Laying to Rest: Identity as a Zombie Category

Contemporary Sociological Theory (Identity)
May 2018

This essay will form part one of a two part blog post. In this particular section, I discuss the concept of identity existing solely as something corporeally exposed and expressed, paralleling the actions of many philosophers who overturn the Cartesian tradition of the excessive privileging of the mind over the body. Here I engage with two distinct albeit compatible zombie concepts. The Zombie Category, which implies a useful fiction kept alive and operationalised in theoretical discourse, and the Philosophical Zombiea hypothetical posit of a being who displays the sufficient and necessary behavioural outputs to qualify its identity, despite lacking consciousness. If identity is construed in this way, it has interesting social ramifications. This will be explored in part two.

In discussions of identity, the concept of a ‘private identity’ cannot be granted any significance, as the traditional commonsensical split between a private identity and a public identity is an untenable one. Rather, all identity is ostensive and articulated through the body via performance, in contrast to an epistemically secure private self in which one has privileged acquaintance with. For instance, the categories which form fundamental aspects of one’s identity, such as gender, sexuality, race, et. al., are entirely conveyed through outward expressions (Butler 1990, pp. 6 – 8, 16, 25). Therefore, indicators of one’s identity cannot be located by retreating to a privately known and intrinsically secure ego according to the traditional Cartesian picture where the lonely subject is at the centre (Bauman 2012 p. 168) (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim 2002, p. 207). It is on this basis that private identity is a zombie category: ultimately ‘dead’ but kept alive as useful fictions in discourse surrounding identity (ibid., pp. 202 – 205). This ‘zombie’ will subsequently be put to rest. A wholly private existence is a spurious and illusory posit, for it excessively alienates the ‘I’ from others and distinctly individuates it from the body (Merleau-Ponty 2004, pp. 61 – 65). No meaningful value concerning identity can be found internally; identity must be performed and hence perceived, as behaviour is interconnected to identity (ibid., pp. 50 – 51, 63) (Baldwin 2004, pp. 17 – 18, 22).

This conceptual shift is further illustrated through the concept of a ‘philosophical zombie’. It is conceivable that a subject can display all the necessary behavioural outputs that necessitate the construction of identity based on these very performances alone, by looking at “effects rather than causes” (Kirk 2015) (Butler 1990, p. 125). There is no need to posit a private ‘inner self’ or privileged conscious experience to interpellate the subject into existence. Public expressions sufficiently constitute being and qualify identity, for “the doing is everything” (Nietzsche 2007, p. 26). Importantly, this manoeuvre does not go so far to eradicate private mental states such as beliefs and desires. Whilst private mental states are inefficacious in discussions of identity, they can separately account for the causal motivations behind actions.


As the concept of a private self has been deflated, I will advance the thesis in which the body is not merely an embodied expression of identity, but also a site of identity that can be addressed and brought into being via its relations being in and with public life (Giddens 1991, p. 56) (Bauman 2012, p. 108). The social world is a spectacle to be observed, consisting of a flow of symbolic exchanges and performances (ibid., pp. 5 – 8) (Bauman 2001, p. 125) (Bourdieu 1990, p. 52). All practices involve the body – even speech acts are bodily acts of articulation (Butler 1997, p. 12) (Bourdieu 1990, p. 69). All performative acts are noteworthy in that they are actions performed in necessary relation to another: they are valuable symbols in a social realm differing across contexts, valuable if and only if they are publicly observable (ibid., p. 71) (Thompson 1991, p. 18). Through these embodied interactions do these symbols become meaningful in the construction of identity.

Therefore through performing, not only is the ‘I’ brought into being, but the ‘other’ is interpellated by being acknowledged as a worthy subject: the reciprocal act of recognition becomes an act of social constitution – an address animates the subject into existence (Butler 1997, pp. 25 – 27) (Butler 2004a, p. 46). Hence, the self must be relationally defined through its precariousness and its exposure with others engaged in the world; it is an interdependent relationship (ibid., p. 24) (Butler 2009a, pp. 2 – 4).

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