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Obvious pretence: for fun or for real? Cross-cousin and international relationships in Sri Lanka


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


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 flirtations, ritual negotiations with spirits, conversations with government officials 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 Bakhtin's 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, conflict 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’.