cult + time =
I have a new essay up today over on Eye on Design. It’s about the intersection of two interests of mine: cults and branding. Here’s the key paragraph:
Cults are infamously image-obsessed, whether it’s Heaven’s Gate’s Star Trek-inspired iconography or Scientology’s use of celebrity spokespeople. They need to be savvy marketers to attract new followers. Cults, in this way, are just like brands, built around developing a coherent identity, complete with codes, imagery, and language that paint a clear worldview and ideology. (Nowhere is this more obvious than on social media, where the dominant action is to follow.) Nearly every cult uses the methods of branding to gain followers and every brand — whether they admit it or not — strives for a cult-like audience.
This is one of those essays that germinated for a long time but then was written very quickly. I’ve been fascinated by cults for years — I read every cult profile and watch every cult documentary. There’s a joke the religious scholar Reza Aslan tells that goes “cult + time = religion”, meaning all religions begin as cults, or on the flip side, if you give a cult enough time, it’ll eventually be considered a religion. A little over a year ago, I wrote this equation in a notebook, then crossed out “religion” and wrote “brand.” This began a bunch of circular thinking around the intersections brands and cults. I knew I wanted to write something about them (I’m always looking for ways to write about my non-design interests) but couldn’t figure out a way in.
Two things helped bring the piece into clarity in my head. First was the recent HBO documentary on Heaven’s Gate, the 1990s alien-loving cult that ended in mass suicide. In an offhand comment in the documentary, the filmmakers note that the group funded themselves through a web design business. Here was a clear overlap between cults and design. Then I read Amanda Montell’s recent book, Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, which explores how the language used by cults to groom followers has infiltrated so much of our discourse. While Montell uses brands as examples, she doesn’t fully explore this intersection. I decided to use these two artifacts as the armature to explore the overlap myself. I’m really happy with how this one turned out.
You can read the entire essay here.
Last summer, after my essay on Cranbrook was published on Eye on Design, I wrote a little bit about writing opening paragraphs here. With this piece, I want to write about closing paragraphs. Here’s the last paragraph of the cult piece:
Popularity in cults tends to grow in moments of cultural turbulence. In times of uncertainty, we look for groups of like-minded people to remind us we’ll be okay. You don’t need me to tell you that we are again living in an era of rapid change that might explain the rise in interest in cults, whether it’s all the recent documentaries, the widespread belief in conspiracies, or even the religious-like devotion felt towards particular brands. It makes sense that as the world feels more precarious than it has in decades, when coupled with Americans’ continual decrease in aligning with organized religion, that the new groups to fill the void are not cults in the traditional sense but brands. (As a former cult member told Montell: “The next Crusades will be not religious but consumerist.”) Indeed, the religious scholar Reza Aslan said that the oldest joke about cults is that “cult + time = religion”, meaning if you give a cult enough time, it’ll eventually be accepted as a religion. Perhaps it’s time to update the equation: cult + time = brand.
I think a lot about closing paragraphs — and especially closing sentences. A strong close — whether that’s witty or provocative, reflective or assertive — can make or break the piece. Think about the difference between a great television season finale versus a bad one: Like a good finale, a good closing sentence can force me to rethink the entire essay. Two of my favorite writers, Wesley Morris and Michael Rock, are pros at the closer. Sometimes, when I don’t know how to finish a piece (or if I just want to re-energize my prose), I’ll go through their archives and just read their last sentences.1
With this piece, I knew the last sentence from the beginning. I knew I wanted to end with “cult + time = brand”. The question, then, became, how do I get there? How do I make that sentence feel earned?2 An essay, in many ways, is a sequence of facts and part of the art is figuring out the order of unveiling those facts. My writing process, often, simply involves moving things around until that order feels right. The structure of the essay, to me, is what makes one essay work and another not. Sometimes I’ll set up the ending early, let it hang there, and then return in the last sentence or two to connect each thread. Other times, like here, the line isn’t introduced until the end, but it does the same job: ties up the threads and lands the argument in a succinct way. I’m happy with how it turned out.
You can read the entire piece over on Eye on Design here. Thanks to Maddy Morely for editing and the conversations we had around these ideas and the always-great Maria Medem for the stunning hero image.3
Strangely, I really started thinking about this years ago, the first time I had to give a speech at a wedding. I’ve given two wedding speeches in my life and both times, I had a closing sentence — a closing joke, tbh — in my head from the beginning and the task I had was how to craft 3-4 minute speeches around them so the jokes would land. (I think I made them work!) For the first time, it felt like the hours and hours of standup comedy I’ve watched paid off. If you want to learn about how to structure your writing, a recommendation is to watch standup and note the structures of a good standup set. ↩
Maria has now illustrated three of my essays on Eye on Design — she’s consistently one of my favorite illustrators to work with and love when her art accompanies my words! ↩