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Obvious pretence: for fun or

for real? Cross-cousin and

international relationships
in Sri Lanka
Ale x a n d ra Argent i-Pillen University College London
Rather than understanding lying or deception as a weapon of the oppressed, I use a Machiavellian
and Nietzschean framework to investigate linguistic technologies of power that involve deception in
contemporary Sri Lanka. My argument is based on distinct speech events collected in the village of
Udahenagama and elite circles in Colombo: youthful irtations, ritual negotiations with spirits,
conversations with government ofcials and soldiers, a reported presidential diplomatic exchange,
and everyday village banter. I highlight how the focus of the deceptive recorded interactions is
revelation, rather than concealment, and I thereby propose a supplementary translation of the
practice of telling boru, as obvious pretence. Obvious pretence is an important aspect of Sinhala
linguistic technologies of power which imbue interdependent micro- and macro-level political
spheres. I use Bakhtins work on tones to describe how obvious pretence intertwines, on the one
hand, a tone of domination, aggression, and superiority, and, on the other hand, a tone of
accommodation, conict avoidance, and courtship. An aesthetic of power as the power to deceive
lies in the tension between those two opposing tones, which are encompassed within the single
linguistic and pragmatic practice of obvious pretence.

Out of the counterplay of these two interests, in concealing and revealing, spring nuances and fates of
human interaction that permeate it in its entirety.
Simmel 1950: 334

Simmels oeuvre points at the lie: the secret underpinning the vitality of social interaction
(Simmel 1950). In fact his work reflects a certain universalism as he asserts that he cannot
imagine any interaction or social relation or society which are not based on this
teleologically determined non-knowledge of one another (1950: 312). Simmel considers
the play of revelation and concealment, reciprocal knowledge, secrecy, and deception to
be elementary sociological facts.I quote:[T]he ethically negative value of the lie must not
blind us to its quite positive sociological significance for the formation of certain social
relations (1950: 316). In my discussion of lying, pretence, and revelation within contemporary political relations in Sri Lanka, I explore the implications of Simmels work on the
lie. I do not intend to be blinded by negative value judgements of the lie or guided by
orientalist debates1 about civilizational fissures in terms of truth and lying. I deconstruct
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314 Alexandra Argenti-Pillen

the terminology of this debate and ground my analysis within an ethnographic contextualization and linguistic anthropological analysis of concrete speech events.
My approach fits within a wider linguistic anthropology of truth and deception
(e.g. Bailey 1991; Basso 1987; Biebuyck-Goetz 1977; Besnier 1989; 1994; Gilsenan 1976;
Goldman 1995) which pays tribute to the dazzling variety of truth and non-truths and
the rich diversity of beliefs and practices regarding truth and its manifold variations
across differing cultural contexts (Blum 2001: 254). Within linguistic anthropology,
truth is not defined by mere comparison with a familiar Judaeo-Christian paradigm,
but through ethnographic research on responsibility, evidence, sincerity, and intentionality and their link with local constructions of selves (see, e.g., Abu-Lughod 1986;
Barber 1991; Boyer 1990; Brenneis 1984; Duranti 1993; Hill & Irvine 1992). It is to this
approach that I attempt to contribute by analysing truth and pretence with reference to
Sinhalese understandings of power.
The primacy I give, in my analysis of pretence, to culture-specific notions of power
is derived from a Foucauldian understanding of power and knowledge knowledge of
a truth as a regime of truth (Foucault 1972 [1969]). However, compared to this Foucauldian framework, claims to possess truth or control over knowledge suffer a more
radical uprooting in the writings of Machiavelli2 and Nietzsche. A Nietzschean call for
a psychopathology of the truth-teller firmly grounds the analysis of the lie within a
critique of power and its abuse. For Nietzsche, lying is not typically a weapon of the
oppressed.3 Rather, it is the powerful who always lie (Nietzsche 1968 [1901]: 204). It is
such Machiavellian and Nietzschean stances which prompt me to couple a linguistic
analysis of deception and revelation to a discussion of the aesthetic of power dynamics
in contemporary Sri Lanka.
Data used in this essay were gathered during fifteen months of fieldwork (1996-8)
in Udahenagama (pseudonym), a village in the Matara district of southern Sri Lanka.
The central concerns of this wider study were the discourses on domestic and political
violence of families of the disappeared as well as NGO personnel involved in trauma
counselling. This fieldwork was carried out approximately ten years after the end of the
JVP insurgency (1987-9), in which approximately 30,000 people disappeared (see
Argenti-Pillen 2003). The community of Udahenagama suffers from low-intensity
violence linked both to the civil war of the late 1980s, as well as to the ongoing ethnic
conflict with the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island. The themes of
illusion, deception, and irony emerged in the course of my study of gossip and everyday
conversations about violence and terror.
In this article, I build my argument around descriptions of speech events collected
in multiple sites: the village of Udahenagama, the realm of civil servants and NGO
personnel in Colombo, a letter from one of my field assistants, as well as presidential
diplomacy reported in the national media. Moreover, since my primary topic was
gossip, many speech events I use were not first-hand socio-linguistic data,4 but were
recounted to me by informants. Nevertheless, speech events form the key empirical
material for this article and I analyse them below with reference to the literature on
linguistic anthropology. The key speech event I focus on is the telling of boru jokes
based on obvious pretence.5
Intolerably addicted to lying?

The notion of the lie features prominently in accounts of colonial, postcolonial, or

