The formations of the unconscious are those circumstances in which the laws of the unconscious are most discernible: the joke, the dream, the symptom, the lapsus (parapraxis). Freud referred to the fundamental mechanisms involved in the formations of the unconscious as condensation and displacement, which Lacan redefines as metaphor and metonymy. With the former, the play of signifiers creates sense in nonsense in relation to truth. The latter reveals the lack of a word, "an item of waste sent like a ball between code and message." In this lack substitute words appear and function like "the metonymic ruins of the object." At the junction between psychoanalysis and linguistics, Lacan wants to formalize the primordial laws of the unconscious that Freud had uncovered. His project is to define a topology of the levels of functioning of the signifier in the subject by elaborating the graphs that, under the generic name of Graph of Desire, will be at the core of "The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious" written in 1960 and published in 1966 in Écrits. Here the key concept is that of desire, and Lacan's dialectic of desire is quite distinct from Hegel's. The Graph of Desire will serve as a topology of the different steps constitutive of the subject. "It is precisely because desire is articulated that it is not articulable" in a signifying chain. Slavoj Zizek commenting on this formulation argues that subject is not substance, "it has not substantial positive being in itself, being caught between 'not yet' and 'no longer'. The subject never is, it will have been - either it is not yet here or it is no longer here, since there is only a trace of its absence."
The subject is dependent on the recognition of the Other who embodies "the legitimacy of the code," he alone can ratify a word as a joke, as stupidity or as madness. With the Other, Lacan moves on to the analysis of the Oedipus complex. Three stages structure the constitution of the subject. First, the paternal metaphor acts intrinsically on account of the primacy given to the phallus by culture. Then, the father intervenes as the one who deprives the mother: to her he addresses the message "You will not reintegrate your product" - the child as phallic object. The child receives "a message on the message," in the form of "You will not sleep with your mother" that liberates and deprives him of the object of his desire. From the alternative "To be or not to be the phallus," he can move to the alternative "To have it or not to have it." The third moment - the exit out of the Oedipus complex - requires the intervention of the permissive and generous father who, preferred over the mother, gives birth to the idea of the ego. It is in this context that the problems of becoming boy or girl - of the inverted Oedipus complex are raised.
Lacan plays with the term "insistence" in order to recall repetition, the characteristic of the signifying chain in the unconscious. "The unconscious is neither primordial nor instinctual; what it knows about the elementary is but the elements of the signifier." In a previous writing, "The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason since Freud," he defines the unconscious as a memory that can be compared to that of modern thinking-machines where the chain that insists on reproducing itself in the transference can be found, and which is the chain of dead desire.
In "The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious," written in 1960, Lacan states that "it is not the law that bars the subject's access to jouissance but pleasure." In 1966 he will add a final sentence: "Castration means that jouissance must be refused, so that it can be reached on the inverted ladder (échelle inversée) of the Law of desire."
"The signification of the phallus" (Écrits: A Selection) is a lecture given at the Max Planck Institute in Munich in 1958. All the research accomplished during La relation d'objet and Les formations de l'inconscient culminates here, and serves as an introduction to Le désir et son interpretation The alternative seems ineluctable: either the Mother or the Father. To choose the Mother means to be condemned to the dependency of demand, while the Father constitutes the access to desire, hence to salvation. If the Father must be preferred to the Mother, if the Father is the origin and the representative of culture (and of the Law), it is because he possesses the phallus that he can give or refuse. The absolute primacy of the phallus - the single emblem of Man - has become a real doctrinal (perhaps dogmatic) basis of Lacanian theory: "The phallus is the signifier of signifiers, the privileged signifier of that mark in which the role of the logos is joined with the advent of desire," its function "touches on its most profound rapport: that in which the Ancients embodied the Nous, the Mind, and the Logos, discourse, reason." Why such a privilege? "This signifier is chosen as the most tangible element in the real of sexual copulation; it is the most symbolic in the literal sense," since "it is equivalent to the logical copula." Moreover, "by virtue of its turgidity, it epitomizes the image of the vital flow as it is transmitted in generation." Freud says, there is only one libido, masculine in nature. Later, Lacan will assert that "there is no such thing as sexual rapport," il n'y a pas de rapport sexuel, in the sense of proportion or relation: one sex counts for both sexes. Thus the phallus can only appear as veiled.
- Le séminaire, Livre V: Les formations de l'inconscient, 1957-1958.