This aesthetics of modernity in Finlay’s work has taken the form of what, with characteristically barbed-wire wit, he has called a neoclassical rearmament programme. The programme addresses the grand narratives of Arcadia, Art and Revolution, challenging the founding assumptions of secular democracy with the need to rethink the relation between nature and culture. His attempt to rethink the politics of nature against the secular forces of modernity has its most sustained development at Stonypath, in his garden in Southern Scotland on a site he has called Little Sparta. Just as Adorno and Horkheimer, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, explore the mythic significance of the encounter of Odysseus and his crew with the sirens as a dialectical image of the division of labour in the domination of nature,  so Finlay has offered a number of dialectical images in sculptural form to suggest the profound ambivalence of neoclassical pastoral as a forerunner of the aesthetic violence of modernity.
In one of a series of neoclassical translations of the Apollo myth, Finlay dramatises the story of Apollo chasing Daphne as the Virtuous Republic being chased by an over-ardent suitor in the guise of the young Saint-Just. In another series of translations Finlay has construed a metaphorical relation between the sculptural form of the Oerlikon gun and the lyre, confronting the technology of modern warfare with classical myth and a quotation from Heraclitus.(A7)
Perhaps the clearest illustration of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s neoclassical aesthetics of modernity is provided by the object entitled ‘Adorno’s Hut’, constructed in collaboration with Keith Brookwell and Andrew Townsend in 1989.(A292) The object consists of a neoclassical temple made out of columns of wood in roughly hewn tree trunks on one side, modulating into more finely hewn planks, which are then joined to overtly futurist red metal girders, which in turn form metal columns on the other side, wood and metal meeting in the middle to form a grid-like roof open to the elements.
Classical temples were open-air buildings, whose aesthetic form is akin to a natural wood but with an artifice of materials and roof which created a shaded clearing, an architectural space of spiritual being which sought to reconcile art with nature. If classical temples found their aesthetic purpose in suggesting architectural similarities between tree-trunks and columns, such that a temple is an artificial house of nature which mediates between human nature and nature itself, then the dissonant concatenation of wood and metal in ‘Adorno’s Hut’ works as a historical pastiche. This pastiche might be seen as a critique of the possibility of such reconciliation of art and nature, or as an attempt to reaffirm some kind of neoclassical spirituality. As pastiche, however, the joke threatens both to domesticate the dissonance of the materials and to render spirituality bathetic.
As if in a further ironic comment on the containment in secular society of such public spaces of spiritual form, ‘Adorno’s Hut’ was first displayed indoors in Finlay’s Garden Temple at Stonypath, a Temple dedicated to ‘To Apollo, His Music, His Missiles, His Muses’.(A65) Finlay’s neoclassical rearmament programme reinvents Apollo’s status as the patron god of poetry, music and archery and sees Apollo’s modern avatar in the French revolutionary Saint-Just.
Placed in this context, ‘Adorno’s Hut’ offers vistas of comment on the art of revolution, on Nietzsche’s conception of the Apollonian, and on Adorno’s aesthetics of music. The title, moreover, offers a pun on the German word ‘Hut’, which means ‘hat’ or ‘cap’, and also ‘protection’, ‘shelter’; even ‘pasture’ and ‘right of pasture’; and thence, ‘flock’ or ‘herd’. Thus this temple offers itself as a dialectical image or emblem of Adorno’s aesthetic theory.
Finlay’s mode of citation, however succinct, depends on the irony of aphoristic wit in concrete poetry to offer an occasion for meditation, rather than a simple statement or affirmation. Discussing the use of such irony in his work Stephen Bann, Finlay’s most illuminating and sympathetic commentator, writes that: ‘Irony can comprehend both the pathos of estrangement and the insistence of an actual historical situation.’  Finlay’s work, however, has often been the victim of misunderstandings which have not found his irony so easily comprehensible or indeed successful as a mode of comprehension, however estranged.
Accordingly, this essay seeks to follow through problems raised by meditating on ‘Adorno’s Hut’, trying to locate a problem of agency in this ambivalent irony by pursuing an insight suggested by J.H. Prynne: ‘the perils of irony are more severe than the risks of misconstruction, because even as a latent first stage in the argument of contradiction there’s a duplicity about ironic devices which cannot go unremarked.’ 
ARE WE TO UNDERSTAND the wit of ‘Adorno’s Hut’ as an illustration of Adorno’s thinking, as if it were an abbreviated suggestion for further reading, a recommendation to reflect on Adorno’s work? If Finlay’s reference to Adorno is taken as a cue for the work being illustrative, ‘Adorno’s Hut’ can be read as exemplifying the dialectical relation between nature and technology which is central to Adorno’s theory. In this light, the work affords meditation on the religious function of the human construction of spiritual buildings as part of the history of the human domination of nature.
