2025 Presidential Theme: Visibility

Dana A. Williams, the 2024–25 president of the MLA, has chosen Visibility as the presidential theme for the 2025 MLA Annual Convention in New Orleans.

In the essay “Invisible Ink: Reading the Writing and Writing the Reading,” Toni Morrison uses the metaphor of invisible ink to suggest that one characteristic of flawless writing involves the way a writer leaves space for a reader to participate in a text. This participation goes beyond basic interpretation and extends to the ways, both active and passive, that a reader helps write a text. Morrison writes: “Invisible ink is what lies under, between, outside the lines, hidden until the right reader discovers it. . . . The reader who is ‘made for’ the book is the one attuned to the invisible ink.” This idea of invisible ink is not limited to reading and writing: it is applicable to every instance of communication. Something is said, but something else is left unsaid. Beyond what is offered and received, there invariably exists residuum—inconspicuous, impalpable, obscured—that lies beneath, between, and beyond. If filling gaps helps us produce knowledge more fully and attests to the aliveness of created things, what practices make more visible those things that have been buried, hidden, obstructed, unnoticed, or disguised? The work of the humanities is to create and to reveal situations that nurture the “right” reader, on the one hand, and then to practice and promote “right” reading and writing, on the other. In both instances, the notion that there is something more to be known, something more to be revealed, persists.

To be sure, ableist representations of visibility as a titular term appear throughout scholarly discourses. I aim to resist such a failing here by invoking the rich, varied, and intersecting legacies of scholarship from Black studies to postcolonial studies to disability studies that remind us that prejudicial ways of “seeing,” knowing, and being are misinformed at least and dangerous at worst. Such narrowness reinscribes systems of oppression that seek to normalize and thereby to exclude. In his 12 April 2022 post “Making a Case for Self-Description: It’s Not about Eye Candy” for the Disability Visibility Project, for instance, the podcast host and producer Thomas Reid argues that the pro forma inclusion of self-descriptions in meeting protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic revealed peoples’ general discomfort with descriptions of appearances, even as appearance is a factor that most impacts peoples’ everyday living. Those who expressed anguish about having to describe themselves (and listen to others do the same) were less distressed about being forced to contend with what sighted people take for granted and more troubled that they were being forced to confront, finally, “that which is visible but yet rarely examined or discussed.” At the core of Reid’s argument is the assertion that “the act of providing a description is a means of recognizing diversity.” For those of us committed to enacting the humanist impulse to include and to build diverse communities peaceably, what work can we do to examine the politics of visibility in ways that are fully inclusive?

Sessions for the 2025 convention that are in conversation with the presidential theme might consider practices of visibility and power (especially surfacing what is hidden); the relation of visibility to meaning; the interaction of social, political, and cultural dimensions of visibility; visual and material culture and languages and literatures; academic visibility; visibility and place and displacement; visibility and privacy; visibility and performance studies; visibility and disability studies; the limits of vision; archival and preservation practices; revisionist histories; rewriting dominant narratives; clarity as concept; marginalized literatures, histories, peoples, languages, and cultures; book bans and censorship; historicized humanities; disrupted binaries or disrupted certainty; un/masking practices; little-known documents, scholars, and literary histories; and more.

I am excited about the ways MLA members might explore this theme for the 2025 convention in New Orleans and encourage you to post a call for papers today. I hope you will join us!