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  • Invisible Threads:Unraveling Infrastructure in Half Century with Cotton
  • Sunny Stalter (bio)

We only notice infrastructure when it fails: this axiom has been repeated from boundary 2 to the New York Times Magazine (Robbins 2007; Vanderbilt 2009). In her introduction to the PMLA special issue on cities, Patricia Yaeger suggests that "when infrastructure disappears, drifting towards invisibility in many city texts, we should remember to read this absence as a taking for granted of infrastructural privilege" (2007, 17). The inverse is true as well; infrastructure becomes visible in the moments when we can no longer take it for granted. Indeed, the presumption of infrastructural privilege has come back to haunt the United States in the past decade during moments like the 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis, the 2003 blackout in New York City, and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Although this association of the functional with the invisible may hold true in the contemporary, transnational "Planet of Slums" (Davis 2006), it does not acknowledge earlier codes of infrastructural meaning. Modernist infrastructural projects take much of their power from the new forms of visibility that they make possible: [End Page 115] think of the boulevards that resulted from Baron Haussman's reconstruction of Paris, for example, or the vista when approaching Hoover Dam (Nye 1994). Some infrastructure was meant to be seen.

I'd like to consider the relationship between these two forms of visibility—modernist display and postmodernist ruin, or put another way, industrial display and postindustrial ruin—in the case of the Opelika Manufacturing Company, a former textile mill in Opelika, Alabama. Opened in 1901, the mill changed hands several times before it closed in 1999: the Leshner Corporation purchased it in the 1980s (Shealey 2000); Pillowtex bought Leshner and its holdings in 1998, and closed the mill the following year (Adams 2002). The empty mill stands just off Opelika's main drag, a memorial to the town's former identity as a manufacturing center. This ruin stands in dramatic contrast to the same building seen at the beginning of Haskell Wexler's Half Century with Cotton, a promotional documentary made in 1948.1

The desire for visibility within the film seems at its heart to be a simple matter of advertising, since showing off the latest equipment proves to your customers that you are on the cutting edge of the industry. In this way, it fits in with the forms of commercial display that proliferated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as fair exhibits and factory tourism.2 What I find most compelling about Half Century with Cotton, however, is its depiction of linked infrastructural systems, from the company-owned mill village where workers live, to the factory where they work, to the roads that enable delivery of the finished product to customers in distant cities. Some links between these systems are made hypervisible in the film, while others are almost completely suppressed. Visible infrastructure affiliates regions—think of downtown Chicago, tied together as "The Loop" because of the elevated train tracks that encircle it. Similarly, infrastructure that is invisible or difficult to see weakens the implicit geographical connection between center and periphery, or between producer and supplier (Lynch 1960). Michael Rubenstein astutely notes that even invisible public utilities such as electricity can foster relationships between citizens and the government (2008, 43). This bond between infrastructure and recognition forms the subject of my inquiry.3 Looking at Half Century with Cotton, we can reconstruct the work that went on not only in a now-abandoned factory but also in a now-abandoned [End Page 116] social system, one that visibly linked modernist narratives of technological progress to the everyday lived experience of Southern workers.

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The former Opelika Manufacturing Company stands empty today. Photograph by the author.

Half Century with Cotton operates as a fascinating case study of the conflicting desires and multiple affiliations at work in representations of Southern industry. The film was produced and directed by Haskell Wexler, a filmmaker with longstanding interest in issues of voyeurism, labor, and [End Page 117] urban space.4 Wexler's career as a cinematographer and director has varied widely in...


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