The missing moment in this temple, between actual tree trunk and modernist girder, is the use of stone for columns to represent trees — stone and inscriptions in stone being one of the principal forms of Finlay’s work. As such, ‘Adorno’s Hut’ would imply an aesthetic complement to the stark conception of history suggested by Adorno in Negative Dialectics: ‘No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.’  Or from Apollo’s bow and arrow to nuclear missiles. Adorno’s challenge to conceptions of progress is echoed by Finlay’s persistent juxtaposition of the twin forces — military and religious — of human aesthetic labour: the Champs Elysées are alive with the sound of automobiles firing on all pistons. Moreover, the relation between art and myth in their work suggests striking parallels.
Read in a different light, however, ‘Adorno’s Hut’ can be seen as offering a critique of Adorno’s work, illustrating the abstract reduction of classical aesthetics to modernist politics, by suggesting that Adorno’s aesthetics concur with the reduction of the temple as a spiritual building, now reduced to the secular and banal mundanity of a hut. The possibility of reversing this trajectory of secularisation is exemplified by Finlay’s Garden Temple at Stonypath, a farm building which was first turned into an art gallery and then into a temple. By offering an allegorical emblem of what the temple has become, ‘Adorno’s Hut’ can then be seen as offering a striking example of Finlay’s attempt to develop a concrete poetry which is critical of modernist aesthetics, a critique embodied in the sculptural form and in its two word title.
Finlay’s work provides many such examples of how an avant-garde aesthetics might seek to rethink the relation between nature and culture, between art and society, and between pastoralism and revolution. Whereas Adorno’s work is a neo-Marxist attempt to understand modernity and modern art as a response to capitalism, Finlay’s work invariably insists on a piety of aesthetic purpose which resists secular worldliness, and is conspicuously reticent about the social and economic structures of modern society.
Eschewing the politics and aesthetics of modernist art, and particularly the critical articulation of subjectivity and consciousness, the strategy of Finlay’s work turns on neoclassical retrospection. His work continually suggests an elegiac pathos of distance in which the modern world is seen through the estranged idioms of the classical world. Through this problem of distance Finlay seeks to develop the chiasmus observed by Yves Abrioux, playing off the aesthetics of power, notably in fascism, against the power of aesthetics.(A167) In The Third Reich Revisited, for example, Finlay coins the neologism ‘neopresocratic’ (A143) to suggest his own distance from conventional neoclassical aesthetics, as part of the broader strategy of the provocatively ambivalent ‘neoclassical rearmament programme’.
Given persistent references to the pre-Socratics, Finlay’s attempts to rethink an aesthetics of nature might be taken to imply an affinity not with Adorno, but with a more Heideggerian understanding of modern art and technology. Beyond such schematic parallels, the ambivalence of Finlay’s post-Romantic irony means that his witty juxtapositions are undecidable, occasions for meditation rather than reflective judgment.
Nevertheless, while it may not be possible to decide whether ‘Adorno’s Hut’ is sympathetic to or critical of Adorno, Adorno himself was invariably critical of neoclassicism, particularly in the music of Stravinsky. Adorno’s critique of neoclassicism is succinctly formulated in the following aphorism: ‘Neo-classicism became an accepted style because it enabled individuals sated by their individuality to colonize the libidinous space of a past age not yet fully individuated.’  Finlay has developed a striking range of objective forms which invariably seek autonomy from any kind of subjective individuation in order to achieve a permanence of social form and civic sculpture. But if Finlay’s work suffers from a deindividuated objectivism, it also raises the possibility that neo-classicism might be reinvented precisely to dramatise the collapse of aesthetic subjectivity diagnosed by Adorno.
This contrast between the value accorded to neoclassicism by Adorno and Finlay is not merely a conceptual problem concerning aesthetics. The contrast reflects very different conceptions of modernity, and in particular the more precise political context of the French Revolution to which both Adorno and Finlay refer. The most dramatic historical emergence of neoclassicism is in the French Revolution, the event which is often taken to mark the birth of modernity,  and an event which is thematic in much of Finlay’s recent work. In a relatively rare explanatory note written by Finlay himself, entitled ‘Bara, Barra, Viala: a note’, Finlay provides suggestions for seeing his Temple de Joseph Bara (1985). Finlay writes as follows:
The ‘column’ of toy drums celebrates Viala and adds an acknowledgement of the Revolution’s passion for antiquity. ‘Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time in Roman costume and with Roman phrases...’ So wrote Marx in his The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. 