ethnographic encounters in Sri Lanka. Both in the stories of seventeenth- and
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eighteenth-century travellers and in the ethnographic descriptions of successive generations of anthropologists, the notion of the lie is used as a descriptive tool. A few
examples from the literature written respectively in 1681, 1739, 1971, and 1990 give a
good impression of the degree to which the Sinhalese practice of lying has captured
the imagination of Western visitors and scholars alike through the centuries:
They are crafty and treacherous, not to be trusted upon any protestations: for their manner of
speaking is very smooth and courteous, insomuch that they who are unacquainted with their dispositions and manners, may easily be deceived by them. For they make no account nor conscience of
lying, neither is it any shame or disgrace to them, if they be catched in telling lies: it is so customary
(Knox 1989b [1681]: 194, added emphasis).
They do not want courage, and are men of quick parts, complaisant and insinuating in their address,
naturally grave, of an even temper, not easily moved, and when they happen to be in a passion, soon
reconciled again; they are very temperate in their diet, neat in their apparel, something nice in their
eating, and do not indulge in sleep; but though they commend industry much, like the natives of other
hot countries, they are a little inclined to laziness; they are not given to theft, but intolerably addicted
to lying, and have not much regard to what they promise; they allow their women great liberty, and are
seldom jealous; they are extremely superstitious and great observers of omens (Salmon 1739, quoted
in Senaveratne 1913: xi, added emphasis).
Truth I would hardly describe as a major value in fact affectively however much lip service is paid
to it. The very frequency in villagers conversation of the sentence Borukiyanta honda n (Lying is
bad), usually uttered with a light intonation in the context either of mild accusation of a third party
or the protestation of ones own sincerity (compare to English, To be perfectly frank ..., which
regularly precedes a lie), may be offered as evidence of the frequency of lying; while its tone suggests
that the offence is not really considered heinous. Lying is bound to be frequent in a culture much
concerned with the preservation of status (tattvaya) and dignity (nambuva) saving face (Gombrich
1971: 262-3, added emphasis).
The point is not that I found there was a greater or lesser incidence of conversational falsehood,
measured against some abstract scale of cross-cultural veracity; it is that the people of Tenna themselves assumed a high degree of lying and concealment of awkward truth in their everyday lives, so much
so that that they felt obliged to warn me about it. This does, of course, pose ethnographic problems
(Spencer 1990: 177, added emphasis).

These descriptions all evoke the notion of the lie.6 Both Gombrich and Spencer
explicitly translate boru as lie,7 and the prominence of lying within Sinhala village life
does not seem to have abated significantly despite extensive socio-political changes over
centuries of colonial and postcolonial rule. Likewise my own fieldwork was dominated
by the boru my informants told each other, and this article is a reflection of my
continuing puzzlement regarding the interpretations of this omnipresent practice.
Gilsenans seminal article on the telling of kizb in a village in north Lebanon frames
the practice of frequent lying as a leitmotif in the construction of social selves within
a social world in which status and honour are critical (1976: 194, 199). This perspective
is echoed by Gombrich, where he relates frequent lying to the prominence given in
Sinhalese culture to status and dignity (see quote above). A comparison of Gilsenans
and Gombrichs analysis might allow us to downplay the cultural specificity of frequent
lying in Lebanese or Sinhalese village life, and assert it is an essential ingredient of
everyday relations within small-scale social organization based on honour or status in
general. Such a comparative analysis echoes Simmels understanding of the implications of the lie in small groups as harmless and permissible, while within modern,
large-scale social organizations the lie has more grave consequences:
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316 Alexandra Argenti-Pillen

Under modern conditions, the lie, therefore, becomes something much more devastating than it was
earlier, something which questions the very foundations of our life. If among ourselves today, the lie
were as negligible a sin as it was among the Greek gods, the Jewish patriarchs, or the South Seas
islanders; and if we were not deterred from it by the utmost severity of the moral law; then the
organization of modern life would be simply impossible (Simmel 1950: 313, my emphasis).

So does the measure of lying in honour-based small-scale communities shake the

very foundations of modern ethnographic practice?8 This partially depends on whether
the ethnographer experiences deceptive practices as lies.9 This experiential level is
inevitably linked to an interpretative endeavour: the translation of local terminology
used to refer to deception and illusion as lying.10 This leads me to question whether we
can find local concepts that can be satisfactorily translated as lie. One could argue that
there is a partial overlap between a Judaeo-Christian and/or modern notion of the lie
and the notion of boruva. In a minority of instances the falsity of a boruva is not
revealed and continuing pretence and deception resemble the lie. That does not mean
that one can uni-dimensionally translate boruva as lie. Many things can be classified as
boruva or ravattanava which could not be considered lies: a lovers flirtatious comments, a persons illness or trance, a ritual specialists recitations, a soothsayers predictions, the governments policies, or peoples offerings to the spirits of the wild. All
these very disparate instances have one aspect in common: they are often only pretence
(boru) and people have been misled or deceived (rvattenava).11 Most commonly,
deception and revelation of the truth rapidly alternate and the ruse is made obvious to
its victim. That is why I propose a supplementary translation of boruva as obvious
pretence. Telling boru could simply be translated as teasing or joking behaviour, but the
proposed supplementary translation maintains a semantic link with wilful deception,
Sinhalese aesthetics of power, and the culture-specific construction of realities governed by irony or illusion.
At this point my argument leaves the framework of the debate about the role of lying
in status negotiations in small-scale societies. I am indebted to Gilsenans work for this
Lying therefore is not to be understood only in terms of strategies and judgements in social relations,
or as a technique for gaining or showing superiority. It possesses its own aesthetic of baroque invention
and is part of a style, of a wide range of variations on the cultural theme of appearance and reality
(Gilsenan 1976: 193, added emphasis).

My supplementary translation of boruva and my argument are based on notions such

as teasing, pretence, regimes of irony, and aesthetics of power, rather than the semantic
fieldof lies,status,andregimesof truth.Iexplorethesupplementaryaspectsof thepractice
of tellingboru through an analysis of boru in their own right, not essentially determined
by a comparison with familiar Western approaches to truth and the lie. It is the aesthetic
of baroque invention which I explore in the following sections and use as a point of
departure to shed light on a concomitant aesthetic of ambiguous power relations.
Youthful pretence: the creation of grotesque realities

The main aspect of youths use of boru is revelation rather than concealment of the
deceptive nature of their statement. [I told you this but] it wasnt true! (boruvak!) is
often the climax of a joking type of interaction.12 This is a very popular form of humour
amongst youths, and it is especially used to flirt and seduce.13 The prescribed,
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traditional form of marriage alliance in southern Sri Lanka is cross-cousin marriage

