Heralds and messengers

Image: Sebastian Voortman


Aquaman as a symbol of resistance and illuminating Theodor Adorno's error

For Plato, as in Timaeus, the kingdom of Atlantis was an allegory about what happens when humans imagine themselves divorced from life. Instead of living in harmony with other societies, other geographies and other species, Atlantis becomes an empire driven to colonial expansion, with an insatiable desire for material wealth.

No Timaeus According to Plato, Atlantis was a naval power located “beyond the Pillars of Hercules”, which conquered many parts of Western Europe and Africa 9.000 years before the era of Solon, that is, approximately 9.600 BC. After a failed attempt to invade Athens, Atlantis sank into the ocean “in a single day and night of misfortune.”

In this sense: “In this way, we can consider approaching the narrative from one of two perspectives: recognizing its historical background; or consider it a fiction forged by Plato himself. In addition to these two hypotheses, some authors consider a third that they link to its allegorical scope. In our opinion, this path is not on the same plane as the previous ones, insofar as it is compatible with both; It will therefore constitute the second level of intentionality of the narrative, whether historical or fictional” (Lopes, 2010, p. 54).

Now, specifically in relation to the superhero genre, in which D.C. and Aquaman are placed, it has its roots in the Jewish experience in the years of World War II.

The above statement comes from the perspective employed by authors and artists, who used symbols to make visible the horrors of the Nazi regime, thus Mort Weisinger, son of Jewish immigrants from Austria, was the creator of Aquaman.

At the beginning of Aquaman, the hero rescues “refugees and hospital workers” from an attack by a Nazi submarine. Thus, even in comics, the ocean is recognized as a political space, an ideological battlefield and a geography of justice and injustice.

The beginning of Aquaman it is a Nazi submarine sending a torpedo to an unnamed ship, which wanders, on the high seas, without mercy. The ship transports people that the fascist regime considers disposable.

According to Walter Benjamin, allegories flourish when reality is in crisis, when paradigms for understanding the world collapse. An allegory marks an era of calamity in a way to respond to that crisis. It makes visible how the ocean became a site of increasing capitalist colonial expansion. This is what can be inferred and what we base ourselves on in order to dialogue with the superhero genre:

Immanence is the absolute law of this drama. “In the baroque drama, neither the monarch nor the martyrs escape immanence” (p. 91). For him, history is a mere spectacle, and a sad spectacle: tragedy. He is Game, mere spectacle, because life, deprived of any ultimate meaning, has lost its seriousness. It's illusion, it's game, appearance: theater world. And is Mourning, a mournful spectacle, because it expresses the sadness of a world without teleology, and because its plot, however illusory it may be, is a fabric of crimes and calamities.

The spectacle is the playful illusion that reflects the illusory world, and its mournful structure is at the service of the mourners: a theater for the mourners. There is no transfiguring instance that would make life more than a spectacle, and that would console man for his grief. Transcendence, when it appears, is like a game, and thus confirms itself as illusory. Thus, the typically baroque artifice of the spectacle within the spectacle introduces into the scene an instance that at first glance refers to another, non-illusory reality, but this second reality is just a scene behind the scene, and, therefore, is an illusory duplication of the first illusion (Benjamin, 1984, p. 32-33).

During World War II, Carl Schmitt published Land and sea, a world history of meditation, in 1942, a year after the Jewish author created the Aquaman. Land and sea places the ocean as the center of world history.

According to Carl Schmitt, the history of the world is a story of the battle of sea powers against land powers, and of land powers against sea powers. This is what is observed in this passage: “World history is the history of the struggle of maritime powers against land powers and of land powers against maritime powers. A French specialist in military science, Admiral Castex, gave his strategic book the comprehensive subtitle: “The sea against the land“, (La Mer contre la Terre). With this subtitle, it remains in a great tradition (Schmitt, 2015, p. 11).

In Carl Schmitt's theory, the ocean is a surface to be conquered by empires, not a living place that deserves recognition, respect and care. In order to support this perspective, he recovers two perspectives, namely Michelet's and Melville's:

I can only dare to do so because I am a fan of two great heralds and messengers of these two wonders of the sea, an eloquent French historian, Jules Michelet, and a great American poet, Herman Melville. The Frenchman published a book about the sea in 1861, “a hymn to the beauty of the sea and the world of its undiscovered wonders”, to the wealth of entire continents, which receive their life and growth from the bottom of the sea and that the “cruel king of this world”, man, has not yet conquered and explored.

Herman Melville, however, is to the world's oceans what Homer is to the eastern Mediterranean. Melville wrote the story of the great whale, Moby Dick, and his hunter, Captain Ahab, in a powerful tale Moby Dick (1851) and with it he composed the greatest epic of the ocean as an element (Schmitt, 2015, p. 26).

In 1930, Hitler and other Nazis became obsessed with Atlantis, and believed that the lost island was the origin of the Aryan race. In fact, Hitler financed a program to discover historical Atlantis in order to prove that the Aryans descended from a pure and powerful power (Poll, 2022, p. 158).

Today, the ocean is the sewer into which fertilizers and oil are spilled. Chemical fertilizers contain high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus enough to make a bomb, and when thrown into the sea, they reduce oxygen to a minimum, even zero. There are several dead zones throughout the ocean.

The Hollywood industry is capable of promoting resistance to this capitalist invasion of the sea. Aquaman symbolizes this resistance, mainly with the choice of a Maori character, who challenges white supremacy, racism, capitalism and colonialism. Therefore, from this article, we shed light on Theodor Adorno's error.

*Ari Marcelo Solon He is a professor at the Faculty of Law at USP. Author of, among others, books, Paths of philosophy and science of law: German connection in the future of justice (Prisma). [https://amzn.to/3Plq3jT]


BENJAMIN, Walter. Origin of German Baroque drama. Translated by Sérgio Paulo Rouanet. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1984.

LOPES, Rodolfo. Introduction. In: PLATO. Timaeus-Critias. Translated by Rodolfo Lopes. Coimbra: University of Coimbra, 2010. p. 12-68.

PLATO. Timaeus-Critias. Translated by Rodolfo Lopes. Coimbra: University of Coimbra, 2010.

POLL, Ryan. Aquaman and the War against Oceans: Comics Activism and Allegory in the Anthropocene. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2022.

SCHMITT, Carl. Land and Sea: A World-Historical Meditation. Translated by Samuel Garrett Zeitlin. Candor: Telos Press Publishing, 2015.

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