Rather than simply applying a neoclassical aesthetic as though transhistorically connecting the classical world with the present, Finlay here makes it clear that his neoclassicism takes its provenance from the costumes worn by the French Revolution itself. His work offers then a doubly estranged perspective on the classical world and the French Revolution, in which the vantage of the present is historically mediated through the Archimedean point of the French Revolution.
In the translation of Marx from which Finlay is quoting the words which conclude the passage, but which Finlay does not quote, explain that the task performed in Roman costume was ‘the task of unchaining and setting up modern bourgeois society.’ While Finlay is prepared to cite Marx on the costume of neoclassicism in the French Revolution, he is more reticent on the task for which this costume was worn, a task which is somewhat at odds with Finlay’s own attempts to reinvent the spirit of Jacobinism. In Marx’s account of the neoclassicism of the French Revolution, the costume of neoclassicism was needed to provide a heroic disguise. This mode of self-deception allowed the revolutionary agents of modern bourgeois society to evade consciousness of the modern world they were making. In the same paragraph from which Finlay quotes, Marx goes on to write:
But unheroic as bourgeois society is, it nevertheless took heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war, and battles of peoples to bring it into being. And in the classically austere traditions of the Roman republic its gladiators found the ideals and the art forms, the self-deceptions that they needed in order to conceal from themselves the bourgeois limitations of the content of their struggles and to keep their enthusiasm on the high plane of the great historical tragedy. 
The purpose of Marx’s account of the costumes of the French Revolution in The Eighteenth Brumaire is to set the scene for his satirical account of how the revolutions of 1848 to 1851 provided a grotesque parody of the French Revolution of 1793 to 1795.
Turning Hegel’s remark that the facts and personages of world history occur twice into the formulation that they occur the first time as tragedy, and the second as farce, Marx’s political purpose is to show how the attempt to repeat the deluded costumes of French Revolution is both farcical and historically obsolete. Accordingly, the poetic neoclassicism of the French Revolution must be rejected as historical superstition. In the changed circumstances of the nineteenth century, Marx argues that the new forces of the proletariat must forge their emergence from prehistory in new costumes:
The social revolution of the nineteenth century can only create its poetry from the future, not from the past. It cannot begin its own work until it has sloughed off all its superstitious regard for the past. Earlier revolutions have needed world-historical reminiscences to deaden their awareness of their own content. In order to arrive at its own content, the revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead.
Marx’s critique of the attempt to replay the neoclassicism of the French Revolution suggests that Finlay’s attempt to develop neoclassical art forms by which to remember the French Revolution repeats the failure of the revolutions of 1848 to 1851: first time as tragedy, second time as farce, third time as an alienated joke on postcards. Adorno’s comments on the French Revolution are sporadic, but in a section on Hegel and Marx in Negative Dialectics entitled ‘World Spirit and Natural History’, he writes on the French Revolution in a way which suggests that he would concur with Marx’s assessment: ‘Probably all bourgeois revolutions were decided in advance by the historic upsurge of the respective class; an admixture of ostentation was then externalized in art, as classicistic decor.’ 
Adorno develops this critical perspective of the relation between class and aesthetic ornament in his letters to Walter Benjamin, where he argues that Benjamin’s attempt to deploy dialectical images as a mode of historical quotation fails to preserve the social movement within the contradictions represented. Benjamin’s uncompleted Arcades project sought to find a way of remembering history as part of a revolutionary consciousness that would free itself from its prehistory.
In a direct rebuff to the Marxism of the Second International, Benjamin argues that we cannot let the dead bury the dead, but must redeem the past, in a process by which the working-class is ‘nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.’  For Benjamin, the poetry of the future is a redemption of the past, a time in which the past becomes citable in all its moments. Accordingly, Benjamin attempts to rethink the conception of history suggested by Marx, particularly in relation to Marx’s discussion of revolutionary time in The Eighteenth Brumaire. Benjamin writes:
History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now. Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history. The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome reincarnate. It evoked ancient Rome the way fashion evokes costumes of the past. Fashion has a flair for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is a tiger’s leap into the past. This jump, however, takes place in an arena where the ruling class gives the commands. The same leap in the open air of history is the dialectical one, which is how Marx understood the revolution. 