(Yalman 1967: 151).14 Boru, make-believe stories, play a major role in cross-cousin joking
relations. In contemporary village contexts, however, boru commonly occur between
potential spouses who are not necessarily cross-cousins, and between their brothers
and sisters or best friends. Contemporary forms of flirting are, however, culturally
linked to traditional joking relationships between cross-cousins.
For example, a 19-year-old man from Udahenagama once told his cross-cousins 15and 17-year-old girls that he would not participate in the yearly pilgrimage to Adams
Peak because he did not want to miss the daily volley-ball game with his friends. He
then secretly enjoyed the young girls complaints and requests to join them on the trip,
while stubbornly refusing to reconsider his position. The next morning before sunrise,
however, he turned up at the bus, ready for the pilgrimage. The triumphal moment
came when the girls realized that he had managed genuinely to mislead them, and
he was immersed in the young womens laughter and their exclamations: boruva!
(it wasnt true!).
Some boruva unravel only gradually. People might take time to realize that they have
been misled. Other boru are so grotesque that they immediately reveal their dubious
character, yet lose none of their hilarity. On a journey to the forest organized to make
offerings to the forest-dwelling monks, two families from the village of Udahenagama
were packed on the trailer of a tractor. Along the way, the young women in the group
began to re-invent their kinship relations. Two of the young women proclaimed they
were married to each other, and named their mothers and another elderly woman as
their children. The elders remained silent while the young women were so taken with
the hilarity of their newly invented family that they nearly fell off the back of the trailer.
Experts in the creation of grotesque realities, they then boasted that they would not
have minded falling off the vehicle and dying.15
It thus hardly needs to be mentioned how funny it was to mislead the anthropologist16 interested in kinship relations and family histories. If one wanted to, grotesque
kinship diagrams could be recorded to give a sense of the ludic to ones field notes.
Several months after the 15 October 1997 bomb blast in central Colombo, I began to
come across what I later called Hilton boru. Some houses in the village of Udahenagama had become adorned with luxurious Hilton paraphernalia: Hilton soap,
shampoo, conditioner, and towels, which potentially had made their way from the
Hilton hotel in Colombo to the informal markets in the rural south.17 A few (unemployed?) young men systematically told me I work at the Hilton and showed me these
items to prove their statement. Such boru reveal an ironic18 world invented by young
men suffering from chronic unemployment and lack of access to the job market in
mainstream society.

Pretence out of context

This leads me to consider how boru appear outside the immediate close-knit village
context. Obvious pretence, used for flirting, or just for fun in groups of youngsters,
takes on a life of its own within society at large. The following quote makes the link
between the youthful use of obvious pretence and the more serious and awkward
aspects of obvious pretence within the Sri Lankan state and society. The following
interaction between a soldier of the Sri Lankan armed forces and a young woman
evokes both spheres at once: youthful flirtation and state practices of deception. One of
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318 Alexandra Argenti-Pillen

my field assistants recorded this instance of obvious pretence at a checkpoint in

Colombo in the early morning:
It was extremely dark. The roads were deserted, except for the soldiers who were on duty. I was so
nervous. Luckily there were three other girls at the bus-stop. We waited for the bus for 10 minutes. We
could see buses coming from far away but they all turned off about two hundred metres before
reaching our bus stop. I knew something was wrong. Luckily one soldier asked [me] elder sister,19
where do you want to go? What I uttered first was Matara [my home town], but luckily, half-way
through that word I managed to say to the campus. He told me the road would be closed-off until 8
a.m. and that in order to take the bus you had to go further down the road. The other three girls
hurried away to catch a bus, but I was already late so I decided to walk. By then it wasnt so dark
anymore, and there were some other people on the road. I reached a checkpoint with a barrier that was
completely closed unlike the other ones I passed. So there was no choice but to ask the soldiers
whether I could pass. There were already some civilians showing their ID cards. The soldiers told me
that I couldnt pass, that the roads were closed. They sounded serious. Then I asked when the roads
would open. They said: Until the authorities give an order we cannot open the gates. They werent even
18 years old, but they definitely didnt look as if they were pretending [boruva kiyanava]. All I did was,
I said oh no! to myself and turned back. The moment I started walking back they laughed and said ah!
go! go! and they opened the gate.

In this episode, the soldiers at the road block immediately reveal the deception they
have elaborated. This passage opens up questions about the use of boru outside the
social context composed of friends and family members. In this case the interaction
could be experienced as innocent banter and the ambiguity or potentially threatening
tone of the interaction could be part of the desired aesthetic. However, given the
circumstances of a lone young woman in the dark, deserted streets of a besieged city,
the exchange borders on harassment.20 A boruva is therefore highly ambiguous,
encompassing a continuum from flirtatious pretence to aggression. Obvious pretence
includes expressions of aggression which are nevertheless somehow masked or constructed as funny post-facto by virtue of being dismissed as just boruva by the majority
of the witnesses.
The following example also retains the classical structure of a boruva: the construction of a make-believe situation and the revelation of the truth relatively soon afterwards. A young man who had just returned to Udahenagama from a trip to town
informed people at a bus stop that one of their neighbours a sick elderly member of
the community who was being treated in the town hospital had died. His newly
widowed wife therefore suffered from a big shock21 before she realized her husband
was still alive and that it had been (not-so-obvious) pretence.22 This is how I once died
as well. When I stayed out late one evening, a young man told my worried husband that
he had seen me go up a hill path into the forest to an area known to be dangerous and
that a fatal incident had occurred. Obvious pretence can thus sometimes take shapes
such as imagining death23 that bares very little resemblance to innocent banter.
Obvious pretence during rituals and the disorientation of the enemy

