A Philosopher Asks: What Does The Weeknd Mean When He Says He Can't Feel His Face?

Martin T. Hadley is a depressive philosophy graduate tormented by the existential crises at the heart of everyday pop lyrics.

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Nov 2 2015, 3:48pm

Martin T. Hadley is a depressive philosophy graduate and musician who can’t listen to the radio without being tormented by the existential crises at the heart of everyday pop lyrics. Noisey asked him to investigate the philosophical problems at the heart of some of our favourite songs. First up: The Weeknd’s "Can’t Feel My Face".

This song is depressing. It's depressing as soon as you consider that its extended metaphor – presumably meant to illustrate The Weeknd's desperate, uncompromising devotion to an exalted lover – does nothing more than admit a desperate, and possibly debilitating, addiction to cocaine. In this sense Can't Feel My Face is about dependence, desperation, a lack of inhibition, isolation, and relatedly, self-esteem, anxiety, misery, and ultimately, a pained and inauspicious death.

Those things aren't that interesting to me, though. If you are interested in that sort of thing then go and read something by someone French. What is interesting is the lyric in the chorus of this sleek, sensual, and utterly depressing song:

I can't feel my face when I'm with you, (but I love it, but I love it)

This seems straightforward: The Weeknd reports that there is something, namely his face, such that he cannot feel it (and that he loves that lack of feeling). Given the none-too-subtle metaphor in this song, one can only hazard a guess that he's referring to the anaesthetic effects of cocaine.

Cocaine was first used as a local anaesthetic in the 1880s; Freud loved it too. He, and an eye doctor called Carl Koller who was the first to discover its anaesthetic effect, used to snort copious amounts of it and then poke each other in the eyes with needles to prove it really worked. It's not used in medicine any more. Just at parties, where people use it in wretched attempts to feel like anything other than their miserable selves.

What The Weeknd's saying, then, I suppose, is that he is experiencing anaesthesis in his face. That is, he is experiencing numbness. At least two question emerge from this: what is numbness, and, what does it mean when someone says they are experiencing it?

Perhaps numbness is just the lack of feeling. The Weeknd could, you'd hope, reach up and, using his hand, touch his face in order to feel it. In this sense, he would feel it in exactly the same way a blind person would in sculpting a vaguely accurate, but crudely dissimilar, portrait bust of an eighties pop singer. In this sense, he can feel his face. He must, then, be referring to another kind of feeling: the kind of feeling of one's own body in one's body rather than of something external to it.

Because even if you were touching your right hand with your left hand, the 'inner feeling' you had of the right hand being touched would be of a different kind than that of the 'outer feeling' you had of your right hand touching something. This latter Lionel feeling, known as exteroception, is clearly quite different from the inner feeling.

The feeling of one's inner senses—interoceptionis exemplified by the feelings one gets when one blushes, experiences hunger, has a headache, and so on. So, numbness, it seems, must be an interoceptive, rather than an exteroceptive, experience.

Unlike exteroceptive experiences, interoceptive experiences are a source of certain knowledge. If we have a sensation, such as a pain, it is impossible to fail to know that we are in pain. You couldn't be mistaken about having, say, a short sharp pain in your left eye, purely because you have direct access to the experience of the pain itself. With exteroception—experience of the external world—on the other hand, we can be mistaken, since we cannot access its objects directly. We might think that the cause of the pain in our eye was Freud, leering over us and poking us with a needle, when in checking, we realize that it was, in fact, the result of Koller poking us with what was, in fact, a pin. The mistake may seem inconsequential, but it's a mistake nonetheless.

In fact, it's possible to be mistaken about there being an external source of pain altogether since one could conceivably have a pain without there being any bodily harm at all.

With numbness, too, it seems there is no sense in which you could be mistaken about feeling numb. But strangely numbness doesn't seem to give rise to further beliefs about the external world: if pain can, at least sometimes, tells us that something is causing us bodily harm then it's unclear as to what the equivalent extramental thing that's happening to the body actually is; it doesn't seem to be tissue damage, as such.

Perhaps, numbness—the lack of something, namely feeling—is like other things which are defined by a lack, like darkness: the absence of light. If the only way we can perceive darkness is with our eyes, then it seems like this is just to say that we can see that it is dark. But it doesn't seem right to say, strictly speaking, that we can see darkness itself, since, when it's totally dark, we can't see anything at all. Perceiving that it is dark is achieved only when there is a total absence of light. In this sense, saying that you can see darkness is about as strange as saying you can watch a TV that isn't on. You can look at a blank television for a period of time but that isn't actually watching TV.

So if darkness, the absence of light, is determined by a lack of input to that which detects light then, perhaps equivalently we should say that numbness, the lack of feeling, is determined by a lack of input to the thing which detects feeling. But that doesn't seem quite right since it must be, in some sense, the brain, which let's The Weeknd know that he can't feel his face. Perhaps, then, we should conclude that the lack of input occurs in The Weeknd's face itself. But that doesn't seem right either, because as we noted earlier, it's unclear as to what the extramental cause of numbness actually is. It's not clear that there is something equivalent to the bodily harm that we (sometimes) believe causes pain.

It still seems unclear as to what it could mean when The Weeknd says he can't feel his face. It's a lack of feeling that seems, bizarrely, to be, in some way felt. I spoke to Dr Sam Gilbert, a neuroscientist at UCL, who explained that our brains tend not to represent constant features of our environment. (I suppose that's exactly what mindfulness exercises are designed to help with.) We will, however, be drawn towards differences in the inputs we receive and inputs we expected to receive. Consider the failure to notice the smell of a room we've occupied for a while. Only upon returning to that room, it seems, do we once again notice its distinctive smell of unwashed bed sheets and a long-forgotten bowl of mushroom risotto. Likewise, we emphatically notice when the hum of a fridge ceases, where we hadn't previously noticed its hum at all. The lack of subsequent noise seems almost loud—like a noise in itself—and perhaps this is, equivalently, why numbness almost feels like a feeling itself, despite being the lacking in feeling.

I don't suppose The Weeknd's end game really is anaesthesia. I suppose, really, he just wants to be numb to the world and its unending propensity to cause us perfect despair. Perhaps, that's why he sings, on one of the most upbeat songs of the year:

And I know she'll be the death of me, at least we'll both be numb
And she'll always get the best of me, the worst is yet to come

But can love truly make us forget this unending pain; make us numb to the world? Camus, of course reminds us:

"If I think that happiness is possible, I know all too well its hidden nature – and by what wretched paradox, instead of being an excess that would elevate us in dignity, it is a numbness we are only aware of afterward."

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