Mediocrity vs. Mediocracy in Zone One
Colson Whitehead has written an inordinately compelling post-apocalyptic science fiction novel centering around the zombie archetype. In Zone One, he deftly uses the zombie model to create a mediocracy—a populace of dependent thinkers who accept, without question, a system of existence that is not favorable to them. In so doing, Whitehead turns the undead into symbolism to criticize the classism of Capitalism and the mindsets that contribute to failure to measure up to potential. Whitehead writes Mark Spitz as a character to embody the irony of using mediocrity as a haven from the burden of pursuing success to illustrate that to be mediocre is to affirm the mediocracy; moreover, the mediocracy inherently stifles ambition and hinders success, and therein lies the crux of Whitehead’s irony and the cornerstone of his criticism of Capitalist society.
The text ultimately defines success as a more-or-less fruitless burden imposed upon the multitude. It is starkly reminiscent of the Marxist concept of false consciousness, which is the sociological result of Capitalism culturally conditioning the minds of the people to accept a system that disadvantages them. Accepting this system without questioning it and without protest is “to accept it as the logical way for things to be” for no other reason than that such is the Capitalist ideology into which the people have been interpellated (Dobie 94). This concept of false consciousness is an integral part of interpellation, which Louis Althusser, a shaping figure of Marxism in the twentieth century, defined simply as the manipulation of the working class “to accept the ideology of the dominant class” (Dobie 88). This is what Whitehead uses the skel horde to symbolize.
Whitehead narrates a scene late in “Sunday,” the first part of the novel, where Central Park in Manhattan is overtaken with those infected by the plague. This is Spitz’s first opportunity to see Central Park from such aerial vantage, and he is aghast to study how the undead move. The way Whitehead chooses to describe this scene is pregnant with meaning: They didn’t stop to appreciate the scenery, these dead visitors; they ranged on the grass and walkways without purpose or sense, moving first this way and then strolling in another direction until, distracted by nothing in particular, they readjusted their idiot course. (Whitehead 91) This description signifies the mindless proletariat (as opposed to the controlling bourgeoisie) aimlessly seeking without knowing what they’re seeking because success is so subjectively defined that no one knows how to pursue it, let alone how to attain it.
Mediocrity presents itself in the novel, through Spitz’s eyes at least, as a virtue. There are many situations in which the protagonist thinks or speaks of mediocrity as a means of protecting a comfort zone. The text explains that Mark Spitz’s goal in life or, as he terms it, “the business of existence” is merely to suffer as little as possible, as opposed to the far more idealistic goal of enjoying as much as possible (Whitehead 106). He considers it most necessary to minimize consequences in life, nothing more, and he deems the plague to be a mere challenge to this endgame for which he has been training all his life. In other words, he has considerable practice and familiarity with mediocrity. This establishes Spitz’s perspective of success as one in which succeeding is merely keeping life uneventful.
One of the most pervasive themes in the story is that of averageness, the idea of being thoroughly unremarkable as a person. From the very beginning, Spitz is discussing this idea at length, and he embraces it wholesale because he feels that it is safe. Whitehead, however, uses the story to take Spitz’s character through a progression of events that brings him to question this dismal philosophy. Spitz has such lowly consideration for the notion of success because of his yearn to espouse averageness, yet one scene more than any other depicts through Whitehead’s narration just how parallel the skels are to Spitz and other so-called average people, which makes a commentary about society being comprised in large part of people unwilling to become anything because they are complacent—because they prefer to simply accept status quot:
If the things they destroyed were their own creations, and not the degraded remnants of the people described on the things’ driver’s licenses, so be it. We never see other people anyway, only the monsters we make of them. To Mark Spitz, the dead were his neighbors, the people he saw every day, as he might on a subway car, the fantastic metropolitan array. The subway was the great leveler—underground, the Wall Street titans stood in the shuddering car and clutched the same poles as the junior IT guys to create a totem of fists […] All were smeared into a common average of existence, the A’s and the C’s tumbling or rising to settle into a ruthless mediocrity. No escape. This is the plane where Mark Spitz lived. They were all him. Middling talents who got by, barnacles on humanity’s hull, survivors who had not yet been extinguished. Perhaps it was only a matter of time. Perhaps he would live until he chose not to. (Whitehead 266-7)
To Mark Spitz, the ideal world is one devoid of noticeable success or differentiation. He apotheosizes a world in which everyone blends together and stands on an equal playing field not for competition’s sake but for quite the opposite. He is averse to any means of measuring people against one another, and his mind gravitates toward ideas that don’t acknowledge the stratification of peers.
Spitz remarking near the end that one has to swim sometime indicates that he is finally prepared to end his stagnation and step into his potential, and because his name alludes to a potential for greatness (referring to Mark Andrew Spitz, an Olympic swimmer of seven gold medals), the reader is made to wonder what he could have accomplished had he reached this conclusion much earlier in life. Whitehead brings Spitz through this character development specifically to pose that question to the reader in a prolix and captivating, narrative way. Rather than serving as a haven, mediocrity withheld a wealth of potential from Spitz as it presumably withholds from society at large, especially the complacent working class.
Dobie, Ann B. Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism. 4th ed. Boston: Thomson Heinle, 2015. Print.
Whitehead, Colson. Zone One. New York City, London, Toronto, Sidney, Auckland: Doubleday, 2011. Kindle.