This brings us to the issue of how boru are used to deal with enemies. A rapid succession
of deception and revelation can be used to disorientate an opponent. The most obvious
example of deceptive pretence or rvttlak24 can be found in the large-scale cleansing
or healing rituals (tovil). In the course of the rites, offerings are made to the wild spirits
in an attempt to appease them and make them leave a possessed person. The spirits are
made to believe that they are offered a rooster and a human corpse. A ritual specialist
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in a coffin and an effigy portraying the sick person25 are used to trick them. In a rapid
succession of offerings, spirits are led from the sick person to the rooster, the effigy, and
the ritual specialist in a coffin. In the end, both the rooster and the ritual specialist,
decoys in an elaborate sacrificial trick, survive. By this series of substitutions, the spirits
(yaksha) are deceived (yaksha rvatteno) into leaving their victim. This is the interpretation that ritual specialists (duro) gave me during the many healing rites that I
Kapferer argues that the demons are figures upon whom an enormous joke has been
played and that the entire rite is the elaborate springing of a trap (1983: 317). In other
words, the demons as tricksters are revealed as subject to the trick and, therefore,
subordinate to those whom they sought to delude (1983: 303). Cunning, craftiness, and
astuteness are mechanisms of subordination of agents who are perceived to have the
power to deceive. Kapferer also points out that the joke of the rite is fully revealed
(1983: 316). In other words, it is not about merely misleading the spirits, but also about
revealing that one has done so. A translation of ravattanava as to mislead or to trick
is thus incomplete. Ravattanava and ravattenava also refer to obvious pretence, the
revealed trick, or the public demonstration that one has the power to mislead.
Kapferer further qualifies the notion of illusion (maya) within Hindu and Buddhist
religious doctrine and theology26 in terms of its links with everyday political life. He
argues that the demonic is present in the actions of those who appear to be other than
they actually are; it is in falsity and illusion (1983: 316) and false claims to morality
(1983: 319). The demonic is not simply found in the illness of a possessed victim, or the
spirits of the Sinhala Buddhist pantheon, but resides in the passion, lust, greed, and
anger of humans in the everyday world (1983: 315-16); in those political and social
orders which appear to constrain the actions of men and women in their daily lives
(1983: 316, added emphasis).27 Ritual specialists or exorcists are particularly well placed
to draw attention to falsity, and the illusory, in the everyday social order to point to
the demonic, destructive, false and oppressive character of its controlling agents
(1983: 317). Ritual practice highlights the illusory action of the powerful within the
everyday social order, as one possible reality amongst others, which can be addressed by
exorcists. Within this popular understanding, both spirits and the powerful have the
power to deceive (ravattanava), and such illusions can be challenged by ritual specialists
or exorcists by means of obvious pretence. I would like to highlight that such a
consideration of falsity and illusion does not necessarily imply a static projection of
falsity onto spirits or powerful elites. I propose a reverse translation of falsity and
illusion (1983: 316) back into ravattanava: a key concept of a culture-specific aesthetic
of power deployed both by spirits and by the powerful.
Mechanisms of subordination, based on obvious pretence, also play a role in everyday
interaction, and are not necessarily contained within the realm of ritual purification of
social ills or Sinhala Buddhist religious practice. The moment of revelation of a boruva,
apart from its hilarity, is also a moment of subordination. Ones superiority is confirmed by the power to deceive without having to hide it, or fear its consequences. This
everyday dimension of ravattanava first dawned on me when conversing with certain
civil servants, customs officers,28 or personnel of non-governmental organizations in
the capital Colombo. The overt revelation of the boruva character of a statement often
gave interactions a surreal and baffling tone. I particularly bear in mind examples which
stand out not so much because of their deceptive nature, but because of the prominence
given to the element of revelation or overt contradiction of obvious facts.29
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I would certainly not describe these interactive styles with the Western notion of the
lie, as they are not predominantly made to conceal a truth, or to propose a falsehood as
truth, but are, on the contrary, orientated towards revealing and accentuating the
liberty and the power to deceive. In other words, they are acts of subordination in
which the revelation of pretence is essential to its efficacy. In these cases, revelation of
the boruva is therefore inherent within the statement and immediate, as opposed to the
delay characteristic of the more humorous or flirtatious types of pretence of village
The boruva ethos and the spirit of international relations

I now turn to a very different sample of obvious pretence. It concerns an exclusive

report of an exchange between Madeleine K. Albright, Secretary of State of the United
States of America (hereafter MA) and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (1994-2005) (hereafter CK)
recorded in a pseudonymous column in the national press (Suranimala 1997). The
reported events concerned the reconstruction of the bomb-ravaged financial district in
Colombo by a high-speed disaster recovery firm from the US:
It was on February 29, 1996 that the board of directors of Property Development Limited, the owners
and operators of the Bank of Ceylon building, contacted the Managing Director, Evans International,
Dr. Christopher M. Baylis, over the telephone following the Central Bank bombing with regard to
evaluating the damage to the Bank of Ceylon building. Dr. Baylis, who was personally praised by
President Bill Clinton for his role in the earthquake recovery process in California, in response to
this call travelled to Sri Lanka the following day ... The very next day, Baylis called on Chairman,
Urban Development Authority Suren Wickremasinghe, at which meeting repairs to all buildings in
Colombos financial district figured with Wickremasinghe requesting Evans International to forward a
proposal as a general contractor for reconstruction, bringing financing as part of the overall construction package ... Not only did the Urban Development Authority accept the plan, they also
requested Evans International to expand the clean up to incorporate the redesigning of a pedestrian
mall ... Within four weeks of this request by the Urban Development Agency, on May 17, 1996 the
Urban Development Agency signed a contract with Evans International for the clean up of the
buildings (Suranimala 1997, added emphasis).

However, approximately a year later, after heavy investment by the US authorities, the
project was reported to be cancelled. It was within this context that the media discourse
about the following personal communication between MA and CK emerged:
MA: This enterprise was a sign of the solid partnerships between American and Sri Lankan private
sectors as well as our government ... While I understand your desire for fiscal caution, I urge you to
proceed with this high-profile project. Failure to follow through now with a comprehensive reconstruction project will inevitably raise questions among foreign investors and governments regarding
Sri Lankas commitment to building a strong economic future. This will slow Sri Lankas drive to
become an important economic centre in the region ...
CK: ... I would however like to raise the essential issues which have rendered it difficult for the
government of Sri Lanka to accept the proposal put forward by the private company, Evans International. Evans International arrived in Sri Lanka with an unsolicited proposal to design, construct and
arrange the finances of the rehabilitation project in the Fort District of Colombo (Suranimala 1997,
added emphasis).

CKs reference to an unsolicited proposal reportedly led the US authorities to classify

CKs communicative strategy as overt deception:
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To the US authorities, the comments, particularly the unsolicited proposal given the details outlined
earlier ... were unpalatable. It was unpalatable because, that according to the Americans was not the
reality and they believed the president knew it to be so. And given the chronology of events, the
presidents letter was construed as being not quite correct in content ... And now, Evans International
is in the process of finalizing its legal papers to sue the government and concerned officials
(Suranimala 1997, added emphasis).

