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Right on the heels of Occupy Philadelphia protesters rallying at Huntsman Hall, a conference on critical theory is coming to Penn. An offshoot of Marxist thought, critical theory questions the submission by individuals to society’s norms, such as capitalism.

This weekend’s speeches will not be the first time critical theory has been discussed at Penn. In 1971, Herbert Marcuse — a German philosopher and co-founder of critical theory — urged 2,000 listeners in Irvine Auditorium toward a 20th century revolution. As reported by The Daily Pennsylvanian, Marcuse said the capitalist system may have reached its limit of development, which would mean the end of alienated labor, to be replaced by the realization of the dignity of the human person.

Starting today, the International Herbert Marcuse Society will mark the 40th anniversary of Marcuse’s speech with a three-day conference entitled “Critical Refusals.”

Among 18 speakers, the keynote is Angela Davis. A student of Marcuse’s, Davis was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List and spent 14 months in jail as a result of Black Panther activity, though she was later acquitted of all charges. Davis also ran twice as the Communist Party’s vice presidential candidate.

In anticipation of the conference, over 40 professors and students gathered in Van Pelt Library Wednesday night for what was the third preconference event of that week, Urban Studies professor Andrew Lamas said. Lamas worked to organize the conference and host it on Penn’s campus.

2011 College graduate Nantina Vgontzas — who helped Lamas organize the conference — said it would host nearly 500 attendees from around the world. Most of the speeches will be given in Houston Hall, she added.

The conference is “a kind of renaissance of radical theory at a time when radical theory is needed,” Northwestern University Philosophy professor and conference speaker Charles Mills said. Citing America’s greatest wealth disparity since the 1920s and the Occupy movement’s “challenge to the rule of the corporations,” Mills said the Critical Refusals conference harkens back to the student movements of the 1960s.

Critical theorists aren’t revolting against society. Rather, they urge “awake[ning] ourselves to social limitations” Wharton senior Max Cohen, a student of Lamas, said.

Namely, “capitalism is destroying democracy,” Temple University Philosophy professor Lewis Gordon, also planned to speak at the conference, said. “Everyday people have been beaten down to a sense of futility. When people think they can’t make a difference, then democracy has really died, hasn’t it?”

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