Monday, December 17, 2012

Not-So-Naive Nathaniel: The Postmodern Self and Nathaniel Branden's Individualism.

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.

Branden goes on to elaborate this inner complexity: "No significant aspect of our thinking, motivation, feelings or behavior is unaffected by our self-evaluation. We are organisms who are not only conscious but self-conscious. That is our glory and, at times, our burden." (ibid)

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.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Book Review: Martha Beck, Finding Your Own North Star. (2001)

"Pleasure and suffering are antithetical; joy and suffering are not. Anyone who's felt the pain of bearing a child, or pushed past physical limits in some athletic event, or struggled to learn difficult but powerful truths understands that suffering can be an integral part of the most profound joy. In fact, once the suffering has ended, having experienced it seems to magnify the capacity to feel pleasure and delight." (p. 210)

This rather Nietzschean sentiment is expressed by Martha Beck, a life-coach who has written a number of popular books.  Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live (2001) is one of her first self-help books. It deals with learning to read one's own "internal compasses", emotions, intuition and bodily sensations, in order to discover the next step in one's life path. It is very practical, methods-and-results oriented, with a number of anecdotes illustrating the principles. I find it highly compatible with Nathaniel Branden's approach to personal development, which I am also studying.

 "Getting in touch with one's feelings" has become a cliche, dating to the '70's subculture which preceded the New Age Movement. However, being clearly aware of one's internal signals is an indispensable prerequisite for independence and autonomy. This is especially true for those, such as LHP practitioners, who are in the process of breaking away from societal assumptions and expectations, and need to develop clear inner guidance to replace them. Jumping into the vacuum with no source of direction at all is a recipe for anomie, and this is what may have hijacked much of the 60's and 70's counterculture. Turning inward to find one's own answers is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced, and the journey along the way is often a bumpy one.

Beck details the four stages in the cycle of change, which she says everyone goes through repeatedly during their lifetimes. I'm not sure if this is true for "everyone" (see below on "Your Everybody"), but she does give a number of case studies from her life-coaching practice which show the characteristics of each stage and the transitions between them. Using this model, I personally find that I seem to blend aspects of multiple stages rather than being clearly in one or the other. Evidently some people are more linear and sequential in their growth process than others. At any rate, the model gives one food for thought, and reassurance that the more difficult periods will eventually come to an end.

The part of the book that I personally found the most useful was "Getting Everybody on Your Side", which is about one's personal Everybody, or "generalized other". According to Beck, many people harbor a notion of what "everybody" thinks based on just a few actual people. This was written back in 2001; I wonder if it is equally true in today's internet culture, where people are exposed to a huge variety of "others" daily on Facebook and other venues. Nonetheless, I found it quite valuable to contemplate my assumptions about who "everybody" is, and train myself to be more selective about whose opinions I will admit to my psychological inner forum.

Beck's style is often amusing and playful. I personally found her use of humour a bit overdone at times, but overall this book is enjoyable and easy to read.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Evo-PoMo: A Hotel Room for Strange Bedfellows.

I've recently been reading (or listening to on CD) several books on the topics of evolutionary psychology and postmodern philosophy: Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works(2009), Richard J. Bernstein's The New Constellation: Ethical-Political Horizons of Modernity/Postmodernity(1992), Seyla Benhabib's Situating the Self: Gender, Community, and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics(1992), and Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion(2012)

As I learned about the latest evolutionary psych theories, it was like the lights started going on all over. It's an experience I've had a few times before, when a new concept arrives that makes things fit together in startling, unexpected and yet logical ways.

Evo Psych and PoMo, I will admit, are rather strange bedfellows. Since these two intellectual movements began gaining prominence, there has been a great deal of hostility between their advocates. Pinker complains about how "postmodern intellectuals" scorn the evidence of biology, while the postmodern critical theorists, for their part, accuse evolutionary psychologists of "essentialism" and ontological naivete. To me, this looks much like a replay of the "two cultures", the hard-headed scientists and soft, fuzzy aesthetes.

Yet, while perusing these various texts, I found a number of intersections. Indeed, I was startled by how the Evos and PoMos often seemed to be expressing similar motifs within different linguistic and conceptual paradigms.

Notably, for instance, Pinker's theory of "mental modules" dovetails quite well with the postmodern idea of multiple "ways of knowing" -- a term which Pinker himself actually employs. According to his theory, our brains contain genetically-hardwired "modules", functional systems of neurons, for a number of such "ways of knowing", including specific mental processes relating to [I quote from memory]: "objects, animate things, natural kinds, artifacts, formal rules, and minds." The brain, in other words, employs a number of different strategies in accordance with the topic and situation, and does so using a variety of different constructed categories. The basic categories appear to be human universals, stable across cultures, while cultural memes fill out the particular details.

Now, one of PoMo Crit-Theory's contentions is that traditional Western rationality is imperialistic because it privileges one type of reasoning -- formal, logical, left-brained -- over all the other ways of knowing which exist, and which are associated with non-Western people, women, children, minorities, and other oppressed groups. These other ways of knowing include "local knowledge", contextual, situation-based reasoning, intuition, empathy and the like. Pinker's theory would agree that all of these forms of cognition exist, are valid, and indeed stem from evolved adaptations. The human brain is naturally designed to process information in a variety of ways, ranging from the precise and formal to loose, fuzzy, contextual, situational, emotive, relativistic and, well, postmodern.

I anticipate that there will be much productive cross-fertilizing between these two fields in the years to come -- although, of course, not unaccompanied by the usual academic drama and acrimony. Which, I am sure, will make it all the more entertaining, in addition to illuminating.