Reportedly, by means of the deployment of immediately revealed non-truth, CK virtually enraged the US government while in fact the president could have chosen to
conceal rather than reveal her power to deceive.30 What is constructed within this media
discourse is an image of obvious pretence in the negotiation of power relations
between the Sri Lankan nation-state and a globalized US-dominated market. It is not
my intention to pass judgement regarding the truth-value of this diplomatic exchange.
I merely point at the boruva ethos pervading either a media discourse about this
exchange within the Sri Lankan national press or the exchange itself.

Pretence as conict avoidance

When the relatively powerless perform a boruva towards superiors it is much trickier to
reveal this power to deceive. Then the boruva takes on the form of what non-Sinhalese
at first sight would understand as deception, concealment of the truth, or lies. Far
from being only a straightforward form of deceit or a self-interested attempt to gain
some advantage, however, this form of boruva is also used to avoid conflict, and to
please and appease the powerful. In such cases boru become the lubricant for relations
that might otherwise be strained.31
This strategy is used not only to prevent conflict, but also to interpret past conflicts.
In view of the delay that is acceptable between a boruva and the revelation of a truth,
past statements can be retroactively redefined as boru. I vividly remember one example
which illustrates this point. A man from Udahenagama whose son had committed
suicide used this technique to defuse a serious conflict. His son had lost a large sum of
money while gambling, and had then gone home and had a row with his father. During
the heated debate the father announced that he would now be forced to sell his land in
order to pay back the debt incurred by his son. When the son heard this, he drank a
bottle of pesticide. But as the young man lay dying, always a tragically protracted
process with this form of suicide, the father argued that it had only been a boruva: he
had only pretended that he would be forced to sell his land because of his sons
gambling habit. In this way, the father attempted to refrain from taking direct responsibility for his sons suicide, and alleviate some of the shame and conflict that engulfed
the surviving family members.
Obvious pretence, far from being only a technique of domination, allows people to
speak cautiously. People can try out statements, evaluate peoples reactions to personal
opinions, and thus take their time to find out whether it is worthwhile to stand by a
particular opinion or not.32 Much like the flirtatious stories of young lovers, the statements of adults can also take on the character of bait. A type of trial-and-error
communication33 takes place in which, if it seems that a mistake has been made, a
statement can be withdrawn: It was a boruva, I didnt really mean it.
In its most innocent form, to tell boru is a strategy to get to know ones interlocutor
teasingly or rather to find out the interlocutors expectations. At the same time this
strategy sometimes helps to avoid major conflicts as it allows people to carefully explore
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each others positions before fully committing to a particular opinion. When a conflict
is looming a quick exit is at hand: recourse to the boruva status of ones unfortunate
It would thus be incorrect to translate boru exclusively as lies, assertions of superiority, flirtatious jokes, or provocation. To claim that ones statement was a boruva also
gives people an opportunity to withdraw statements and to backtrack. Telling boru is
thus also a method of exploration not only to find out the feelings of potential lovers,
but also to draw out other peoples more hidden positions without causing offence.34
Boru allow people to detach themselves from the heat of a discussion or conflict, and to
disqualify any previous participation. Telling boru is a powerful method for nonidentification with a previous outward appearance. A widow in Udahenagama, living in
a particularly precarious situation, expressed her radical detachment and cautious
strategy of communication as follows: I have no fear. I havent done anything wrong,
so I talk with anyone. I am not indecent either. I just pretend [boru kiyano] (added
In the analysis of the use of boru within a close-knit local context I do not want to
evoke the notion of lying or the atmosphere of conflict, hegemony, and segregation that
accompanies concepts such as lies, concealment, and secrecy. Nor do I use the villages
social divisions (political factions, castes, and family alliances) to describe and locate
strategies of deception and concealment of truths. Rather, I understand the most
common use of boruva at the local level as a general form of conflict avoidance.
Discussion: intertwining tones

Quite distinct speech events feature in this article: flirtations, ritual negotiations with
spirits, conversations with government officials, a reported presidential diplomatic
exchange, and everyday village banter. These data obviously belong to differing speech
genres and their concomitant styles,35 but Bakhtins notion of tone is nevertheless
useful for a further analysis of this diverse material. Bakhtin defines tones36 as the least
studied aspect of speech life: tones are essentially traditional and one cannot invent
them, just as one cannot invent a language (1986: 153). Bakhtin explains: The tone is
determined not by the referential content of the utterance and not by the experiences
of the speaker, but by the relationship of the speaker to the individual personality of the
other speaker (to his rank, his importance, and so forth) (1986: 154).
The tone of obvious pretence (boru) within the different contexts I discuss evokes
two types of relationships: on the one hand a relationship of domination, aggression,
and superiority; on the other hand a relationship of accommodation, conflict avoidance, and courtship.37 Both types of relationships are evoked in each of the boru of the
differing speech communities that I discussed. In the village of Udahenagama many
instances of obvious pretence occur within the context of conflict avoidance. However,
the obvious pretence that led to false widowhood, misguided suicide, or the death
of the anthropologist obviously engenders a relationship predominantly defined by
aggression or claims to superiority. Likewise not all boru uttered within elite circles lead
to overt confrontation and the assertion of hierarchy, and boru are regularly used for
fine-tuning conversations and maintaining successful social relations.
The aesthetic of intertwining those two tones, having their base within a single
linguistic device (boru), is necessarily ambiguous. The tones literally feed off one
another, and while the two tones in different speech events can easily be distinguished,
their aesthetic maintains a unitary (and therefore ambiguous) character. The pleasure
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of obvious pretence resides in this tension between aggressive and seductive tones. The
tone of obvious pretence within flirtatious relations or situations of conflict avoidance
is not homogeneously meek or mellow. The experiential resonance of more aggressive
forms of obvious pretence provides such boru with allusions to power and domination.
Likewise the pleasure of overt power relations, and the power to deceive that is a
corollary of them, also depends on the aura of seduction, charm, and attraction which
the general category of obvious pretence denotes. The duality and ambiguity of the
practice of obvious pretence, the fact that two tones can be incorporated within one
linguistic technique (boru kiyanava or ravattanava), leads me again to a consideration
of the aesthetic of ambiguity.38 The pleasure related to this aesthetic lies in the tension
between two opposing poles aggression and seduction which are encompassed
within the single linguistic and pragmatic practice of obvious pretence. Such are the
linguistic technologies of power which imbue interdependent39 micro- and macro-level
political spheres in contemporary Sri Lanka.
This argument builds upon the notion of the illusory in Sinhala Buddhist worldviews illusion as ideology (mayam). However, I heuristically distinguish this from
illusion as an interactional style, and this article provides data to further explore this
realm of the illusory. Sinhala society at all levels evinces a subtle but elaborate feel for
illusory realities and a playful engagement with these in everyday communication. I
argue that the analysis of illusion as interactional style further documents how illusion
as ideology is experienced both during Sinhala Buddhist ritual or religious occasions
and in everyday practice. This generic power to create illusions is at once celebrated and
contained, not only by exorcists and their patients, but also in the everyday negotiation
of power relations in a variety of contexts. My argument reveals how illusion as an
ideology not only emerges from Sinhala Buddhist doctrine, or an experience of Sinhala
Buddhist ritual as deception, but how this understanding is engrained in everyday
linguistic strategies. The powerful are not only endowed with the power to invent a
particular social order, but further reveal this mastery over the illusory and the power
to deceive in the minutiae of everyday conversation.

