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 Introduction to "General Semantics and Holocaust Denial

Introduction to the Essay
General Semantics and Holocaust Denial

by Andrew E. Mathis, Ph.D.

"It's raining on the map -- not on the territory!"
--David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

I've loved books for most of my life, and one of the best novels I ever read in college was Foucault's Pendulum, by the Italian novelist and linguist at the University of Bologna, Umberto Eco. Each chapter of the book was preceded by an epigraph; one that I remembered for many years afterward was this: "The map is not the territory." I didn't know what it really meant or anything about the man to whom it was attributed (Alfred Korzybski), but I knew I liked it.

Jump ahead to graduate school: I was reading David Foster Wallace's magnum opus, the massive (1,200-page) novel Infinite Jest, and Wallace repeated the quote, albeit in a different context. I looked back at the Eco novel to find out who had said it, and then I picked up Science and Sanity, Korzybski's seminal text on general semantics, and read that. By this time, I'd read the structuralists and post-structuralists like Ferdinand de Saussure, Roman Jakobson, and Jacques Derrida, so I knew something about sign theory. What "the map is not the territory" really meant was simply that a representation (or, as semiologists would have it, a "sign") is not the thing that is signifies.

I wondered why, when I'd read the aforementioned semiologists, I had not seen Korzybski mentioned, but I continued reading on the topic of general semantics, next reading S.I. Hayakawa's Language in Thought and Action, and that's when things began to come together for me. I'd been debating Holocaust deniers and related anti-Semites on the Internet since the early 1990s, but I had not seen the all-or-nothing thinking of these people so succinctly described as when Hayakawa described the two-valued orientation that typified the way a closed mind tends to think. I had already seen the commission of multiple logical fallacies by deniers in various articles and forums (post hoc fallacies, ad hominem attacks, various emotional appeals, etc.), but, particularly with the rise of the denier slogan of the late 1990s -- "No holes, no Holocaust" -- I had seen the two-valued orientation pushed to its extreme among the deniers.

I was invited to join the Holocaust History Project in 2000, and at that point I envisioned an article analyzing the "arguments" of the Holocaust deniers using the principles of general semantics. (Enough scholarship had already been published on the topic of their logical fallacies in general.) However, teaching duties, a book contract related to my graduate studies, and several other things kept me from getting down to writing the actual text. Finally, in the summer of 2005, I put my shoulder to the wheel and wrote the article you find here.

It occurred to me, after having submitted the article to ETC: A Journal of General Semantics for publication, that the issue of the "territorial Final Solution" that I deal with in the essay is usually explained by deniers (and even by normative historians in describing the pre-extermination phases of the Final Solution -- viz. Holocaust: A History by Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, 2004) as the abandoning of forced emigration out of Europe for forced relocation of Jews to conquered territories, or "relocation in the East." However, given a situation on the Eastern Front that Oberkommando des Heeres (Army Chief of Staff) Franz Halder described as unwinnable as early as August 1941 (see Ian Kershaw's Hitler), the feasibility of relocating millions of Jews in occupied territories was not one that could sustain itself for long. Clearly this, as I indicate in my article, eventually became a euphemism for mass murder, along with other terms (e.g., Sonderbehandlung).

I thank the editorial staff at ETC for publishing this essay and for permitting the Holocaust History Project to distribute it. And, of course, I thank the Holocaust History Project for reproducing the article here.

On to the essay General Semantics and Holocaust Denial


Last modified: January 14, 2006
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