Patsy Yaeger’s research topic has her down in the dumps.

Well, not literally. Not really figuratively, either. Yaeger, the Henry Simmons Frieze Collegiate Professor of English and Women’s Studies, is interested in the way trash is portrayed in literature, movies, and the visual arts. More specifically, the way garbage and discarded objects take on a certain glow.

It was not a topic she set out to explore, but one that just kept visiting her.

“First I started noticing this conundrum,” says Yaeger, who is teaching the course Slow Reading: Pollution and the Novel this semester. “Instead of seeing trash and detritus in movies and the visual arts and in literature—instead of seeing this dangerous, this despicable detritus coded as world-clogging, as world-destroying—what I kept finding literature  were all these moments where trash becomes luminous or radiant.

For example, the film Citizen Kane ends with Kane’s belongings, including his beloved sled, turning into what Yaeger calls “this beautiful tabernacle” when burned in an enormous incinerator after his death.

“Here, detritus takes on a kind of sacredness,” Yaeger says. “That’s the moment my research project started. You have a white filmmaker, an African American writer, and a Native American writer all using detritus to get to a similar point, which is understanding a hero’s history of trauma to think about how to transcend trauma.”

Pretty soon, Yaeger was seeing trash and discarded objects portrayed in a new light everywhere she looked. At the movies, in films such as Wall-EHugo, and the Terminator franchise. In the visual arts, in pieces like Damien Hirst’s shiny amber “Armageddon” that is made up of thousands and thousands of dead flies. And Gordon Matta Clark’s art in which he surgically cut holes in condemned buildings to let light shine in.

© Sara De Boer/Retna Ltd./Corbis

“They are all casting light on something unseen or forgotten,” Yaeger says. And that’s worth investigating more closely because on some levels, it’s beautifying what is essentially a large-scale pollution problem. “Trash shouldn’t be sublime. Trash should be beneath our contempt—not particularly a subject of interest except how to get rid of it.”

Another, more personal, reason to study the topic became apparent the more she immersed herself in the research.

“What I didn’t realize till I got into this was that my dad was a hoarder,” Yaeger says. “His difficulty in letting go of junk, especially as he got older and older—it probably created a strong, visceral connection for me to the project.”

The culmination of the project will likely come soon when Yaeger finishes writing her book,Luminous Trash: America in an Age of Conspicuous Destruction.

Then she will set off on another yet-to-be-discovered research adventure, one she relishes because it involves her favorite activity—brainstorming. “I like to ask big questions to see if I can come up with big answers,” she says with a laugh.

Until then, Yaeger will continue to think about garbage. One person’s trash is Yaeger’s research treasure.

“I’m still excited by this project,” she says. “I keep coming back to this empirical question of why everyone is doing this. It’s paradoxical. That shouldn’t be the case.”