First of all I would like to thank the people in Udehenagama for the ways in which they both welcomed and
teased me. I am grateful for the supervision I received from Nanneke Redclift, Audrey Cantlie, Murray Last,
Bruce Kapferer, Roland Littlewood, and Buck Schieffelin during my M.Sc. and Ph.D. at University College
London. Fieldwork was funded by a UCL Graduate School Research Scholarship (1995-8) and a Harry Frank
Guggenheim Foundation Research Fellowship (1998). Further analysis and translation of material, in collaboration with my research assistant S. Akka, was made possible through a Harry Frank Guggenheim
Foundation Post-Doctoral Research fellowship (2001-2).
Since then, I have received invaluable guidance from Don Brenneis at the University of California, Santa
Cruz, and Jan Blommaert at the Institute of Education, University of London, to begin an exploratory
reading within linguistic anthropology. Teaching linguistic anthropology at UCL has doubtlessly also contributed to the development of ideas portrayed in this article.
I would especially like to thank my husband Nicolas Argenti for commenting upon this article many times,
as well as S. Akka for her keen interest in the boru we gathered. Of course, comments of the four anonymous
reviewers were extremely valuable and interesting and have made a substantial contribution to the analysis
of the material.
This constitutes, for example, the framework for the debate in Mullers chapter on the Truthful character
of the Hindus (1892: 34-75). Muller grapples with English public opinion and prejudice which qualifies India
as an ants nest of lies (1892: 75) and provides a multi-faceted, orientalist, civilizational view on lying and

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324 Alexandra Argenti-Pillen

My interest lies altogether with the people of India, when left to themselves, and historically I should
like to draw a line after the year one thousand after Christ. When you read the atrocities committed
by the Mohammedan conquerors of India ... the wonder, to my mind, is how any nation could have
survived such an Inferno, without being turned into devils themselves. Now it is quite true that during
the two thousand years which precede the time of Mahmud of Gazni, ... either in Greek, or in Chinese,
or in Persian, or in Arab writings, we meet with any attempts in describing the distinguishing features
in the national character of the Indians, regard for truth and justice should always be mentioned first
(1892: 54, original emphasis).
Mullers description of the nineteenth-century context focuses on (and condemns) international charges of
untruthfulness. He laments: It has almost become an article of faith with every Indian civil servant that all
Indians are liars (1892: 35-6).
I quote Machiavelli in the chapter on Concerning the way in which princes should keep faith:
But it is necessary to know well how to disguise this characteristic, and to be a great pretender and
dissembler; and men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive
will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived ... Therefore it is unnecessary for a
prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them.
And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that
to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so,
but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to
change to the opposite (1958 [1532]: 98-99, added emphasis).
I argue that this brief consideration of Machiavellis understanding of power and deception is not too
far-fetched in terms of the globalized cultural reality under study. Debate exists about Machiavellis impact
on the seventeenth-century Sinhalese ruler Raja Sinha (cf. Knox 1989a [1681]: 102-4). Speculations about
Latin or Portuguese versions of The Prince that would have reached Raja Sinha qualify Machiavelli as the
possible Florentine mentor of a Sinhala ruler; perhaps providing guidance in the arts of crafty government
(Knox 1989a [1681]: 102). I refrain from taking a position within this debate, but only use a Machiavellian
focus on deception and power as a starting-point for this article.
Forrester (1997) poignantly denaturalizes this understanding of the lie. From a position of power it seems
as if lying, like the laugh, is the favoured weapon of the oppressed to fool the oppressor is to humiliate him
(Koyr 1943, quoted in Forrester 1997: 17). In the face of an imperialistic requirement to reveal all (Forrester
1997: ix), the colonized or the people subjected to ethnographic inquiry seem to re-create their freedom and
independence through lying. Likewise James C. Scott (1990) discusses how the speech character of women or
subordinate groups is characterized as treacherous in the work of Schopenhauer and Weininger. Scott
provides a trenchant critique of the fact that lying is understood as a natural characteristic of women or Jews:
an innate inferiority in relation to logic, truth, honesty, and reason (1990: 36). Scott conversely argues that
people in subordinate positions unleash the force of cunning and manipulation the weapons of the weak
to adapt to inequality in power. Note the difference of perspective: the Machiavellian and Nietzschean gaze
turning away from a focus on the cunning strategies of survival of the oppressed towards the ruses of elites.
This article aims to contribute to the debate regarding the relative importance of ethnography and
socio-linguistic analysis within the construction of linguistic ethnographies. While my wider study (ArgentiPillen 2003) relies heavily on the socio-linguistic analysis of recorded speech events, the present article is
primarily a product of an ethnographic approach. The majority of speech events used for this analysis could
not be captured on tape, and most data were gathered through participant observation and my assistants and
my subsequent descriptions of speech events. Deceptive communicative strategies are not limited to the span
of one conversation and often unfold over several conversations. Such discursive techniques do not correspond to pre-conceived discursive genres or styles that a socio-linguist might intend to record. I thereby
reiterate Blommaerts critique of the use of the notion of context within critical discourse analysis and
conversation analysis and fully support his emphasis on the necessity of a wider ethnographic study to find
(2001: 29) the relevant contexts.
These speech events can be described as conversational joking (see, e.g., Boxer & Cortes-Conde 1997), or
setting-specific joking, which is different from standardized or category-routinized joking (see Handelman
& Kapferer 1972: 485).
For a further religious and historical contextualization of discourses on the lie, see Coleman & Kay
(1981), Forrester (1997: 7-66), Freund Omaha (1991) and Sweetser (1987).

