Marxist theorists make a particular kind of distinction between subject and object. Tony Bennett notes that the historical dialectic involves a mutually interactive relationship between the subject (human agents) and the object (the conditions of their existence) (Bennett 1982: 42). Fiske distinguishes 'the subject' thus:
In Marxist thought, individuals are 'constituted' as the bearers of positions through the effects of social relations (Lapsley & Westlake 1988: 7). This is referred to as 'the constitution of the subject'.
Althusser rejected the humanist notion of the individual as a self-conscious, autonomous being whose actions could be explained in terms of personal beliefs, intentions, preferences and so on (Lapsley & Westlake 1988: 14-15). He introduced the concept of a mechanism of interpellation, whereby subjects are constituted as the effects of pre-given structures. Ideology functions to constitute individuals as subjects. Individuals are interpellated (have social identities conferred on them) primarily through 'ideological state apparatuses' (ISAs), including the family, schooling and the mass media. It is through ISAs that people gain both a sense of identity and an understanding of reality (Lapsley & Westlake 1988: 8).
The notion that the human subject is constituted by pre-given structures is a general feature of structuralism, according to which subjectivity is determined by structures such as language, family relations, cultural conventions and other social forces (Lapsley & Westlake 1988: 10-11).
Althusser's notion of interpellation allows Marxist media theorists to explain the political function of mass media texts. 'As a pre-existing structure, the text interpellates the spectator, so constituting him or her as a subject' (Lapsley & Westlake 1988: 12). According to this view, the subject (viewer, listener, reader) is constituted by the text, and the power of the mass media resided in their ability to 'position' the subject in such a way that their representations were taken to be reflections of everyday reality.
Althusserian Marxism did not allow for the possibility of individuals resisting the process of interpellation, whereas ISAs are not invariably and completely successful; the subject can be agent as well as effect. Althusserian media theorists tended to see the text as the sole determinant of the subject's response (Lapsley & Westlake 1988: 15). They also treated the subject as 'unified', whereas subsequent Marxist theories have posited 'a contradictory, de-centred subject displaced across the range of discourses in which he or she participates' (Curran et al. 1982: 25).
Whilst Herbert Marcuse's (1972) portrayal of the power of the mass media tended to cast audiences as passive victims, neo-Marxist stances have typically come to grant more active roles to audiences. As Curran et al. put it, whilst dominant meaning systems are seen as 'moulded and relayed' by the mass media, they are also seen as 'adapted by audiences and integrated into class-based or "situated" meaning systems' (Curran et al. 1982: 15).