Here Benjamin, albeit elliptically, suggests that the dramatic costumes of the past worn by the French Revolution offer a viable model of the remembrance of the past in revolutionary time, suggesting implicitly that Marx prematurely foreclosed the dialectical leap into the open air of history in his critique of the resurrection of the dead. Against the poetry of the future, Benjamin places the historical awareness of revolutionary action at the centre of his conception of revolutionary now-time, a time when history might be redeemed.
The task of historical materialism, and Benjamin’s historiography, is to develop the historical insight necessary to prefigure such moments, seeking the origin of such moments in material history itself rather than in the abstract overcoming of history familiar from Marx’s account of the proletarian negation of the negation in Capital.
So if Marx’s account of the French Revolution involves an uncompromising rejection of its neoclassicism, Benjamin’s account suggests that analogous processes may be important for both historiography and political action, and hence provide a defence of Finlay’s neoclassical rearmament programme. Indeed an apparently similar conception of revolutionary time is central to a whole range of reflections by Benjamin on quotations, aphorisms and the historically prefigurative quality of dialectical images. But against neoclassicism as such, Benjamin’s work is concerned not to make transhistorical connections in aesthetic terms, precisely because such connections take place within conceptions of tradition dominated by the ruling class. His conception of history is critical of any aesthetics of individual expressive consciousness, and in this respect shares features of the critique of romanticism with classicism, but this is because Benjamin is committed to thinking and understanding collective consciousness rather than art, social being rather than individual consciousness.
An example of how this conception of history might diverge radically from Jacobin neoclassicism and Finlay’s use of it, is provided by Finlay’s quotation of Saint-Just’s statement that ‘The world has been empty since the Romans’ (A269). Benjamin’s historiography is devoted to refuting such conceptions, and the false conception of nature which is often allied with them in attempts to understand history as nature. As such, Benjamin’s work provides a sustained critique of the ideology of key Jacobin statements which Finlay is fond of quoting, such as ‘In Revolution, politics becomes Nature’.
Nevertheless, Finlay’s attempts to reinvent an idiom of neoclassical citation in concrete poetry echoes a number of aspects of Benjamin’s work, notably the investigation of how the aura of the word in allegorical emblems, as Finlay puts it, ‘jars on our secularism by suggesting the hierarchies of the word’. (A40) These affinities with Benjamin suggest that Finlay’s poetry of the past and of the spirit of revolution requires rethinking in the light of Benjamin’s philosophy of history, and in particular Benjamin’s materialist account of the dialectical image and revolutionary time. The difficulty, however, is to develop a historical conception of the moment of revolutionary time which might realise the collective self-consciousness of the oppressed in the overcoming of oppression.
Reflection on the failure of the Russian Revolution, its own slide into Thermidor and the Stalin-Hitler pact, forms the backdrop for Benjamin’s thinking, but Finlay has thus far studiously avoided tackling the Russian Revolution, and shows little interest in the associated political problems of contemporary revolutionaries. Indeed, his approach to Strathclyde Regional Council in the ‘Little Spartan War’ deliberately aestheticises politics, an approach Benjamin associated with fascism, and which marks out the difficulty in all of Finlay’s work of knowing whether he intends to use the French revolution for ironic reflection on its aesthetic and historical distance, or whether it is a serious call to arms. How would it be possible to take Finlay’s representation of ‘The Revolution’ seriously? Or does his perilous irony intend to mock revolutionary seriousness?
The problem here is that Finlay’s irony undermines any attempt to connect his fragments and objective inscriptions into a politics, constantly reminding us that, in revolution, art does not become politics or nature, but artifice. And the objectivity of this artifice in turn refuses any attempt to articulate individuality or subjectivity, reminding us of the violence of public art, both in the deindividuated mode of the official proclamation and in the more contemporary commodity form of advertising. Here Adorno’s critique of the split between language and social agency in Benjamin’s approach to the citation of dialectical images highlights the way in which, as Adorno puts it, ‘no ideological or social “accomplishment” can ever be expected of a dialectical image’. 
Against Benjamin’s attempts to find prefigurative intimations of a future classless society which can be quoted in the now-time of revolution, Adorno argues that what is important is the development of historical consciousness, not a dream-like evocation of collective consciousness: ‘the dialectical image should not be transferred into consciousness as a dream, but in its dialectical construction the dream should be externalized and the immanence of consciousness itself be understood as a constellation of reality...’ Adorno goes on to suggest that unless the social mediation of images is understood, then all that is offered is ‘an imagistic correlate of the commodity character.’
It seems likely that Adorno would have interpreted Finlay’s work in this light, suggesting how Finlay’s concrete poetry can be read as a neoclassical pastiche of advertising (though it is difficult to see how Finlay’s work represents consciousness). Adorno would probably have argued that such forms commodify the very revolutionary history Finlay purports to evoke in a farcical reprise of the revolution turned into pastoral postcards. This problem is reflected elsewhere in Finlay’s work.