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Gombrich translates boru kiyanta honda n as lying is bad (1971: 262), while Spencer translates boru n
as no lie (1990: 177).
Compare this to Gombrichs statement: The idea of truth as an autonomous secular value, the truth
which scholars seek, or are supposed to seek, has no firm base in village society (1971: 263, added emphasis).
For a more general consideration of the impact of the lie on ethnographic practice, see Nachman (1984).
David Scotts critical historical ethnography (1994: xxiii) highlights the need to pay attention to the
ideological constitution of the anthropological object (1994: xxi). Following in the footsteps of Asad (1973),
Said (1979), and Fabian (1983) (Scott 1994: xxviii), Scott questions existing Western conventions of translation practice (1994: xxvi):

If we are to subvert the reproduction of colonial representations in our analyses of practices of others,
we must submit the conceptual metaphors by which we work to scrupulous and critical inquiry and
one aspect of this inquiry, it seems to me, must be concerned with a genealogy of their ideological
determinations (1994: 168, added emphasis).
A consideration of the ideological determinations of the lie in terms of both colonial Christian discourses
and understandings of the lie in modern, large-scale forms of social organization (cf. Simmel 1950, quoted
above) leads me to propose a supplementary translation to the conventional translation of boruva
as lie.
Rvattenav can be translated as to mistake something for something else, to be tricked. This is the
involitional verbal form of the verb ravattanav: to mislead, to trick.
As Kolenda (1990) noted, many ethnographic analyses of joking relations (following in the footsteps of
Radcliffe-Brown 1952) do not account for the content of the humorous insults. She thus argues that there is
considerable value in the ethnographers reporting of the content of joking and not just covering it with a
single adjective like obscene which is common practice (Kolenda 1990: 142). One of such possible contents
of Udahenagama jokes goes beyond the obviously obscene: boru, or make-believe stories. Deployed in joking
relations, in rituals of insult (Kolenda 1990: 133), boru do not insult by means of obscenity but by means of
bringing to the surface the foolishness of the person who has been misled.
Likewise, Osella and Osella note how in Kerala the preferred form of flirting is that in which a pair try
to outwit each other by posing riddles, or by contradicting or mock insulting each other (1998: 195).
On joking relations between cross-cousins, see Leach (1961: 118) and Yalman (1967: 154).
Such a comment could be more than a simple celebration of the absurd within the context of the village
of Udahenagama. For the mothers of the teenage girls this could be a trenchant, bitter-sweet joke, as the
mortality of young women (aged 15 to 25) due to suicide in this region is the second highest in the world (see
Kearney & Miller 1985; La Vecchia, Lucchini & Levi 1994), and mothers actively worry about the risk of their
children taking their own lives.
Even though I am aware I was often the target of boru, I nevertheless argue this is not an isolated,
culturally neutral phenomenon reserved for the anthropologist, but fits within a wider cultural pattern of
telling jokes and orchestrating obvious pretence.
The bomb attack occurred in front of the Galadari hotel, in an area of central Colombo dominated by
luxury hotels, including the Hilton. The resulting crisis in the tourist industry accounted for the emergence
of hotel items on local markets.
Note Bakhtins description of irony as reduced laughter and a substitute for silence (1986: 148-9). Also
see Fox (1994) and Buss & Hofstetter (1983) for ethnographic analyses of irony, resistance to ethnographic
objectification, unemployment, cynicism, and powerlessness.
Note the use of kinship terminology that initiates this interaction (also see Joseph 1997 for a discussion
of the use of kinship terms of address in the nascent public sphere in Lebanon).
As one anonymous reviewer suggested, the boruva joking can be sinister primarily when people fear each
This is a literal translation from gossip reported by a middle-aged woman living near the road.
However, an example from the literature reveals how the omnipresence of boru, especially on April Fools
Day (boru kiyana davasa), might have an opposite effect: In 1983 a domestic dispute led to the deliberate
burning of one house in the village on 1 April. Its owner, a carpenter, was working some miles away, and for
some time refused to be tricked into going to see his destroyed dwelling! (Spencer 1990: 206).
I do not want to imply that this particular form of joking is unique to Sinhalese culture. Gilsenan
describes how children rush up to other children in the street and falsely announce the death of a famous
singer in a village in north Lebanon (1976: 192).

