Reframing the conception of modern Arab identity from a confrontation between two undifferentiated cultures, the book closely reads "foundational" Arabic texts from turn of the century to demonstrate that the ideology and discourses of Arab subjectivity were internally formed within the Ottoman Empire at a time of radical transformations in governance and political economy. Sheehi locates the battle for "self" and "other" outside of the "colonial encounter" between Western colonizer and Eastern colonized. Instead, the dialectic between Self and Other transpired internally—epistemologically and discursively—on a plane of dynamic cultural and social formations within Ottoman Arab society and polity during the Tanzimat.
Sheehi proposes that the concept of cultural "failure" is inherent to the ways modern Arab intellectuals critically reorganized and redefined Arab subjectivity during modernity. Examining a host of varying sources including Arab fiction and commentary from the Arab Press, Sheehi maps out a "formula" for Arab reform during 19th and 20th century al-nahda, which predicates "progress and civilization" as "proleptic" teleological endpoints. Linguistically and semiotically structuring this formula was an axiomatic "nomenclature of reform" that was found in all Arab reform writing and thought despite the ideological, sectarian, political, or national position of the author. This commonality, Sheehi reveals, is due to that historical and political fact that all reform paradigms during the late Ottoman and Mandate periods arose from a fundamental epistemology of Arab modernity; a hybridized but still thorough modern form of modernity that Sheehi states was "autogenetic."