To Ashes

05Apr13

Life is a drama, said Kenneth Burke.  While criticizing a work we can think of it as the telling of a story, the common story, where there will always be several features to identify. Within a  drama there is an Act performed.  What happened?  An Agent performs the Act.  Who did it? There is a Scene where the Act takes place.  Where and under what circumstances did the Act occur?  The Agent uses an Agency to perform the Act.  What means were used to achieve the Act?  The Act was done for a Purpose.  Why?

Burke said this dramatic form is embedded in the structure of our minds.  To understand the world’s happenings we identify the plot, characters, setting, method, and purpose of each story.  This is why almost everything in media is communicated through a dramatic form.  Mass-marketing persuasion exploits this human tendency of identification to  trigger a rapid stimulus response in us.  That is why criticism is crucial.  It delays and eventually modifies our reactions to messages.  With criticism we do not behave like Pavlov’s salivating spinal dogs when we see Pillsbury sugar cookies advertised on TV.

Like mass-marketing persuasion, rhetoric in the form of punk rock songs aroused profound responses in Straight Edge followers.  Especially powerful were the songs that told stories or gave testimonies.  One example is To Ashes, by Earth Crisis.

“Based on a true story,” opens the music video of the song.  It is with this story that we apply Burke’s method of analysis, Pentadic criticism, named for the five features of drama that we previously discussed.

To Ashes allegedly tells the story of Walter Bond, a Straight Edge vegan, animal rights activist, and arsonist accused and convicted for setting fire to a meth lab and other buildings.  The song is told through a first-person point of view as if through the eyes of Bond.  An actor portraying Bond commences the music video describing his brother, a drug user, as his motive for arson.  The lyrics read:

My kin a prisoner
Now the reaper awaits
A demon encased
Inside of human skin

So far we have identified the Agent of this drama: Bond.  He lives amidst a “plague of addiction” where his close loved one and others have fallen to the Straight Edge vice of drug use.  We see the Scene set by the song. The “plague” has become impossible to ignore; “deterioration accelerates” before Bond’s very eyes.  In the shadow of looming Death, under “the darkened sky,” Bond is “confronted with reptilian coldness.”  In this dark Scene Bond’s motive or Purpose for action becomes apparent.  He won’t be a bystander to his brother’s fall to meth.  He wants to stop it before it gets worse.  He wants to eradicate the source of evil.  He wants to combat the encompassing darkness that meth has drawn around him.  How will he do it? By setting it on fire.

Arson is the means or Agency of Bond’s Act of intervention.  In the music video countless newspaper headlines flash before the viewer proclaiming, “Fire Rages: Arson Suspected,” “Drug-Den in Flames,” “Fire Rages Alleged Meth-Lab.”

Every meth lab burned
To ashes
Every meth lab burned
Crimson flames
Against the darkened sky

The song declares the arson as “the ultimate act of intervention.”  Three times is Bond’s arson named “the ultimate act of intervention.”  Combating destruction with destruction certainly is an ultimate Act of intervention.  To Ashes glorifies Bond’s Act, letting it in turn dominate over all other features of the drama. The word, “Act” itself is repeated four times throughout the song.

In Pentadic criticism the Act feature of the dramatic form is closely tied to the philosophy of Realism, which tells us that it doesn’t matter what people are; more important is what they do.  Bond himself advocated action over passivity.  He thought Straight Edgers talked too much talk rather than walking the walk.  Earth Crisis clearly shares the view, for their song To Ashes presses the listener to follow in Bond’s footsteps.

Burke said that looking at the ratios at which each Pentadic feature is emphasized in a work is looking at a perspective of perspectives.  We see the perspectives of both Bond and Earth Crisis.  They emphasize Act, or action, above all else.  The Act is more important than the Agent.  Anyone can, and should, commit arson in the name of Straight Edge. It doesn’t matter what Agency you use, as long as the Act is achieved.  Although the Scene of drug abuse, alcoholism, and promiscuous sex is ever looming, the Act of intervention will always prevail.  Only through the Act will Straight Edge followers fulfill the Purpose of their beliefs.

From identifying and weighing the dramatic features of To Ashes, we behold its effect on Straight Edge listeners.  If the Act is all about realism,  then To Ashes is an attempt to establish a reality in the listener’s mind.  It creates an environment of very uncomfortable sensations and images.  Before us we have “deterioration,” “demons,” “plague,” “reptilian coldness.”

There’s no option,
There’s no recourse
There’s no other way

The listener, now living in Bond’s shoes, is backed up against a wall facing the darkness of drug abuse.  We are in a desolate world of discomfort.  It is out of this discomfort and desperate need for change that we feel compelled to act.  There is “no other option left but to retaliate.”  We, instead of playing defense are “drawn to attack the source.”  The song, like Bond, is rival to passivity.  What better way to stir action than to make the Agent desperate, despairing, and dangerous?

The fire alluded to in To Ashes stimulates a deep emotional response in the listener.  It is more than the Agency by which Bond commits the Act.  It is a symbol as well.  Fire can be conotated both positively and negatively.  As primitive man’s first comfort it can signify warmth, light, and coziness.  On the other hand, fire means destruction, elimination, burns, pain, and hell.  For Bond and Earth Crisis it’s all about what side you stand on.  Against Straight Edge you will get severely burned.  With Straight Edge, this fire is not only your light in the darkness.  It is your weapon.  It also burns just like the passion inside you.

The angers boiling down
Into absolute hate
Crimson flames

The choice to rally behind fire suits Walter Bond and Earth Crisis.  It only takes a spark to start, it will spread uncontrollably and indomitably, and it annihilates anything in its path.  This is the mania Bond and Earth Crisis want to ignite in their Straight Edge followers.  The mission may be to eradicate the world of its evil by any means possible, but the real goal is to make the listener think the means isn’t evil in itself.

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