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Derived from ravattanava: to mislead. This is not a boruva in the strict sense, but a wider category of
tricks in general which encompass boru. Boru kiyanna vena kenek ravattanava: when you tell a boruva you
mislead somebody.
The ritual mock killing of the effigy/sick person bears parallels to the ritual mock killing described by
Turner (1962), which was further analysed by Douglas (1975: 110-11). Douglass interpretation is predominantly philosophical, though: the profound meaning in this African joke rite lies in the expression of what
cannot be thought of, the expression of unfathomable mysteries about the inadequacy of the categories of
thought for expressing the nature of existence. The joke rite thus becomes an image of the conditions of
human knowledge and is concerned with problems about the relation of thought to experience (Douglas
1975: 111). I would argue to the contrary that in the Sinhalese joke rite, in the mock ritual killing of a human
being, the mockery is taken seriously and the unthinkable is never experienced in a straightforward manner;
it is only experienced as pretence, rvattilak.
Sinhala Buddhist ritual and myth provide a rich cultural trope for a celebration of the illusory. For a
brief discussion of the Hindu and Buddhist concept maya (illusion), and the Sinhalese concept mayam, see
Kapferer (1983: 155-6). This article, however, focuses on peoples everyday conversational and ritual creation of
the realm of illusion and trickery. Therefore a review of the literature on Sinhala Buddhist ideologies of illusion
and truth and debates on their link with the realm of political practice and exegesis is beyond its scope.
Note the striking similarity with the Nietzschean perspective on power and the lie discussed earlier.
Within such an understanding the powerfuls cunning alliance with the postcolonial state, its institutions,
and regimes of truth itself is an elaborate trick giving rise to multiple, elaborate lies, amongst which is the
claim to truth. This discourse counters claims to morality constructed by Sri Lankan elites, cunning being
a common adjective used by Sri Lankan urbanites to describe the character of villagers.
Accidental fieldwork within these social contexts was carried out full-time for two months in 1997
(August-September) when I applied for a residence permit from the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of
Education, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Almost daily telephone conversations with customs officers
at the Customs Bonded Facility from January to March 1998, in order to clear a tape-recorder, provided
another body of data.
For example, let us consider a sequence of events that unfolded as I attempted to meet a well-known
mental health professional in the NGO community in Colombo. I had previously arranged a meeting with
her, which was cancelled by a secretary on the day of the appointment. Having little else to do that morning,
I decided to attend a mental health conference taking place that day. At the conference, I met the mental
health professional in question; I greeted her and introduced myself. As I made a phone call the next day, to
re-schedule the previously cancelled appointment, I spoke to the health professional concerned. Despite the
above-described chronology of events, she told me that it had been unfortunate our previous appointment
had been cancelled because you had to attend that conference. The ball was thereby thrown into my camp,
so much so I nearly apologized, but then quickly realized that apology is maybe not the right response to
transparent deception or obvious pretence.
I would like to acknowledge comments from two anonymous reviewers regarding this statement. One is
that the reported statements by CK could be interpreted as plain arrogance. Another that powerful leaders
in the West routinely act in similar ways. This article, however, does not intend to make a statement about
quantitative differences of pretence in international political practice. Rather, I intend to explore the cultural
framework that might help to extend the analysis beyond an interpretation of CKs reported statements as
plain arrogance or blatant lies.
For an analysis of the relevance of an instrument of flirtation in adult political relations amongst
the Wana of central Sulawesi, see Atkinson (1984). Similarly, Arno (1990) describes how in Fiji, traditional
patterns of interaction amongst cross-cousins pervade modern communication events such as meetings of
co-operative societies, land-rights hearings, or island political meetings. When such discussions touch upon
individual or group misconduct, traditional rules of etiquette and an indirect style of conflict discourse
resurge and limit frank interchange (Arno 1990: 242).
In this sense, in Udahenagama there is no natural opposition between the concept of trust (visvasa) and
boru, since boru are also a significant aspect of communication with the category of visvasa kenek: the people
one can trust.
This style of communication is perhaps epitomized by the frequent interspersal in informal conversations of ttada and ttatamayi: Is it true?
By comparison, McKellin argues that in Managalase (Papua New Guinea) metaphorical rhetoric is a
means of testing the opinions of exchange associates and partners before taking a public position on a political
issue (1984: 108, my emphasis).

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For a further discussion of the concepts of genre and style, see, e.g., Bakhtin (1986).
For example, The world of abuse and praise (and their derivatives: flattery, toading, hypocrisy, humiliation, boorishness, caustic remarks, insinuations and so forth) (Bakhtin 1986: 154).
For a discussion of the role of conversational joking and teasing as a double-edged sword that both
diffuses and controls conflict and plays a role in aggression and bonding, see Boxer & Cortes-Conde (1997).
Likewise Shapiro, Baumeister & Kessler (1991) qualify teasing as an expression of status dominance and
power-orientated interaction with potential beneficial aspects.
Also see Argenti-Pillen (2003: 195-212), and work in progress on the aesthetics of ambiguity (ArgentiPillen 2005).
Qualifying this relationship as an interdependence means I do not want to portray the image of a
unidirectional flow of boru discursive strategies from essentialized versions within village communities to
wider political processes. I hereby follow the analytical pathway initiated by Kapferer (1988). In this work an
interdependence between small-scale political organization or ritual practice and macro-level politics is
highlighted, without presuming a direct historical causal connection (Kapferer 1988: xxi). I am also inspired
by Josephs (1997) work on familistic politics within the nascent Lebanese nation-state. On the basis of her
study of the use of idiomatic kinship terminology within the public sphere in Lebanon, she argues that
Western classical liberalism has presumed the universal necessity of differentiated public/private spheres for
the development of citizenship, civil society and democratic nation statehood. It has ... abnormalized and
dysfunctionalized continuities of structures, modes of operation and idioms of discourse between spheres
(1997: 74, added emphasis). She later adds: The domestic, as a purposeful fiction, polices the boundaries
of kinship, as part of a state-building project (1997: 83, added emphasis). I use the notion of interdependence to denote a porousness and fluidity of boundaries between the differing contexts in which I
encountered boru.

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La feinte vidente : faire semblant ou pas ? Relations entre cousins et

relations internationales au Sri Lanka
Au lieu de comprendre le mensonge ou la tromperie comme larme des opprims, lauteure pose un
cadre machiavellien ou nietzschen pour tudier les technologies linguistiques du pouvoir faisant intervenir la tromperie dans le Sri Lanka contemporain. Son argumentation se base sur divers actes locutoires
recueillis dans le village dUdahenagama et dans la haute socit de Colombo : flirt entre jeunes gens,
ngociations rituelles avec les esprits, conversations avec les fonctionnaires et les militaires, rcit dun
change diplomatique prsidentiel, plaisanteries du quotidien dans les villages. Elle met en vidence la
faon dont les interactions trompeuses enregistres sont plus une affaire de rvlation que de dissimulation, et propose en consquence une traduction supplmentaire de la pratique du boru, au sens dune
feinte vidente. Cette feinte vidente est un aspect important des technologies linguistiques du pouvoir
des Sinhalas, qui imprgnent les sphres micro- et macro-politiques interdpendantes. Lauteur utilise les
travaux de Bakhtine sur les tons pour dcrire la manire dont la feinte vidente contient, dune part, une
tonalit de domination, dagression et de supriorit, mais dautre part une tonalit daccommodation,
dvitement du conflit et de sduction. Une esthtique du pouvoir, comme le pouvoir de tromper, se
dessine dans la tension entre ces deux tons opposs, inclus dans un mme pratique linguistique et
pragmatique de feinte vidente .

Alexandra Argenti-Pillen is a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at University College London. She
is the author of Masking terror: how women contain violence in southern Sri Lanka (Pennsylvania University
Press, 2003). Her key research interests concern the anthropology of political violence and linguistic

Department of Anthropology, University College London, 14 Taviton Street, London WC1H OBW, UK.

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 13, 313-329

Royal Anthropological Institute 2007