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Dissecting the language of elitism: The ‘joyful’ violence of premium

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 January 2020

Crispin Thurlow*
University of Bern, Switzerland
Address for correspondence: Crispin Thurlow Department of English University of Bern Länggassstrasse 49 3012Bern,


Aligned with renewed commitments to class critique in sociolinguistics and discourse studies, I examine premium as a floating signifier. My initial semiotic landscape analysis demonstrates how this word is attached to any number of goods/services, coaxing people into a sense of distinction and superior status. These language games occur most vividly in my second analytic site—Premium Economy—where status is fabricated as tangibly but not too obviously distinct from Economy while preserving the prestige of Business. From a corpus of over forty international airlines’ promotional materials, I pinpoint three key rhetorics underpinning Premium Economy: extraction, excess, and comparison. My analysis locates premium as a quintessential form of symbolic violence (Bourdieu 1997/2000) deployed for controlling people by seducing, flattering, and enchanting them. The anxious bourgeoisie are thereby ‘joyfully enlisted’ (Lordon 2014) into the aspirational logics of elitism, all animated by the tenacious neoliberal ideologies of a supposedly post-class world. (Elite discourse, post-class ideology, floating signifiers, Frédéric Lordon ‘premium’, Premium Economy)*

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2020

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This article has been a bit of a long time coming but has settled in its current form after soundings at Linnæus University, Freie Universität Berlin, Georgetown University, and Södertörn University; I am grateful for collegial feedback and support in each case. As my chief collaborator for many years on our Elite Mobilities project, I remain always deeply indebted to Adam Jaworski. In this instance, I am beholden also to Jane Kenway at Monash University for pointing me to Lordon. I offer special thanks to the anonymous reviewers for generously pushing me to make the article altogether stronger. I am grateful for the help of two student assistants at the University of Bern: Eva Kuske, for collecting and organizing my Premium Economy dataset, and Sabrina Subašić for patiently assembling my collection of premium snapshots. Finally, I give truly joyful thanks to Natalie and Vincent Uren for gifting me the space in which to bring everything to fruition.


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