The irony of ‘Nuclear Sail’(A42-43) cannot help but glorify and advertise the aesthetic technology of war in the form of nuclear submarines.
Similarly, how else can we interpret the military hardware in ‘Project for a Monument to Ludwig Feuerbach’ (A304) as anything but an affront to the memory of Feuerbach? More generally, Finlay’s seemingly whimsical evocations of both the French Revolution and the Third Reich can indeed be seen as compounding the violence of historical events in mystified form.
Understood in this way the irony of Finlay’s dialectical images of revolution and fascism exhausts itself in a simple claim to negate what it represents, but without any counter energy to resist the social forces embodied in aesthetic form. Such irony risks being subsumed by what it tries to ironise because it cannot connect with enough meaning to support its own life, and cannot but reduce the social agency of resistance to an alienated pun. The parody of social resistance in Finlay’s aesthetics of revolutionary iconography aestheticizes the politics of conscious agency because its wit can only suggest a witty parody of politics.
As if to confirm such an analysis, Finlay’s work rarely offers any indication of how his aesthetic representation of revolution might institute new social struggles, and when such indications are offered the joke makes a mockery of the historical crises of alienated experience. One of Finlay’s ‘Unconnected Sentences on Gardening’ states that: ‘Garden centres must become the Jacobin Clubs of the new Revolution.’(A40) Here, the irony of the aphorism dramatises the collapse of aesthetic or political agency, but at the cost of belittling the historical needs expressed both in garden centres and in the revolutionary conception of nature developed by Jacobin ideology, notably in Saint-Just’s De la nature. 
Moreover, the politics of Jacobinism compounds such problems by confusing the relationship between natural law and political institutions, between virtue and representation. Miguel Abensour, for example, argues that the central contradiction in Saint-Just’s political thinking involves making the modern practice of revolution serve a pre-modern idea of rights and society:
The evils ascribed to politics must entail a downgrading of political mediation, even if Saint-Just declared, in his Sur la constitution, that ‘natural polity’ was not his aim. What else if not a twofold rejection of politics (the rejection of mediation or confusion with the logic of another order) was Saint-Just asserting when he wrote: “The principle of a republican government is virtue; the alternative is terror. What do people want who want neither virtue, nor terror?” He called for a return to nature, and not humanity, as the destination of the city, and his conception of revolution as the way to bring about this return fosters the illusion in which politics is confused with morality.’ 
Finlay’s quotations allow themselves the freedom to claim that the aesthetic displacement involved in the quotation is concerned to suggest such critiques, showing the close and dangerous relation between virtue and terror in the aestheticized politics of the Jacobins or of the Nazis. Irony, so to speak, can always suggest, when its bluff is called, that it knew all along that there were more serious matters involved, indeed that its satirical edge was directed precisely towards such ends. But at the point where it becomes clear that decisions need to be made about the ambivalence of what such irony stands for, the aestheticisation of politics cannot fall back on resources within the art, and ends by cancelling itself out.
At such a point, the seeming absence of human agency amid the proclamations of aesthetic violence suggests that there is no virtue in refusing recognition to the fragile resources of subjectivity. Moreover, the force of historical abstraction which estranges itself from worldliness in an aesthetic spirituality whose armour is neoclassicism can then be seen as a historical manoeuvre which threatens to deny the very freedom its best good humour hopes for.
Such reflections are suggested by a consideration of whether Finlay intends ‘Adorno’s Hut’ critically or sympathetically, and this process of reflection seems to be inherent in the structure of reference in most of Finlay’s work. If, as Abrioux has suggested, ‘it is a major aspect of Finlay’s aesthetic that his works should induce a process of exploration and meditation on their references’(A7), then any attempt to understand ‘Adorno’s Hut’ would have to begin to reconstruct both the possibility that it affords confirmation of Adorno’s aesthetic theory and also that the work might be an attack on Adorno’s work.
At the same time the possibility needs to be considered that what might be read as a critique of Adorno might also need to be considered in the light of an Adornian critique, a right of reply. But because such a process cannot come to rest without recognising that its leg is being pulled, the duplicity of irony swallows up its marks of respect or recognition in a smile which seems to say, to those whose politics would resist such irony, ‘let them eat cake’. Against the weight of such an abstract meditation, Finlay himself might quote Saint-Just: ‘Too Many Laws, Too Few Examples.’ (A239)