Inspired by the notion of facilitation, which was central to Freud's description of the functioning of the psychic apparatus, Jacques Lacan defined the signifying chain as an association and combination of signifiers, connected in diverse ways, like the "links by which a necklace firmly hooks onto a link of another necklace made of links" (Lacan, 2002a, p. 145). The unconscious activity of desire is expressed through the associative and combinatory links of the signifier and is repeated in a kind of succession that sets up a chain reaction.
The signifying chain originates in the process of primal repression, during which the Name-of-the-Father signifiers are substituted for the signifier of the desire for the mother. From then on, conscious and unconscious signifiers are woven together through metonymy and metaphor, the two functions that generate signifieds.
The signifying chain has only one destiny: to insert the subject's unconscious desire in the subject's utterances. Thus it constitutes the design and the weave of the speaking subject's psychic fabric. More generally, it is involved in all psychic causality.
See also: Four discourses; Graph of Desire; Infantile, the; Letter, the; Matheme; Psychic causality; Signifier; Symptom, sinthome; Unary trait.
——. (2002a).Écrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.) New York: W. W. Norton.
——. (2002b). The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis. In hisÉcrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.) New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1953)
——. (2002c). The instance of the letter in the unconscious, or reason since Freud. In hisÉcrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.) New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1957)
——. (2002d). The subversion of the subject and the dialectic of desire in the Freudian unconcsious. In hisÉcrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.) New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1960)