players, with actions and interactions that richochet and reverberate back and forth, that does not make us passive, vacuous sites of the interplay of exogenous forces, because we have access to the levers -- if we choose to use them.